The Strategic Benefits of Good Conduct
Beyond the risks of retaliation, a further institutional restraint on the conduct of the democratic powers was the belief that humane conduct provided additional strategic rewards both on and off the battlefield. Properly treating prisoners can increase the propensity of those enemy combatants still fighting to surrender, calculating they are better off laying down their arms than continuing to risk death in battle. The greater domestic accountability to win wars quickly and with fewer casualties also makes democracies more motivated to capitalize on these strategic gains.43 While the logic of strategic benefits differs from reciprocity incentives, both mechanisms share the assumption that democracies' predisposition toward humane conduct is more a means to achieving instrumental objectives, rather than an end itself to remain consistent with domestic political values as presumed by normative accounts.
Given the dilemma facing captors, refraining from abuse presents certain tradeoffs. The coercive potential of prisoner abuse is forsaken along with other possible dividends, including an exploitable pool of slave labor, devoting fewer resources to properly caring for prisoners, or using torture during interrogations to obtain intelligence. Against these drawbacks, the Western Allies during the Second World War consistently stressed the benefits to be gained from good treatment.
Even if it turned out that good prisoner treatment produced few tangible gains, what ultimately matters for explaining democratic conduct is that the Western powers believed such conduct would be effective. Faith in the value of humane treatment is evident in the beliefs of those officials most directly involved in implementing prisoner policies on the ground. An assistant judge advocate involved in POW camp affairs, U.S. Lieutenant Newton Margulies, remarked that it was “eminently more sensible, and really more clever, to win our war with butter and beefsteaks instead of bullets and bombs."44
Similar sentiments were evident when the U.S. House of Representatives convened a special committee to investigate the overall Allied war effort. After receiving testimony from all branches of the armed forces, the State Department, and several other agencies, the committee concluded as follows regarding the contribution of prisoner policies toward winning the war:
Commanders abroad have stated that reports reaching German soldiers to the effect that we are treating prisoners fairly, in spite of what their officers told them, were a great factor in breaking down the morale of German troops and making them willing, even eager, to surrender. So pronounced was this effect that General Eisenhower had safe-conduct passes dropped by the millions over enemy lines, promising treatment in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Had these promises not been true, and believed, victory would have been slower and harder, and a far greater number of Americans killed
It is also important to note that the committee was well aware of both the strategic and reciprocal benefits gained through good conduct. Referring to the fewer number of U.S. soldiers killed as a result of humane treatment, they explicitly included not only those lives saved on the battlefield by shortening the war, but also those spared behind barbed wire in enemy POW camps.46
Capitalizing on the strategic benefits of prisoner treatment was apparent not only in the public statements of Allied officials, but also in the military plans developed by the democratic powers. The use of propaganda, and informational warfare more generally, to communicate democratic preferences and policies to enemy soldiers became an integral component of the Western Allies' overall approach to fighting the war. The joint U.S.-U.K. Psychological Warfare Division (PWD) viewed its mission as “to destroy the fighting morale of our enemy both at home and on the front."47 Although “morale" is a rather nebulous concept, it is instructive that a later survey of PWD officials found a large number described their specific primary objective as “To induce surrender."48
In order to achieve this aim, the Allies devoted significant resources to disseminating propaganda materials to the enemy. In the period between the Normandy landings of June 1944 and Germany's defeat in May 1945, the United States and Britain dropped approximately six billion leaflets on German positions in western Europe alone.49 As the war went on, the Allies were increasingly successful in finding their targets and communicating information directly to German soldiers on the ground. Surveys of German POWs later found that over 80 percent had been exposed to Allied leaflets.50 The actual messages contained in these materials further point to the importance of humane prisoner conduct. A content analysis of leaflets found that promises of good treatment for prisoners was the most prevalent theme.51
Given the importance of expectations over treatment once a prisoner, it is perhaps not surprising that the Passierschein (safe-conduct pass) became widely viewed as the most successful propaganda tool from the entire war, since it capitalized more than any other on vows of humane conduct toward surrendering soldiers.52 The leaflet did not focus on any other issue, such as the strategic situation on the ground or the moral depravity of the Nazi regime. Instead, the pass concentrated on a simple message of good treatment. The text of one of the most popular variants of the leaflet read:
The German soldier who carries this safe conduct is using it as a sign of his genuine wish to give himself
up. He is to be disarmed, to be well looked after, to receive food and medical attention as required, and to
be removed from the danger zone as soon as possible.
Signed—Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force
The final design went through several revisions based on information gleaned from German prisoners questioned over what aspects of the leaflet they found to be more or less convincing.53 In addition to the personal signature of General Eisenhower, the overall design of the pass was intended to look official not only to signify the seriousness of the commitment but also to give German soldiers a sense that they had the authority to surrender. The leaflet contained the government seals of both the United States and Great Britain and was usually printed on high-quality paper using superior inks and in color. As one historian remarked, “From a rather crude beginning, the Allied surrender leaflet ended the war looking like a cross between gilt-edge bonds and a college diploma."54 The leaflet was viewed as doubly effective because it articulated in clear terms the Allied promise of humane conduct but also provided a concrete tool for enemy combatants to actually surrender. Government reports from the war showed that German soldiers would carry the pass with them, oftentimes waving it over their heads, to demonstrate their good faith when laying down their arms.55
Was all this effort in the careful design of leaflets, along with the enormous scale of their distribution, actually successful in encouraging greater numbers of surrenders than would have otherwise been the case? Propaganda operations began in earnest from mid-1944 onward and were indeed followed by increasing levels of surrenders.56 However, it is problematic to automatically conclude that propaganda directly led to rising capitulations, especially given the prominent role played by significant Allied military advances during this same period. A rigorous examination of the merits of Allied propaganda unfortunately faces several challenges. There was no equivalent to the massive United States Strategic Bombing Survey evaluating the effectiveness of air power during the war.57 Even if more detailed data existed, a compounding problem is that psychological warfare was never intended to be deployed separate from military force.58 As one historian of the period comments, “it is difficult to discern where the demoralization induced by battlefield defeats left off and where the demoralization induced by propaganda in support of military operations began."59 There is thus the danger of circular reasoning concerning the relationship between promoting surrenders and battlefield success.
Although it is difficult to isolate the precise independent effect of propaganda, several signs point to promises of good conduct playing a contributing role in encouraging the capitulation of enemy troops. A series of surveys of German POWs from December 1944 to February 1945, a key period involving continued Allied offensives and Wehrmacht counterattacks, found respondents remembered leaflets focusing on promises of good treatment more than any other theme.60 By comparison, messages emphasizing the inevitability of the Allied victory or appeals attacking Nazi ideology appeared to have little impact. German prisoners were also likely to placed faith in Allied promises of proper prisoner treatment; other surveys showed between 82 and 90 percent of captives believed they would be treated according to the regulations of the 1929 Geneva Conventions.61
Care must be taken in drawing any firm conclusions from these surveys given the potential desire of respondents to please their captors out of fear or other motives, as well as the fact that those deciding to surrender were probably more likely to remember and believe Allied commitments than soldiers choosing to fight to the bitter end. However, if respondents were purely motivated by giving answers pleasing to their captors, other choices such as the attacks on Nazi doctrines would in many respects appear even more attractive given the ideologically charged nature of the conflict. The high level of trust exhibited by prisoners to promises of the Western powers is also impressive given the German government went to considerable lengths to counter Allied propaganda as well as punish those looking to surrender.62 Furthermore, if soldiers had the opportunity to vote with their feet they appeared to have overwhelmingly preferred giving themselves up to U.S. and British forces rather than to the Western Allies' more brutal Soviet partner. In the closing months of the war around one million German soldiers fled westward into the hands of the democratic powers instead of leaving themselves at the mercy of the advancing Red Army.63 Despite the initial deployment of significant numbers of German troops to both fronts, the final tally of prisoners held at the end of the war was a ratio of 4:1 in favor of the Western powers.64 This might be indicative more of fears toward the Soviet Union than beliefs in the benevolence of the Western powers, but the point remains that prisoners' words were ultimately more consistent with their deeds regarding the relative prospects of decent prisoner treatment.
It bears emphasizing that, irrespective of the actual effectiveness of promises of humane treatment, what ultimately matters from the point of view of an institutional explanation for wartime conduct is that democratic leaders believed there were strategic benefits to be gained. As one U.S. general asserted, “German prisoners in America write thousands of letters to their families in Germany telling of the treatment that they are accorded. This is America's greatest propaganda and is having a decided influence on the course of the war."65 The fact that the German government also believed in the power of these messages, evidenced by vigorously seeking to counter such propaganda, points to the substantial role played by concerns over strategic benefits from good conduct.
While much of this discussion so far has focused on the Western theater, the potential for accruing strategic advantages from humane treatment was noticeable even in the much harsher climate prevailing on the Pacific front. There is little doubt U.S. treatment of Japanese prisoners, especially in the early portions of the war, was below the standards afforded to Axis prisoners in the European theater.
Atrocities on the battlefield were more common as the Pacific War descended at times into brutal combat.66 Part of the reason for the poorer conduct by the democratic powers is actually in many ways consistent with an institutional explanation. Japanese treatment of U.S., British, and Commonwealth prisoners was oftentimes ruthless. Prisoners were made to perform hard labor in unsanitary conditions often on meager food rations, which led to almost one-third of prisoners dying in captivity.67 In light of the fact that Japan was already committing high levels of violence, constraints relating to fears of retaliation and escalation were weaker compared to the situation that prevailed on the Western front where German and Italian abuse was more moderate.
The forces resulting from reciprocity thus make the Pacific War a relatively hard case when arguing for the merits of strategic advantages. The United States and Britain did indeed engage at times in significant levels of violence against Japanese prisoners, though the abuse was not nearly as systematic or extreme as
that committed by their adversary.68 Nevertheless, Allied conduct remained relatively more forgiving than their opponent's and, if anything, gradually improved rather than worsened as the war progressed. One of the reasons was that military benefits from good conduct were in many ways even greater with Japanese soldiers than for any other prisoner group during the war. Japan's bushido tradition, which demanded soldiers fight to the death and viewed surrender as the ultimate dishonor, is often credited with making Japanese troops extremely reluctant to give themselves up.69 Soldiers facing the prospect of surrender would often instead prefer death in battle or even ritual suicide (seppuku). As the Japanese Armed Forces' Field Service Code plainly stated,
“Never live to experience shame as a prisoner."70 The number of prisoners in the Pacific theater usually amounted to only a few thousand and was much lower than in Europe.71
This no-surrender preference made the use of Allied propaganda more difficult than in the German case. However, these same tendencies ironically translated into immense benefits to the Allies for those Japanese troops that did end up being captured. First, Japanese prisoners received little training on how to conduct themselves once caught, since surrender was never discussed as a viable option. Japanese captives were thus much less “security-conscious" than their German counterparts and often willingly shared valuable military intelligence.72 Second, the feelings of dishonor brought on by surrender made many Japanese prisoners feel in essence dead and separated from their home country. Several prisoners were “reborn" under Allied captivity and actively collaborated with their captors by writing and designing propaganda leaflets or even directing U.S. pilots on combat missions over Japan!73 While the strategic benefits from good conduct in the case of Germany often manifested more in the form of growing numbers of surrenders, in the Pacific theater prisoner intelligence became a prized commodity. Importantly, this intelligence was often made available and gained through decent treatment rather than through torture or other coercive interrogation techniques.
A parallel pattern thus developed in both the beliefs of Allied officials and actual military policy. In personal correspondence, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), recognized that abusing prisoners was counterproductive to the overall war effort and in particular harmed the propaganda efforts of the Allies to induce Japanese surrenders, which meant a loss of potentially valuable intelligence.74 Along with the use of propaganda along similar lines as in the Western theater, the U.S. Army developed a concerted campaign to make its own troops more mindful of the benefits of surrender and overcome the tendency of some soldiers to retaliate against Japanese abuses.75 This education program highlighted the intelligence value of Japanese prisoners but also pointed out that committing atrocities would only strengthen the resolve of enemy soldiers to continue fighting.76 While difficulties remain in determining the exact effectiveness of such efforts, beliefs concerning strategic benefits nevertheless played a significant role in shaping the prisoner policies of the United States on the Pacific front as well.