The fate of prisoners of war

As the U.S. recently discovered, military victory is quickly followed by the problem of what to do with captured enemy soldiers. How have other nations dealt with POWs?

How were POWs treated in antiquity?

Barbarically. Throughout most of history, warriors considered death preferable to dishonor, so soldiers who were captured were viewed with contempt. If not killed outright, POWs were used as slaves or tortured and maimed for amusement. In 352 B.C., Philip of Macedon ordered the drowning of 3,000 prisoners taken from the Greek city-state of Phocis. Ancient Rome threw prisoners into the Colosseum to die in staged battles or be eaten by wild animals. Brutality was the norm through the Dark Ages, when the Crusaders butchered 2,500 Muslim prisoners at the siege of the Palestinian port of Acra in 1105. Tamerlane, the Turkish conqueror, reportedly slaughtered 100,000 prisoners in 1398 during the sack of Delhi.

When did treatment become more humane?

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The first hints emerged with medieval codes of chivalry. If a captured foe had displayed bravery in battle, he might be accorded respect and mercy. During the Third Crusade (1189-92), Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, allowed the Knight Hospitallers of Jerusalem to care for wounded Christian prisoners. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ordered that all prisoners of the 30 Years War be released “without payment of ransom and without any exception.” Exchanging prisoners was common by the time France and Great Britain fought the Seven Years War in the mid-1700s.

Did anyone try to put rules on paper?

Only after the Enlightenment enshrined the idea of basic human rights. In his 1758 work The Law of Nations, the Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel declared, “As soon as your adversary has been disarmed and has surrendered, no one any longer has any right to take his life.” Four years later, in The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that the only power a captor had over a prisoner was keeping him disarmed. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln asked constitutional lawyer Francis Lieber to draw up the world’s first formal code of conduct toward POWs. Among Lieber’s edicts: They should be subject to no “intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity.”

Did any of this make a difference?

Not really. Good intentions couldn’t keep pace with military reality. By the 18th and 19th centuries, armies had grown so enormous that the usual places of confinement, like jails and dungeons, were quickly overwhelmed by masses of captured men. Other means of confinement usually bred squalor and death. During the American Revolution, 12,000 Continental soldiers perished aboard British ships that were used as holding cells. POW camps, a previously unheard-of concept, also became synonymous with misery. In the Civil War, the most notorious camp was near Andersonville, Ga., where an estimated 30 percent of the 32,000 captured Union soldiers died of starvation, exposure, or disease.

What are the Geneva Conventions?

They are a series of humanitarian protocols inspired by Henri Dunant, a Swiss writer, who was horrified by the neglect of the wounded at the Battle of Solferino in Italy in 1859. Dunant’s account, A Memory of Solferino, prompted an 1864 meeting of 12 European nations in Geneva to establish rules of war. Since then, additional conventions have mandated that POWs get food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, monthly physicals, exercise and recreational facilities, mail, tobacco, freedom to worship in appropriate housing, and clean bathrooms. Prisoners can be put to work, but not in specifically war-related or dangerous jobs. Today, almost every nation on Earth has signed the Geneva Conventions.

Does that mean they follow them?

No. Whether they do or don’t depends on available resources and the value that the country places on human life. With rare exceptions, violations of the Geneva Conventions aren’t prosecuted by international law. The unprecedented carnage of World War I resulted in the treaty’s being amended at the 38-nation Third Geneva Convention in 1929. But in World War II, the combatants committed numerous atrocities. The Japanese tested the effects of typhus, cholera, and other diseases on Americans, Chinese, and Russians. Nazi Germany starved tens of thousands of Soviet POWs or turned them into slave laborers. In the infamous Bataan “Death March,” the Japanese forced 70,000 Filipinos and Americans to trek 60 miles through intense heat with virtually no water or food; up to 11,000 never made it. The “good guys” ignored the rules too. Many U.S. troops shot surrendering Japanese. After the war, hundreds of German prisoners were blown to bits when the Allies forced them to clear land mines in Holland and other European war zones.

Has terrorism changed the rules?

It’s made them more difficult to apply. The Geneva Conventions were originally designed to cover wars between nations. But today, many armed conflicts are fought within nations. The combatants often aren’t members of regular armies and don’t wear uniforms. In their enemy’s eyes, they may be spies, insurgents, or terrorists, none of whom are explicitly protected by the Geneva rules. Hence, early in the Vietnam conflict, the U.S. didn’t consider captured members of the Viet Cong, the guerrilla movement allied with the North Vietnamese army, to be true POWs. As for members of al Qaida, the U.S. has deemed them “unlawful combatants,” because they operate covertly and carry out unprovoked acts of aggression against civilians. In theory, POWs get to go home at the end of hostilities. Since terrorist organizations generally do not call a halt to hostilities, their captured warriors may never get to go home.

The ones who got away

POWs dream of escape, but few actually try, and even fewer succeed. The most famous breakout, depicted in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, involved 76 British airmen, who tunneled out of Stalag Luft III near Sagan, Germany, in March 1944. Three made it home; the others were recaptured and 50 were executed. In January 1941, Luftwaffe pilot Franz von Werra jumped from a POW train en route to Ontario. Without a boat, he crossed the St. Lawrence River into the then-neutral United States and eventually returned to Germany via Brazil. Perhaps the most incredible escape of modern times was led by Polish army Lt. Slavomir Rawicz, who was held at the Soviet Union’s labor camp No. 303 in Siberia. One night in April 1941, Rawicz and six followers crawled under the barbed wire. Taking nearly a year to cross Outer Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas, Rawicz and three other survivors walked 4,000 miles to India and freedom.

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