Institutional Constraints on Wartime Violence
Much of the existing research on wartime conduct portrays domestic normative and institutional imperatives as producing radically different expectations for the
conduct of democracies during war.158 Domestic norms of nonviolence (to the extent that they exist) restrain the worst forms of abuse, while institutional pressures push democracies toward ever-greater levels of violence in wartime. Looking more closely at the particular dynamics involved in the treatment of prisoners, however, shows democratic institutions should actually generate significant constraints on prisoner abuse. Although democracies may be expected to fight harder to win their wars, domestic institutional forces also command
them to win quickly and cheaply in terms of casualties.159 These pressures mean democracies will be especially concerned with two of the costs associated with abusing prisoners: fears of retaliation and the strategic liabilities from poor
conduct.160 The flip side is that good treatment can yield substantial advantages on both counts, which democracies should have a greater desire to capitalize upon. The logic of reciprocity is intimately tied to regime type because domestic institutional incentives raise the relative sensitivity of democratic regimes to retaliation, which directly affects the well-being of their own troops. In a similar manner, democratic regimes may also be more attracted to the benefits accrued through humanely treating enemy soldiers, irrespective of any normative appeals stemming from their political culture.
First on reciprocity, if democracies are indeed more sensitive to the fate of their soldiers because of greater accountability to their public, then the looming prospect of reprisals will make them less, rather than more, willing to mistreat enemy prisoners. Even if abusing enemy prisoners holds out the promise of substantial immediate gains, democracies may be more susceptible to the resulting costs than autocracies and think twice before turning to such harsh tactics. Mistreating enemy prisoners regularly results in retaliation in kind. Because of this, decent treatment can offer some insurance, however limited, against an adversary's use of even worse forms of violence against prisoners. Pressured by the public's demand to improve the safety of their soldiers in captivity, the British government devoted sizable resources during World War I to sending aid packages and arranging visits by international monitors to prisoner camps in Germany.161 During the next great conflagration a few decades later, and contrary to his normal hardnosed character, Winston Churchill intervened on many occasions throughout World War II to safeguard the treatment of German and Italian prisoners under Allied control out of fear the Axis powers would retaliate against British and Commonwealth prisoners in their hands.162
Decent prisoner treatment on the part of democracies is by no means unique and shares many parallels with their tendency to adopt fairer military policies out of the need to obtain domestic support and legitimacy.163 When democratic regimes have adopted practices that are not in the interests of their citizens, and especially their soldiers, they commonly suffered grave consequences as a result. Large-scale mutinies within the French army in 1917 almost led to the collapse of the western front in many locations and were largely credited to the growing discontent among soldiers toward the horrific death tolls from seemingly pointless frontal assaults on prepared German positions.164 Turning specifically to prisoner abuse, some of the most vocal opponents within the Bush administration to the decision to reject the Geneva Conventions in the War on Terror came from those with close ties to the military, who shared fears of retaliation against U.S. service members captured by the adversary.165
Overall, the institutional pressures for democracies to win the wars they fight need to be counterbalanced by how their publics and domestic elites expect them to win. If prisoner abuse is liable to result in abuse in kind against prisoners held by the enemy, then institutional incentives may in fact run in the same direction as, rather than counter to, normative commitments toward individual rights and nonviolence. Of course, nondemocracies are not oblivious to the potential loss of their own soldiers on the battlefield or in captivity. All states to a certain degree care about the fate of their troops, since this will likely produce domestic ramifications and also affect their military capabilities if large numbers of soldiers are lost and cannot easily be replaced. Nevertheless, the lack of similar public accountability in autocracies means their leaders have less reason to worry over the possible domestic consequences of retaliatory abuses.
Stalin showed little sympathy for Soviet troops at the mercy of Nazi Germany. Those lucky enough to survive their time in German captivity were usually not welcomed home with open arms. During the war, he asserted that “In Hitler's camps there are no Russian prisoners of war, only Russian traitors, and we shall do away with them when the war is over."166 Even after one of his own sons was captured, Stalin refused numerous German offers of exchange, and his offspring eventually died in captivity.167 If the communist dictator showed so little regard for the well-being of his own family, it is unlikely that fears of retaliation against Soviet troops would have had much bearing on his decision making over how to treat Axis prisoners. Napoleon showed a similar lack of concern, declaring “I do not care a fig for the lives of a million men," suggesting that worries over the fate awaiting his soldiers upon capture was not a top priority.168 In contrast, the domestic institutions generating greater accountability to the people make democracies relatively more sensitive than autocracies to the costs of reciprocity, and their conduct toward enemy soldiers should correspondingly be more lenient.
Second, democracies emphasize to a much greater extent the strategic benefits to be gained from treating enemy combatants in a humane manner. As noted earlier, acting “justly" is not always contrary to military effectiveness. All else being equal, treating enemy combatants decently should increase the propensity of those soldiers still on the battlefield to surrender. By caring for enemy prisoners properly, democracies can mitigate the risks of retaliation against their own soldiers and at the same time reduce the fighting force of their opponent by inducing greater numbers of surrenders.
Democracies possess certain comparative advantages over other regime types that make them especially attracted toward emphasizing these strategic benefits arising from humane conduct, instead of advantages gained from abuse. Surrendering can be an agonizing decision both on the minds of soldiers who may feel shame in letting down their comrades and country, and also for their bodies given the physical hardships that often accompany captivity. To encourage surrenders requires in large part convincing enemy soldiers that captors will assure their rights and protections as prisoners. Such assurances are by no means straightforward to make, nor are they likely to be simply taken by troops at face value — one scholar wagers that in the heat of battle a soldier looking to surrender has at best a 50 percent probability of being given quarter.169
Yet there are reasons to believe that the regime type of the adversary can affect not only individual beliefs about the likelihood of being taken alive but also subsequent conditions once in captivity. Because democracies generally treat their own citizens humanely, enemy soldiers are more likely to believe democratic promises of good conduct, and thus be more willing to lay down their arms to a democratic captor.170 Individual beliefs were essential to the success of Allied promises of humane prisoner conduct in prompting Wehrmacht soldiers to surrender during the Second World War. German soldiers shared “the attitude that the British and the Americans were respectable law-abiding soldiers who would treat their captives according to international law."171 As one soldier admitted, “Nobody exactly wants to get captured, but I and my comrades all expected humane treatment from the Americans."172 Similar patterns held during the Great War two decades earlier, where soldiers from the Central powers gave themselves up at much higher rates to British and French forces compared to their Russian Entente ally who provided much harsher conditions for prisoners.173
Nondemocracies usually have a harder time convincing enemy combatants to surrender. Promises of humane prisoner treatment are unlikely to be seen as credible in the eyes of enemy soldiers — autocratic penchants to violate the rights of their own citizens mean enemy combatants may expect similar or even worse levels of violence directed toward them.174 Similar attempts by dictatorships to encourage surrenders through promises of good treatment have usually come across as clumsy and met with reactions ranging from skepticism to outright derision.175 Autocrats thus have fewer strategic incentives to treat prisoners humanely and all the more reason to weigh the benefits of abuse more heavily over those from good conduct.
Because of these democratic advantages, past episodes indeed show that democracies often devote significant resources not only to properly caring for captives but also to publicizing their prisoner policies to enemy soldiers. During the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, the United States dropped millions of leaflets on
Iraqi forces in the field encouraging them to surrender with promises of proper treatment.176 U.S. planning expanded to educating their own soldiers of their obligations under international law to respect the rights of prisoners and the military advantages to be gained. Through a widespread dissemination campaign, the Geneva Conventions became the “Book Choice of the Month" for U.S. forces during the war.177
Of course, democratic institutional restraints on prisoner abuse may not always be enough to guarantee proper care for enemy combatants. Should the strategic benefits from good treatment seem minimal, the advantages of acting justly may lose out to the potential benefits of abuse. Furthermore, if concerns over retaliation weaken or disappear either because abuses by the adversary spiral out of control or because the adversary no longer possesses adequate numbers of prisoners to serve as a deterrent, then institutional incentives and any associated normative constraints may be insufficient to prevent democratic belligerents from resorting to prisoner abuse. The relative presence or absence of fears of reciprocity and sensitivity to strategic advantages from good treatment thus point to ways in which the domestic institutions of democracies may help explain instances of both benevolent and brutal conduct toward prisoners.
Attention to the constraints generated by domestic institutions may also help to explain the divergence between the humane conduct often accorded to prisoners, on the one hand, and the inclination of many democracies to victimize civilians evident in other studies.178 Both institutionally driven incentives—fears of retaliation and the strategic benefits from good conduct—are less present in most cases involving civilians compared to enemy combatants. Publics may be wary that a government willing to kill foreign civilians will one day turn on its own people, but this concern does not appear to be terribly compelling. Past wars indicate that strategies of civilian victimization can actually be quite popular with publics, especially if they are seen as saving the lives of their own soldiers.179 Concerns over reciprocity should still exist, but democracies often significantly reduce the risks to their own civilians by finding ways to wage conflicts far away from their homeland.180 Soldiers are instead much more vulnerable, since they often have to fight on the ground and come into direct contact with enemy troops, irrespective of the location of the battlefront. Democracies may perhaps be able to reduce these dangers by relying more heavily on air or naval forces, but recent conflicts demonstrate that substantial ground forces are usually still required for effectively prosecuting wars.181 Furthermore, beliefs over the benefits from targeting civilians have generally remained high, or at least higher than beliefs over the benefits of prisoner abuse, though debates over the merits of detainee policies during the War on Terror suggest the trend may be changing somewhat. The domestic institutions of democracies thus offer a compelling account not only for their generally humane treatment of prisoners during war, but also instances where democratic belligerents adopt more violent practices.