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The Nature of the Conflict: War Aims and the Severity of the Fighting

Regime-type arguments place the emphasis on internal incentives but leave open motives resulting from the nature of conflict as factors in their own right. Armed conflicts differ across a wide range of dimensions, with implications for how vulnerable groups like captured combatants are likely to be treated. Two characteristics of the war itself—the types of aims sought through force of arms and the severity of the fighting — can greatly influence how states weigh the costs and benefits of prisoner abuse, irrespective of their domestic characteristics.

The Severity of Warfare

Conflicts vary greatly in terms of just how grim and harsh the combat between opposing forces ends up being. Some conflicts, like the aptly named Six Day War between Israel and a number of its Arab neighbors, involve lightning-quick maneuvers leading to outright victory for the superior power in a short period of time. Others, such as the static warfare defining much of the western front during the First World War, devolve into a series of seemingly unending battles between two increasingly exhausted opponents. A number of reinforcing factors make the latter types of wars characterized by fighting of higher severity more likely to result in prisoner abuse. When the quarrel becomes bogged down into a war of attrition, and as the conflict lengthens and the number of battle deaths rises, states may be more likely to abuse prisoners falling into their hands, as occurred in the trenches of western Europe.182

Belligerents in the midst of a hard-fought war are especially appreciative of a further benefit of prisoner abuse only briefly touched upon up to this point—the coercive potential available from mistreating captured enemy combatants. At its core, coercion involves manipulating the costs and benefits of the adversary for the purpose of changing its behavior.183 Wars rarely finish with one side utterly exhausted and completely defeated; rather, they usually end through some form of negotiated settlement even if both sides still have resources to continue the campaign.184 Fighting reveals information about the capabilities and resolve of the belligerents, particularly each side's relative ability to inflict and bear the painful costs of war.185 Leaders often take into account not only their chances of winning and the potential spoils of victory but also the costs to themselves and their country. A warring party may pull out not because it no longer has the capability to fight but rather due to its unwillingness to absorb the continued costs from war. Employing massive amounts of violence against combatants presents a stark, yet potentially effective, means for imposing sufficient pain on an adversary.186

The allure of coercion may be present in many wars but should be particularly enticing to captors in protracted stalemates where achieving a definitive favorable outcome using traditional methods becomes remote. Bearing a close resemblance to the stagnant fighting in western Europe from 1914 through 1918, Eritrea and Ethiopia's conflict more than eight decades later also shared in the horrific treatment of prisoners, as each side tried to make the war as excruciating for the other side as possible.187 Similar dynamics were also evident several millennia before when the supposedly robust cultural norms limiting violence within the Greek world came crashing down in an escalating series of prisoner massacres and other atrocities during the prolonged Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.188

Beyond undermining the resolve of the enemy, prisoner abuse can significantly impact the material capabilities of the adversary over both the near and long term.189 The capture of enemy troops already reduces the adversary's ability to wage war by removing these soldiers from combat. Whether prisoners are treated well or abused does not change this immediate impact on the manpower of the adversary. Employing violence against those prisoners, however, can produce several additional side effects on the enemy's power calculations. States are obviously concerned with the current war but also remain wary of possible future military threats.190 This is especially true for rivals, who tend to get involved in more intense and protracted wars with each other to begin with, but who are also

likely to meet the same opponent in armed conflict in the not too distant future.191 If prisoners are instead executed or abused in other extreme ways, then the future military capacity of the victim state can be substantially weakened.

Even without the outright killing of prisoners, belligerents can use captives to manipulate their adversary to devastating effect. Captors are normally expected to return prisoners at the end of the conflict, which would allow former captives to once again contribute to their home state's fighting forces.192 Yet there is no guarantee that prisoners will be returned in a timely manner, if at all. States recognize the strategic value of prisoners as an asset for bargaining with the enemy, which helps explain why negotiations over their return (either in exchanges during the war or repatriation afterward) are often long and arduous. One of the reasons Western powers delayed repatriating formerly allied Russian soldiers still held by a recently defeated Germany from the First World War was the fear they would strengthen the Bolshevik side in the unfolding Russian Civil War.193 Russian prisoners languished in prison camps well after hostilities formally ceased, many dying in captivity when they could have returned, because of power politics between the Western victors and an emerging communist rival.

Belligerents caught in severe wars are also tempted to avail themselves of prisoner labor to the greatest extent possible through a logic of extraction. The high costs and personnel needed to properly care for prisoners often grate on captors, since these captured combatants directly contributed to the drawn-out fighting in the first place. Resources are especially scarce in conflicts of attrition, which often take on the quality of a total war where belligerents mobilize their entire societies and economies. Prisoners are often then viewed as a nettlesome problem diverting resources from more pressing needs on the war front. In such extreme conflicts captured enemy combatants are, instead, likely to be exploited to a similarly harsh degree with little regard for their safety and well-being. Some of the most ruthless episodes of hard prisoner labor, from the jungles of Japanese- controlled southeast Asia to the tundra of Siberia, took place in wars where captors were trying to maximize every resource possible.

The dilemma facing captors is that these coercive and extractive benefits of prisoner abuse need to be balanced against the potential costs. Belligerents trying to punish the adversary into submission have generally found this to be a not terribly effective strategy in past conflicts.194 Modern nation-states have shown themselves to be fairly resilient against even extremely high levels of suffering, and attempts to coerce can just as soon harden the will of the enemy to resist.195 Instead of weakening the other side, mistreating prisoners may end up creating a smaller but more resolute enemy fighting force. Nevertheless, victimizing vulnerable groups from the adversary has proven to be effective in some circumstances.196 Whatever the precise balance of the pros and cons of prisoner abuse, during an entrenched conflict increasingly desperate states will often feel pressured into adopting any strategy that improves their chances of victory,

however remote.197 While good treatment can offer benefits of encouraging enemy surrenders, implementing humane policies in the midst of wars of attrition is likely to face daunting hurdles both on the battlefield and at home. Especially severe fighting often leads to the barbarization of warfare, brutalizing combatants and making it more likely they will commit atrocities rather than conduct themselves with restraint.198 Affording decent treatment to enemy prisoners is likely to be met with derision and viewed as coddling foreign killers by the captor state's own population, which has had to bear hardships and make sacrifices toward the all-out war effort. Civilians of the captor state have themselves even become the perpetrators of abuse against enemy combatants, as took place toward prisoners on both sides during World War I where publics are often thought to serve as a constraint against violent impulses.199 When finding themselves in such severe conflicts, belligerents will thus tend to calculate that the expected benefits of prisoner abuse outweigh the costs that may follow.

 
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