Cultural Differences and the Barbaric Enemy
The account that stands out the most in the larger historical literature on prisoners centers on the extent of a cultural divide between opposing forces.105 The sparse but generally fair conditions Napoleon provided for captured soldiers from other European powers while a general in the French Revolutionary Wars stood in stark contrast to his orders to execute all Muslim prisoners during the Battle of Acre against the Ottoman Empire over the same period.106 Similar contempt for armed forces from opposing cultures was evident in the remarks by an Italian officer during his country's war against Ethiopia from 1895 to 1896: “A bit of Pizarro [referring to the Spanish conquistador of the Incan Empire] does not hurt; with some people terror works better than kindness."107
The flip side suggests that similar cultural backgrounds should be credited for breeding compassion among fellow belligerents. Across the many city-states of Ancient Greece, the koina nomima (common customs) mandated that prisoners be spared execution and instead properly cared for, while the same rules failed to apply in wars against non-Hellenic foes.108 Similar restraint between adversaries sharing common cultural traits carried over into many modern conflicts as well. Fighting during the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay from 1932 to 1935 certainly proved at times to be quite fierce. In spite of the high stakes involved, prisoners from both sides were often viewed as unfortunate brethren caught up in a nasty war beyond their control, and as a result were generally treated with decency and a good dose of sympathy.109 Religious ties and a common sense of brotherhood are also cited as contributing to the lenient treatment Saudi Arabia accorded Yemeni prisoners during the war between the two Arab states in 1934.110
The general logic underlying the role of cultural differences exhibits many parallels with the so-called clash of civilizations thesis. According to this argument, civilizational differences, based primarily on religious values, have become the primary dividing lines between countries.111 Reinforcing this dynamic in a broader manner, social identity theorists posit that processes of in-grouping and out-grouping are ubiquitous and part of a state's project in defining its identity. The unfortunate side effect of this identity formation is that competition with other countries becomes more intense and increasingly violent.— Research in this vein has tended to focus on the onset of conflict, but previous work by one of the foremost proponents of cultural arguments, Samuel Huntington, asserts that cultural differences have dire implications for wartime conduct as well: “Over the centuries, however, differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts" (emphasis added).113
Abuse against prisoners represents one of the more vivid manifestations of violence during war. Even in Europe, where many of the modern laws restraining wartime conduct originally developed, belligerents made clear distinctions between conflicts within the European family of states and those against external foes.— As one historian remarked, wars “against enemies that were considered 'uncivilized' and therefore, under the European code of conduct, could be fought with unrestrained ferocity," entailing grave consequences for captured enemy combatants.115
The benefits flowing from abuse may thus be weighed more heavily in wars between states from different cultures, given the absence of any perceived worth of members from the adversary. Lower levels of trust may further lead captors to believe the enemy will mistreat their prisoners irrespective of their own behavior —negating one of the main benefits coming from decent treatment. Although Germany had many motives guiding its conduct on the eastern front, Hitler's belief that the Bolsheviks would inevitably commit abuse themselves perhaps removed any second thoughts toward brutalizing Soviet prisoners during Operation Barbarossa.— This leads to the general expectation that warring states from different cultures are more likely to view each other as barbaric, emphasize the benefits of abuse over any costs, and become more willing to mistreat captured combatants compared to those adversaries who happen to share similar cultural traits.
Despite the compelling logic behind cultural approaches, evidence that civilizational differences are a key determinant of the likelihood and bloodiness of war is mixed on both counts. Some scholars have indeed found that civilizational differences increase the probability of conflict between states.117 Other research has shown, in contrast, that civilization exerts little or no effect on conflict initiation.118 Studies on the conduct of states once war has begun reveal similar lackluster results. Belligerents from different civilizations are no more likely to target civilians from the opposing side than belligerents sharing the same civilizational background.119 One alternative possibility is that cultural factors may be more salient among troops on the battlefield, leading to greater atrocities committed on the part of individuals or small groups of soldiers. Yet systematic policies of abuse, whether of prisoners or civilians, require the direction and consent of higher authorities, who are likely less brutalized by the fighting on the ground and thus less influenced by cultural forces.120
Several historians taking a broader view of patterns in the treatment of combatants nevertheless continue to grant a high status to cultural factors. One examination of a series of conflicts from World War II to the present concludes that prisoner abuse resulted in large part from “those persistent enemies of humanitarianism: mutual incomprehension of alien cultures, ideological fanaticism, and racial hatreds."121 Reflecting on an even longer time frame involving the last two centuries of warfare, one prominent historian of international humanitarian law argued that “the circumstances most advantageous to observance of the law[s of war] were when armies of not dissimilar race, religion and general ethical notions (i.e. armies able to recognize in their foes 'people of their own kind') ... faced and fought each other."122
If this perspective is correct, that cultural similarity acts as a restraint against atrocities, then it is not clear why in many civil wars between nearly culturally identical foes—where family members have often chosen to fight on opposing
sides—the fighting can be so bitter and bloody.123 Care must be taken when selecting cases to evaluate cultural arguments (or any others for that matter). For all of the wars where one country horribly abuses prisoners from a different racial or cultural group, many others do not fit this pattern. The fierce fighting characterizing the Pacific theater of World War II is often taken as the prototypical example showing how cultural differences and racial hatred led to shocking behavior by both Japanese and U.S. forces.124 Yet during the same conflict, Japanese conduct toward peoples of Sinic origin, with whom they shared relatively more similar cultural traits, was equally brutal, if not more so, than the treatment of U.S. and British prisoners.125 Furthermore, cultural differences did not prevent Japan from treating captured Russian and German soldiers in an exemplary fashion during earlier wars, such as the Russo-Japanese War and World War I.126 Imperial Japanese forces certainly engaged in a brutal campaign against Chinese forces from the 1930s through early 1940s. Yet not far away, near Nomonhan in Mongolia, Japan generally treated captured Soviet soldiers fairly well, at least avoiding the worst excesses being committed simultaneously in battles further south.127
Perhaps it is not cultural differences in and of themselves that matter, but rather contrasting discourses of civilization and barbarism expressed by certain segments within a given country. Such discourses have been put forward to help explain the relative restraint exerted by U.S. forces toward Muslim civilians during the War on Terror compared to the extensive abuse against combatants from these same societies. The protection of “innocent" civilians may be justified by a civilizing principle of humanity, while the contrasting lack of regard for
combatants is merited by the latter's depiction as a barbarian foe.128
Rhetoric concerning the barbarism and immorality of terrorists and other combatants was certainly widespread in many official U.S. pronouncements, but this is not equivalent to saying these beliefs caused U.S. behavior toward enemy combatants in the War on Terror or earlier conflicts. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were commonly described in similar barbaric terms in the midst of the Second World War, but this did not stop the United States from treating Axis prisoners quite well.129 Similarly, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, President George H. W. Bush deployed comparable language, likening Saddam Hussein to Hitler and Iraqi troops to his Nazi henchmen, yet the United States scrupulously ensured that Iraqi soldiers looking to surrender were protected upon entering captivity.130
Discourses of barbarism and the emphasis on the “otherness" of the enemy may sincerely reflect fundamental cultural divides between the belligerents. Barbaric rhetoric remains far more commonplace, however, than the actual abuse of prisoners during war. An alternative rationale for such extreme forms of rhetoric is that they serve as an instrumental device to mobilize public support behind the government during trying times that often demand great sacrifices from the citizenry.131 When it comes to conduct during the actual war, however, cultural factors appear far less persuasive in accounting for patterns of prisoner abuse.