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The horrors of warfare have long been a staple of movies and TV dramas and since Vietnam to present day Syria, of news programming, too. The treatment of prisoners, or POWs, is a recurring storyline. Stark detention camps, squalid barracks, sparse rations, forced labor, escape attempts are the genre’s de rigueur. But are all POWs badly tortured and abused? Are nonstate actors, like ISIS, changing the rules of the game with their tactics?

Geoffrey P.R. Wallace has studied the behavior of belligerents toward POWs during more than 100 years of warfare and recently published Life and Death in Captivity The Abuse of Prisoners During War (Cornell University Press). Rutgers Today spoke to Wallace, an assistant professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers-New Brunswick, about belligerents and their attitude toward enemy forces who have laid down their arms.

The image of POWs is of emaciated figures behind barbed wire or, more recently, of hooded detainees at places like Guantanamo Bay. Your book, however, emphasizes a range of conduct toward former enemy combatants. Can the captured really hold out hope for decent treatment?

"Life and Death in Captivity"

Geoffrey Wallace: At first glance, the outlook for captured soldiers should be pretty dire. Winston Churchill’s blunt definition of a POW was: “a man [historically, most have been men] who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him.” War remains a bloody business, and prisoners offer a readily available target for the frustration and anger of captors. Yet the past century of warfare reveals startling differences in the fate of prisoners. To be sure, there are horrific experiences. In World War II, two of every three Soviet POWs held by Germany died before the war’s end. In contrast, in their 1904-1905 war, Imperial Russia and Japan, two autocracies from radically different cultures often fighting pitched battles, wound up treating each other’s captured combatants in a relatively humane manner.

You say that democracies generally treat their captives more decently than other types of regimes. You stress, however, that this seemingly benevolent conduct has little to do with any inherent humanitarian impulses on the part of democratic leaders. What specific attributes of democracies explain their behavior toward POWs?

Wallace: Democracies are frequently described as more pacific when deciding to go to war, but less settled is how they conduct themselves once the fighting starts. I find democracies are half as likely to engage in the worst forms of abuse compared to autocracies. But this democratic benevolence flows only loosely from a domestic political culture rooted in tolerance, nonviolence or respect for individual rights. Rather, democratic leaders’ institutional accountability to their publics make them more sensitive to retaliation against their own troops should they resort to abuse.

Beyond a country’s regime type, how do the goals of belligerents, such as taking enemy territory, or the severity of the fighting affect the treatment of prisoners?

Geoffrey P.R. Wallace
Geoffrey P.R. Wallace
Wallace: In conflicts that devolve into protracted attritional fighting, belligerents can become attracted to inflicting violence against captives as a strategy for coercing the adversary, or exploiting prisoner labor to maximize desperately needed resources. The trench warfare typifying much of the Western Front during the First World War witnessed a gradual decline in prisoner treatment as the costs mounted for all sides and the chances for a decisive breakthrough receded.

Even more apparent are the wretched prospects for prisoners when a country seeks to conquer large swathes of enemy territory. Current and former soldiers often represent the most menacing danger to a conqueror’s hold on newly acquired lands because of their age and military experience. Indeed, from the Polish Home Army to the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency, former combatants have played pivotal roles in organizing and leading armed resistance movements. Because of the threat they pose, captors have proven to be especially willing to engage in extreme levels of violence against captured enemy combatants during wars of territorial annexation.

From the War on Terror to the recent spate of executions by ISIS, much attention has focused on the treatment of prisoners and the role of nonstate actors both as perpetrators and victims. What lessons can we draw from your research for understanding these new brands of prisoner abuse?

Wallace: The choreographed killing of numerous captives by ISIS certainly highlights the willingness of some nonstate actors to resort to horrific levels of violence. Although ISIS publically rejects the modern state system, its ambition to recreate an Islamic Caliphate follows a conventional goal of territorial annexation shared by many conquering nations. Likewise, its exploitation of social media exhibits many innovative components, but the use of prisoner abuse to threaten outside actors and mobilize supporters finds parallels in earlier captors, such as Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine.

On the flipside, history similarly does not bode well for treatment of captured combatants from nonstate armed forces. With continuing revelations about U.S. abuses of detainees throughout the War on Terror, democracies have proven more than willing to engage in brutal behavior. The usual restraints on democracies – fears of retaliation and belief in the strategic benefits of humane conduct – have held less sway in irregular warfare. Ultimately, we need to devote more time and effort to determining motives driving armed actors in these types of conflicts, but also for developing a deeper understanding of the consequences of different practices toward prisoners.


Media Contact: Steve Manas, 848-932-0559, smanas@ucm.rutgers.edu