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War Aims and the Centrality of Territory

States going to war have sought to achieve a wide range of objectives through force of arms.200 Some aims generate greater incentives to abuse prisoners than others. Disputes over territory are particularly intractable and tend toward higher levels of conflict.201 Taking territory or regaining lost lands represents a key source behind the origins of political extremism and subsequent perpetration of mass levels of violence across varied countries and contexts.202 The desire not only to conquer, but also to continue to control, enemy territory also contains at its core the reasoning for captors to especially want to engage in prisoner abuse when land is at stake. One of the reasons civilians are so consistently targeted in wars of annexation is because they embody a potential “fifth column," which could foment rebellion against occupying powers.203 If conquerors perceive civilians as threats, then enemy prisoners present a particularly menacing danger. Soldiers are usually of prime military age and have received at least a minimum level of combat training, making them a serious hazard for would-be



The problem of what to do with prisoners at war's end given their latent military power has vexed many captor states. Former prisoners have often played a pivotal role in the politics of both their captor and home states. After World War I, the Czech Legion influenced the course of the Russian Civil War by bolstering anti-Bolshevik forces.205 Working from similar experiences but ending up at the opposite ideological spectrum, the communist takeover of Hungary in 1919, resulting in the Hungarian-Allies War later that year, was largely led by former prisoners who had absorbed radical Bolshevik teachings during their earlier captivity in Russia.206

The defining trait of wars of annexation is the aspiration of prospective conquerors to achieve permanent rule over the territory in question. Indefinitely holding enemy combatants in captivity is one option but would quickly become costly and divert resources from solidifying control over the civilian populace and exploiting freshly conquered lands. Furthermore, the danger of prisoners escaping and taking up arms would always exist. Rather than taking such chances, conquerors are highly inclined toward ruthlessly eliminating any future threat posed by enemy combatants.

The close ties between territorial motives and prisoner abuse demonstrate a remarkable consistency over time. After successfully taking over Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099, the victorious Christian army quickly dispatched all remaining captured Muslim soldiers to cement their hold over the Holy City, especially in the face of a counterattack by enemy Fatimid forces.207 Both the sheer number and speed at which prisoners were killed led one observer to exclaim, “If you had been there, your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain."208

The propensity to see enemy combatants not only as unwanted elements but also as a direct challenge to conquering captors endured into the modern era of warfare. Despite the public pretext to protect minorities under the control of the Ottoman Empire, the brutalities meted out to surrendering Turkish soldiers by various Balkan allies reflected their desire to wipe out any resistance to extending their national borders.209 Challenging any notion of common Balkan ties of respect and fraternity, former allies quickly turned on a displeased Bulgaria when coveting further territorial gains at its expense, and Bulgarian prisoners were correspondingly victimized with equal fury.210

The German campaign against Soviet Russia during World War II is often described as an ideological war driven by a sense of racial superiority, but the territorial dimension of the conflict should not be overlooked. The living space (Lebensraum) sought by the Nazi regime was to come primarily at the expense of Soviet territory. The German leadership also realized that the threat posed by all Soviet prisoners was not equal. In the lead-up to the invasion, Hitler issued to German armed forces the Commissar Order (Kommissarbefehl), which mandated the immediate execution on site of all commissars found within captured Soviet armed forces. The preamble justified the order as follows, “To show consideration of these elements [i.e., principles of humanity] or to act in accordance with international rules of war is wrong and endangers both our own security and the rapid pacification of conquered territory."211 Territorial conflicts may certainly differ somewhat among each other in their intensity, in particular regarding the size of the land and the nature of the populations under dispute, and correspondingly in the strength of the incentives for abusing enemy combatants.212 Yet overwhelmingly territory has been a central motive behind many of the worst cases of prisoner abuse across a wide range of captors and eras.

While annexationist desires have been central in many past instances of prisoner abuse, other expansive war aims, such as unconditional surrender or regime change, do not necessarily provide such clear incentives. The coercive potential of prisoner abuse provides one route toward forcing an adversary to surrender without preconditions. As noted earlier, however, extreme levels of violence can actually prove detrimental for achieving unconditional surrender, because enemy soldiers may prefer to continue fighting rather than laying down their arms. U.S. aims for unconditional surrender on both the European and Pacific fronts during the Second World War were followed by concerted attempts later in the conflict to employ good prisoner treatment to induce surrenders instead of heightening violations.213

A similar ambivalence in the resort to prisoner abuse is evident in wars involving regime change, where a belligerent needs to be mindful of the effect of the current conduct of the war on the stability and quality of the subsequent peace.214 As with wars of territorial annexation, forcibly imposing regime change on a conquered society can lead to significant resistance, up to and including armed rebellion.215 As with territorial annexation, former prisoners would be well placed for playing a potentially active role in any resulting armed insurgency against outside powers. Yet soldiers, and the military more generally, have at times demonstrated their usefulness as allies helping to stabilize the domestic situation after the overthrow of the prior government.216 Committing abuses against prisoners risks undermining both the capability and willingness of the adversary's military to make a constructive contribution to any future regime. The experience of the United States in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq offers a cautionary tale in this regard, where outright abuses along with poor planning left a core of disgruntled former Iraqi soldiers who would only help to fuel the insurgency that bedeviled U.S. forces for a decade to come.217 As these cases show, incentives for mistreating captives are not necessarily absent when looking at other types of ambitious war aims, but the prospects for prisoner abuse are less clear compared to territorial motives.

Assessing the dilemma faced by captors points to a series of factors shaping how belligerents choose to weigh the costs and benefits for the range of prisoner policies available to them. The next chapter turns to using quantitative evidence to examine the treatment of captives across a large number of wars over the last century to evaluate which factors offer a more compelling account for the patterns of prisoner treatment.

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