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The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Prisons are built to break men, and when a man is broken, society has consummated its revenge.

—Jan Valtin, Out of the Night

For soldiers who become prisoners during war, the hellish realities of the battlefield all too often follow them into captivity. As long as there have been wars there have been prisoners, and many of those captured come to suffer in innumerable ways. According to this sinister side of prisoner treatment, enemy combatants are viewed not as mutual human beings deserving of respect, but rather as objects to be dealt with or discarded as captors saw fit. In Roman antiquity prisoners were regarded as a commodity to be sold off as slaves or thrown into the gladiator ring for the entertainment of the masses.1 Even these captives could be considered fortunate compared to enemy combatants from various German and Asian tribes fighting against the Roman general Germanicus, who followed the strict adage to “Make no prisoners."2 Unlike Germanicus, in warfare under the Aztec Empire the taking of prisoners in battle was a prized achievement. In fact, one of the few ways a warrior could gain honor and rise through the ranks was by capturing enemy prisoners. Yet the safety and wellbeing of prisoners was short-lived in a society where ritual killings were the most common eventual outcome. As part of the dedication ceremony of a temple to the god Huitzilopochtli, for example, the king Ahuitzotl commanded that over eighty thousand captives be offered up in sacrifice.3

Although enslavement and the ritual killing of wartime captives largely disappeared as common practices over the centuries, captors in modern times have continued to employ violence against prisoners by other means, including torture, hard labor, and a myriad of injustices. The survival chances for Soviet prisoners of Nazi Germany during the Second World War were worse than a cruel flip of a coin, and close to two-thirds would not live to see the end of the war.4 As the fortunes of the war shifted in the Red Army's favor, captured Wehrmacht soldiers would not fare much better after falling into the hands of their communist foe. The perpetration of extreme levels of abuse is not simply a product of antiquated thinking, as Armenian and Azerbaijani prisoners both found out during the war between their two countries only a few brief years after the end of the Cold War. When facing such dire prospects, it is not surprising that many soldiers have preferred to continue fighting and face almost certain death rather than put themselves at the mercy of their captors, from Soviet soldiers facing the Nazi German onslaught to U.S. troops in the jungles of Vietnam.5

Countering these rather vicious maxims of prisoner treatment is an alternative view emphasizing the inherent rights and protections to be enjoyed by prisoners even, and especially, in the midst of armed conflict. Liberal thinkers like Montesquieu underscored that no violations were ever permitted against captives: “The only right that war can give over captives is that they may be imprisoned so that they can no longer do harm."6 By entering into captivity, prisoners are in effect engaging in a contract where they voluntarily lay down their arms, and their captors in return agree to treat them in a decent manner.7 As Francis Lieber declared in his instructions for the Union armies later in the American Civil War, which became known as the Lieber Code, “Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God."8 War may be hell, but according to the liberal tradition combatants who surrender have removed themselves from the heat of battle. Once they do so they are no longer considered instruments of warfare, but rather individual human beings to be granted all of the fundamental rights guaranteeing their health and well-being during their period in captivity. This more humane approach to the treatment of prisoners has been enshrined as a core tenet of modern just war theory and codified in the prevailing laws of war. Beliefs over the proper care of captives are not unique to Western thinking, as similar conventions can be found in ancient Hindu and Islamic texts, among others.9

A gentler and kinder vision of the treatment of captured enemy combatants is not merely the purview of philosophers and lawyers but has also been put into practice in numerous conflicts both past and present. Belying the notion that prisoner abuse is inevitable, the code of chivalry among Europe's knights witnessed proper care often extended to adversaries seized during battle. During the Middle Ages lofty humanitarian ideals were strongly reinforced by baser pecuniary motives. With a soldier generally considered to belong to his individual captor, the ransoming of prisoners became a commonly accepted practice as higher-ranking captives could command potentially huge sums.10 Of course, the only way to obtain the reward was to ensure the prisoner was decently treated and would survive his time in custody until payment was negotiated. So lucrative was the ransoming industry that one of the reasons the practice eventually became outlawed was that monarchs found their troops were more concerned with trying to capture prisoners than performing the tasks necessary to win military campaigns.11

Even without such direct monetary incentives, prisoners in many conflicts have frequently found themselves well looked after by their captors. The chances of death frequently remain much higher on the battlefield than in captivity across conflicts as varied as the Falklands War of 1982 to the Spanish-American War almost a century earlier. Observing the generous care provided to many captured combatants at the time, James Spaight, a scholar writing in the early twentieth century, went so far as to declare:

To-day the prisoner of war is a spoilt darling; he is treated with a solicitude for his wants and feelings which borders on sentimentalism. He is better treated than the modern criminal, who is infinitely better off, under the modern prison system, than a soldier on a campaign. Under present-day conditions, captivity ... is no sad sojourn by the waters of Babylon; it is usually a halcyon time, a pleasant experience to be nursed fondly in the memory, a kind of inexpensive rest-cure after the wearisome turmoil of 12


Given the seemingly sumptuous alternative of time spent in captivity rather than taking on the risks of the battlefield, Spaight wondered in amazement why modern troops would even choose to fight! The life of a surrendering soldier apparently betokens more a courteous and refined scene from Austen's Pride and Prejudice than the prior wicked side of prisoner treatment more closely resembling Dante's Inferno. Far from reflecting the enlightened ideals of a bygone era, one contemporary legal scholar concludes that, “With rare exceptions therefore, no combatant nation can benefit substantially from mistreating prisoners."13 Although not perpetrated in all wars or at all times, the cruel treatment of captives from many past conflicts, in locations as diverse as the Korean peninsula and the Balkans, suggests that captors in more than the isolated instance seem to find definite advantages from resorting to abuse.

Over the last century or so of warfare between states, neither the malevolent nor the benevolent perspective on prisoner treatment is entirely convincing. In certain instances captured enemy combatants have been welcomed as honored guests, while in others they are reduced to undeniable victims. What helps to explain the varied ways captors choose to treat prisoners during war? Using an original data set of prisoner abuse during interstate wars from 1898 to 2003 specifically constructed for this book, I find that the historical record reveals some perplexing patterns in who treats their prisoners well or mistreats them across different wars and circumstances. In his astonishment at the good living afforded to most prisoners, one of the cases Spaight points to concerned both sides in the Russo- Japanese War of 1904-5. Considering the war involved Tsarist Russia and Meiji Japan, two autocratic powers from starkly different cultural backgrounds involved in several pitched battles, the prospects for prisoners might be expected to have been dire. Circumstances bore many similarities to (and some of the same autocratic belligerents as in) the Second World War. Yet the treatment of prisoners could not be more different, with Japanese and Russian captors both largely respecting the rights of their captives.

Nondemocracies have traditionally been found to engage in serious violations against their own citizens.14 Yet the data tell us in fact that more than half of all autocratic captors have limited themselves to little or at most moderate amounts of prisoner abuse. The Russo-Japanese War further highlights some intriguing differences in the treatment of prisoners over time. Decent care for captives by Japan in this conflict and a decade later during the First World War stood in stark contrast to the country's subsequent brutal conduct in the Second World War, culminating in systematic torture, backbreaking labor, and miserable living conditions endured by its captives.15

Although some of the most notorious cases of prisoner abuse involve autocratic perpetrators, past conflicts suggest democracy is far from a panacea. States of all varieties have proven more than willing to exact a harsh toll on captives falling under their control during times of war. As revelations continue to surface regarding the full extent of U.S. abuses against detainees at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere, democracies appear no more immune from the desire to abuse prisoners. The War on Terror is far from an isolated instance, as French forces likewise resorted to torture and other harsh tactics when confronting rebels during the 1954-62 Algerian War.16 Data from the last century of interstate warfare reveal that almost one-quarter of democratic belligerents inflicted extreme levels of violence on captives. Looking at past conflicts thus indicates some puzzling trends in the treatment of prisoners, pointing to the need for a more systematic study.

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