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When Democracies Go Bad: Other Instances of High-Level Prisoner Abuse

An in-depth analysis of prisoner treatment during the Second World War offers a more somber picture of the seeming virtues of democratic behavior during wartime. Far from displaying any inherent benevolence, more calculated institutional concerns over retaliation and strategic benefits were the main drivers behind decent democratic treatment toward their prisoners. This pattern in the conduct of democracies is further apparent in instances beyond the case at hand. A brief investigation of other wars shows that democracies tend to resort to higher levels of prisoner abuse and act more like their autocrat counterparts in situations where these key institutional constraints are lacking or point in the direction of condoning brutalities.

The Boxer Rebellion

When fighting enemies already committing high levels of prisoner abuse, democratic belligerents likely face fewer incentives not to respond with similar viciousness. During the 1900-1901 Boxer Rebellion, the United States, Britain, and France all sent troops as part of a relief expedition to save Western missionaries and other civilians threatened by rising violence in China. Boxer fighters resorted to horrible levels of abuse against Western civilians and soldiers alike. Torture was a common fate for those from the Relief Expedition who were captured, usually ending with their execution.155 Decapitation and mutilation were also frequently committed by Chinese soldiers, and in several instances commanders actually offered rewards to their troops if they brought back the severed heads of foreign soldiers.156 Facing the prospect of surrender, many Western soldiers preferred committing suicide rather than face the trials of Chinese captivity, a choice all the more unusual given their cultural background.157

Encountering such high levels of prisoner abuse, the Western powers more often than not responded in kind. Facing an ideologically driven foe whose movement was largely based around anti-Western principles, there was also little strategic benefit to be gained from good conduct. For instance, the Western Legation, which was under siege in the Legation Quarter of Beijing, preferred to bayonet captured Chinese prisoners in order to save bullets for the continued defense of their embattled position.158 British and U.S. forces sometimes sought to keep Chinese prisoners alive for labor purposes, yet in many battles U.S. commanders issued orders to give no quarter.159 As the war wore on and the Relief Expedition gained the upper hand, U.S. soldiers developed the colloquial term of “Boxerhunting" for scouting missions tasked with mopping up the remnant Chinese forces.160

The Western powers defined their conduct by a harsh reciprocity—they believed there was little reason to hold back given the violence already being perpetrated by their adversary. When direct evidence was found of atrocities committed by Chinese troops, such as the possession of severed heads, Western captors often “responded by killing every enemy without mercy."161 With a grim cycle of retaliation ruling the day, another scholar concluded that “there was little to choose between Chinese and foreign brutality in the summer of 1900."—

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