American prisoners of war captured by North Korean forces await liberation at the 38th parallel on Oct. 5, 1950. (Soviet Photo Agency/Bettmann/Getty Images)

I look him over and almost want to cry.
Yet another of their adolescent “soldiers.”
Undernourished body, filthy, lice-ridden
hair—teeth a good pediatric dentist
would consider a challenge to restructure.
Age? Our interpreter says, “thirteen.”

I light a Marlboro, relax, inhale the fumes
and as my cigarette drifts towards him,
trailing ash and smoke,
suddenly he’s terrified,
convinced that tortures older men described
at the hands of a former enemy are about to begin.
He tries to be a soldier, grits his teeth,
shuts his eyes—and when I rise to disabuse him
multiplies into roomfuls of helpless children
cowering before strenuous lights
that can streak across a desert sky in minutes,
think their way over tv cable or miles of empty sand,
searching for something of value.

“It’s okay,” I assure him, as I stub
my butt in the tray, and lay my hand
on his shoulder, “That is not our way.”

“You have been captured by americans.
You will be treated as a prisoner of war
in accord with Geneva conventions.
After you’ve showered and been deloused
and answered a few dozen questions
we will give you medical attention…
treat those open sores…
monitor your blood and urine.

There will be therapy, Levi clothes,
mineral water, coca cola, videos,
freedom to worship allah, Metallica, or Christ,
and hi-tech food. Watch out. The plate is hot.”

by David Alpaugh