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Why Prisoner Abuse Matters

Uncovering the causes of prisoner abuse offers several insights that are of interest to both scholars and practitioners of international security. From a humanitarian standpoint the stakes are not small, since the number of prisoners captured during wars is often sizable. Deaths of civilians or soldiers in the heat of battle are horrific but neglect the full costs of war. Indeed, several current data- collection projects use only battle deaths when classifying whether or not a particular armed conflict qualifies as a war, with the fate of captured combatants playing little meaningful role.51 Yet the suffering and deaths attributed to prisoner abuse often constitute a substantial proportion of wartime fatalities — almost one in three deaths of Soviet soldiers during the Second World War took place in captivity rather than in battle.52 During the American Revolutionary War, by some estimates, between two and three times as many U.S. troops perished in captivity as died on the battlefield fighting English forces.53 Figuring out where and why prisoners are abused is crucial for understanding the resort to extreme forms of violence and assessing the full costs of war.

The study of prisoner abuse is relevant for several other continuing debates. Examining regime type and the treatment of prisoners offers a further opportunity to evaluate the impact of domestic norms and institutions and the value of promoting democracy worldwide. The democratic peace has established that democracies are less likely to go to war against one another, but added to this is the further potential benefit that democracies may conduct themselves more humanely when they do end up fighting. I offer cautious support for the alleged distinctiveness of democracies, but I highlight some caveats. Democracies may be less prone to abusing prisoners on the whole, but under the right circumstances can turn on their captives if they believe the benefits outweigh the costs. Recent U.S. treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq may be not aberrations but part of a long tradition of violence committed by democracies against captives. Alongside their often-vaunted humanitarian credentials, democratic regimes exhibit a darker side that should not be ignored.54 Identifying potential limits in the willingness of democracies to restrain their behavior helps us to understand the overall impact of regime type on wartime conduct, especially when we think about the use of violence by different regimes in other types of conflicts.

The book also contributes to the large body of work on international laws and norms dealing with the use of force. Much of this research has focused on the development of particular rules, such as the distinction between civilians and combatants, limits on the destructiveness of military technologies, and the outright prohibition of certain weapons.55 In light of the status of international rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war, I look at the flip side concerning the factors leading captors to transgress long-held norms. Why do belligerents violate international protections for prisoners, while at other times they uphold these norms with the utmost care? Other scholars have found international law can significantly shape wartime conduct,56 but I show that international law and norms offer few restraints against prisoner abuse in most circumstances. Yet this does not mean that treaties and humanitarian norms have no value. If norms or rules outlawing the use of violence against surrendering soldiers did not exist, studying violence against prisoners would in some ways make little sense—there would be nothing out of the ordinary in their suffering. In fact, the very way prisoner abuse is understood in this book is indebted to principles rooted in the laws of war. International law and norms also matter in the sense that actors often feel they need to justify their conduct (toward prisoners or otherwise) in legal and moral terms.57 Other factors ultimately play a greater role in determining the treatment of prisoners, but international law and related values remain an inescapable element of contemporary warfare.

Lastly, prisoner abuse does not operate in isolation but can affect the general course of conflicts with enduring consequences. The treatment of enemy combatants and their eventual fate poses the danger of heightening animosities between already bitter rivals. The back-and-forth nature of the Korean War, where opposing armies marched up and down the Korean peninsula and the great powers of the United States and China clashed head-on, counts as one of the more intense conflicts of the twentieth century. Despite many deplorable facets from which to choose, one prominent historian of the war reserved particular disdain for the role played by prisoner issues:

No aspect of the Korean War was more grotesque than the manner in which the struggle was allowed to continue for a further sixteen months after the last substantial territorial obstacle to an armistice had been removed by negotiation in February 1952. From that date until the end in July 1953, on-the-line men endured the miseries of summer heat and winter cold, were maimed by mines and killed by napalm, small arms, and high explosives, while at Panmunjom [the main site for negotiations] the combatants wrangled


around one bitterly contentious issue: the post-armistice exchange of prisoners.

The delay in ending hostilities only furthered the bloodshed; almost half of all U.S. casualties took place after the first armistice negotiations, where prisoner issues quickly became one of the central stumbling blocks.59

The abuse of prisoners also has the potential to spill over into other issue areas and cause further suffering both during and after war. One of the justifications put forward for Harry S. Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan near the end of the Second World War was to respond to the brutal Japanese conduct toward U.S. prisoners.60 In Europe during the same war, the first victims of the gas chambers at Auschwitz were not Jewish civilians but rather Soviet prisoners of war.61 In many respects, the orders and policies formulated by the German government toward Red Army prisoners served as the operational basis for the Final Solution.62

In more recent years, abuses perpetrated against soldiers significantly influenced the progress of several foreign crises. Images of beaten and mutilated corpses of U.S. servicemen dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 are widely viewed as pivotal in the reduction and eventual withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in Somalia.63 While it is difficult to know for certain what would have happened if U.S. forces had remained, Somalia descended into even greater chaos and violence from which it is still struggling to escape. Similarly, in the early days of the Rwandan genocide, Hutu hardliners specifically targeted and ruthlessly murdered Belgian peacekeepers they had captured in an effort to push UN forces out of the country.64 The gambit was largely successful, with remaining Belgian forces departing, followed shortly thereafter by most other foreign military personnel. Only a skeleton peacekeeping crew remained and could do little to prevent the unfolding humanitarian disaster. As the hardliners had hoped, they were left unencumbered to carry out massacres across the country, leading to the deaths of at least a half million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just one hundred days.65 The treatment of enemy combatants thus has implications for understanding the broader conduct of war and the resort to mass violence.

The next two chapters define prisoner abuse in greater detail and present a theory to explain the wide differences in the treatment of captured enemy combatants with a particular focus on regime type and the nature of the conflict. Chapters 3 through 5 then offer several empirical tests of the theory and competing explanations, beginning with a quantitative analysis of the determinants of prisoner abuse followed by a series of in-depth case studies. Finally, I conclude by discussing the theoretical and policy implications of my findings.

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