What is mirasmus?

Updated: 9/16/2023
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12y ago

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Following the Korean War, Major (Dr.) William E. Mayer, who would

later become the U.S. Army's chief psychiatrist, studied 1,000 American

prisoners of war who had been detained in a North Korean camp. He was

particularly interested in examining one of the most extremely and

perversely effective cases of psychological warfare on record - one that

had a devastating impact on its subjects.

American soldiers had been detained in camps that were not considered

especially cruel or unusual by conventional standards. The captives had

adequate food, water, and shelter. They weren't subjected to common

physical torture tactics. In fact, fewer cases of physical abuse were

reported in the North Korean POW camps than in prison camps from any

other major military conflict throughout history.

Why, then, did so many American soldiers die in these camps? They

weren't hemmed in with barbed wire. Armed guards didn't surround the

camps. Yet no soldier ever tried to escape. Furthermore, these men

regularly broke rank and turned against each other, sometimes forming

close relationships with their North Korean captors.

When the survivors were released to a Red Cross group in Japan, they

were given the chance to phone loved ones to let them know they were

alive. Very few bothered to make the call. Upon returning home, these

soldiers maintained no friendships or relationships with each other. Mayer had discovered a new disease in the POW Camps - a disease of

extreme hopelessness. It was not uncommon for a soldier to wander into

his hut and look despairingly about, deciding there was no use in trying to

participate in his own survival. He would go into a corner alone, sit down,

and pull a blanket over his head. And he would be dead within two days. The soldiers actually called it "give-up-it is." The doctors labeled it

"mirasmus," meaning a lack of resistance, a passivity. If the soldiers had

been hit, spat upon, or slapped, they would have become angry. Their

anger would have given them the motivation to survive. But in the

absence of motivation, they simply died, even though there was no

medical justification for their deaths.

Despite relatively minimal physical torture, "mirasmus" raised the overall

Death Rate in the North Korean POW camps to an incredible 38% - the

highest POW death rate in U.S. military history. Even more astounding

was that half of these soldiers died simply because they had given up.

They had completely surrendered, both mentally and physically.

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