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Repertoires of Violence against Prisoners

For many surrendering soldiers at the mercy of their captors, the question often becomes not whether they will be abused but what kinds of violence will be levied against them. The myriad forms of brutality connect to form a repertoire of violence inflicted upon the minds and bodies of captives. As the armed forces of Nazi Germany advanced rapidly in their 1941 eastern offensive, the feared Einsatzgruppen (task forces) followed behind, methodically killing thousands of captured Soviet soldiers, often alongside other groups of victims. As horrific as these early deaths were, they paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Red Army captives who would perish from an explicit starvation campaign during the fall and winter of 1941, where death rates in some camps verged on 2 percent per day.1 The fate of these prisoners parallels earlier conditions during the First Balkan War of 1912-13, where Ottoman soldiers held by Bulgaria on an island in the Tundzha River were reduced to eating grass and tree bark in a frantic attempt to survive.2 Absent such blatant practices of inducing famine, the squalid disease-ridden confinement to the “floating hells" that were British prison ships during the American Revolutionary War of the late eighteenth century nevertheless left many captured fighters for American independence welcoming death.3

Prisoners who do not die in captivity have still suffered greatly in many other ways. Mutilation through such acts as amputation or castration, for the purpose of neutralizing combatants or to send a grim message to the adversary, has been common across varied cultures and periods. After fourteen thousand Bulgarian prisoners were captured at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014, Byzantine Emperor Basil II, later known as the “Bulgar Slayer," had ninety-nine out of every hundred captives blinded and the rest left with only one eye. Shocked by the sight of his mangled army upon their return, Bulgarian Emperor Samuel reportedly died of a heart attack.4 In the contemporary era, even as the worst excesses from the early days of the U.S.-led War on Terror may have subsided, the prospects for indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo and other facilities continued to garner widespread international condemnation.

Beyond the type of abuse perpetrated, a full assessment of prisoner treatment can be further complicated by the fact that not all instances of violence may be under the complete control of government authorities. Disagreements persist over whether or not abuses against detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were due to “a few bad apples," as former president George W. Bush claimed, or rather part of a larger policy sanctioned by the administration.5 While deliberate British mistreatment of captured American revolutionary troops was certainly harmful in many respects, neglect and exploitation by local prison administrators and guards often made the plight of captives even more desperate.6

Issues concerning the type, severity, and perpetrators of abuse can have fundamental consequences not only for the prospects faced by captured combatants but also for determining responsibility and guilt under international or domestic law. The extent of abuse, nature of the victims, and who exactly was in command and issued orders have proved crucial in tribunals ranging from the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials to those for conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and have continued to figure prominently in charges more recently brought under the International Criminal Court (ICC).7

The varieties of violence evident in past episodes of prisoner abuse further reveal some of the obstacles to developing a better understanding of the full scope of prisoner treatment. Unlike with studies looking at the targeting of civilians, there is no widely accepted conceptual or operational definition of what should and should not be considered prisoner abuse. Who counts as a combatant? What types of actions are violations? Even if violations against prisoners do take place, how can their scope and severity be distinguished? How have the patterns of prisoner abuse varied over time?

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