BOOK REVIEW / Old soldiers never die: they live on in Siberia: 'The Iron Cage' - Nigel Cawthorne: Fourth Estate, 16.99 pounds

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HOLLYWOOD has created a school of exploitative, Rambo-style films built around the proposition that many of the American servicemen listed as 'missing in action' at the end of the Vietnam war are still alive, and being held by fiendish Reds, or their heirs, for some inscrutable end.

There can be no doubt that this myth - if myth it is - appeals to something in the American character. As Nigel Cawthorne points out, black 'MIA' flags hang from public buildings on Memorial Day and bamboo cages with pyjama-clad 'prisoners' crouching inside are a feature of veterans' parades.

In 1992, when Boris Yeltsin visited the US, he played to the true believers, claiming that prisoners not only had been held back, but in some cases also had been shipped to the Soviet Union and might still be alive. Yeltsin returned to the subject on several occasions, adding that prisoners taken during the Korean war and even the Second World War had received similar treatment. Since then, however, the trail has gone cold, leading to the suspicion that the Russian President raised the issue cynically, to reinforce the American view of the awfulness of the Communist old guard and his own co- operative decency.

Shortly before Yeltsin involved himself in the debate, the Republican group on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee produced a report claiming that in addition to 20,000 US prisoners of war, 20,000 Britons had disappeared into Soviet slave camps in 1945. As a result, Cawthorne, a British journalist who specialises in America's so- called 'MIAs of Vietnam', turned his attention to missing British prisoners.

The consequence is a curious work with a sensational subtitle: 'Are British Prisoners of War Abandoned in Soviet Hands Still Alive in Siberia?'. The answer has to be maybe, but the author offers precious little evidence to support the contention. Even his fascinating and moving visit to Vorkuta, the city at the centre of 60 concentration camps in which between 2 million and 20 million prisoners died, produces little of relevance to the thesis.

Yet Cawthorne has produced a disturbing study that concentrates largely on the aftermath of the Second World War. Working from diplomatic and military documents, and from subsequent reported sightings in the Gulag, he produces enough evidence to conclude that Stalin retained hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners 'liberated' by the Red Army from German camps. The West did little to try to force him to release them. The reasons for this craven weakness were, he argues, a desire to entice Russia into the war against Japan, and to ensure that Poland did not disappear into the Soviet empire. The former objective proved unnecessary, the latter unsuccessful.

But why should Stalin have wanted to enslave American and British soldiers? Cawthorne suggests that some may have been wanted for their specialised skills and others simply as slave labour. He also believes that Stalin was seeking bargaining counters to swap for Soviet citizens who did not want to return. To the Soviet dictator's surprise and delight, he discovered that forced repatriation would be available without a quid pro quo - so he accepted the Cossacks and the rest, and kept the Western prisoners of war.

It is presumably this shameful context that explains the obstructions placed in the author's way by the British Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence while he was attempting to research The Iron Cage. But, 40 years on, Cawthorne is surely right to say that it is time to open the files and reveal the last guilty secret of the war.

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