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Territory and Terrorizing Captives: War Aims and the Logic of Prisoner Abuse

The impulses linking territorial conquest to the abuse of prisoners have just as much to do with what belligerents expect to happen well after the fighting has stopped as with the events taking place during the conflict proper. This stands in contrast to the incentives resulting from regime type, which center on more immediate fears of retaliation or what steps could be taken to help win the war in the near term. States annexing territory from an adversary and finding themselves with large numbers of captured enemy combatants instead have much longer time horizons to take into account. Beyond figuring out to how grab large swaths of land at other countries' expense in the first place, triumphant belligerents also need to consider how they will occupy and hold on to their newfound spoils well into the future. Existing peoples in these dominions represent a potentially valuable resource to be exploited, which many victorious occupiers have indeed done to great effect.8 Yet native populations, often hostile to their new foreign masters, can also become a source of opposition that has often frustrated the ambitions of many conquering powers. These “fifth columns" contain the seeds of rebellion that can ultimately coalesce into a resistance movement threatening an occupier's very rule over its extended territories.

Not all segments of the native population are equal in their ability or willingness to mount a concerted challenge to an occupier's authority and control. Civilians living in conquered areas have frequently been victimized precisely to undermine any future resistance on their parts.9 Yet if civilians are viewed as “fifth columns," then captured enemy combatants might be more appropriately counted as sixth, seventh, or eighth columns combined. In comparison to the wider civilian populace, combatants are often of prime fighting age, possessing at least a very minimum and often extremely advanced training in military operations and the use of weapons. These skills and attributes make captured combatants an especially salient threat to the occupying power, since they have a greater potential not only to fight but, more importantly, to organize and lead a domestic insurgency.

Just as with prisoner abuse more generally, employing violence against captured combatants to preventatively eliminate future resistance is not a strategy without hazards. Abuse may engender further hostility from surviving elements from the enemy, only fueling grievances against the occupier. States with more modest territorial ambitions may thus be less likely to assume the risks and expend the resources necessary to conduct a widespread program of prisoner abuse. Enemy combatants also do not pose a similar degree of threat when seeking more limited forms of occupation, as in French plans over parts of the former Ottoman Empire during the 1919-21 Franco-Turkish War. French abuses of Turkish prisoners certainly occurred but were not extensive or widespread compared to earlier episodes of territorial annexation in the Balkans or the later conquests in the period leading into the Second World War.10 The preventive incentives for prisoner abuse may thus vary a great deal depending on the strengths of desires for conquest, as well as the size and nature of the enemy territory to be annexed.

Nevertheless, for belligerents eager to establish absolute command over fresh conquests, prisoner abuse often represents the most direct route to achieving their goals. As was shown in the earlier quantitative analysis from chapter 3, wars involving territorial annexation are much more likely to involve the most severe and systematic violence against enemy combatants. The prospects for prisoners in wars of territorial annexation should thus be especially poor, as conquerors appear attracted to the benefits of abuse while discounting the potential downsides. This prior statistical relationship is still only suggestive of the territorial logic connecting conquest to the abuse of captives. When examining particular historical episodes in greater depth, the record should show that would-be occupiers sought to target enemy combatants in their custody specifically because these groups presented the greatest threat to their plans of consolidating control over new conquests.

The general territorial logic also provides several additional observable implications beyond the overall level of violence inflicted upon captured combatants. Just as differences exist within the wider enemy population, so too the threat posed by various groups of prisoners will not be equal. Most combatants may possess a minimum level of military skills, but enemy officers present an especially clear and present danger. Even in countries with large standing armies, the quality of troops can vary widely. This is especially the case when states are actually confronted with full-scale war; forces can become stretched thin, and the military may need to rely increasingly on reservists or hastily trained recruits. In contrast, officers not only tend to receive more extensive military training and have greater combat experience than most regular soldiers or reservists, but they also possess valuable leadership talents necessary to coordinate resistance movements. It follows that those segments of the prisoner population perceived as most threatening to a conquering captor should also be most at risk of serious abuse. All enemy combatants might suffer severely during wars of conquest, but the worst levels of violence will be reserved for groups like officers given their skills and corresponding threat. One further implication is that those prisoners from the targeted groups deemed to be most capable are likely the first to be eliminated.

The explicit targeting of the officer corps contradicts the usual thinking about the relative treatment of different ranks of prisoners. The laws of war set up an explicit hierarchy governing the rights and protections of prisoners of war based on rank, reaffirmed in later treaties up to the present day. Unlike regular soldiers, officers were not required to do any physical labor even though they were still allowed to collect their regular higher pay.11 These legal privileges have historically translated into superior treatment for officers while in captivity, though with some exceptions.12 During the First World War, Tsarist Russia ensured that captured German and Austro-Hungarian officers lived in relative comfort, while the masses of other ranks were often deprived even of many of the basic necessities to survive.13 Yet in the context of a captor seeking to annex territory, the privileged position of officers and other elite combatants may quickly turn into a liability.

A territorial logic of prisoner abuse also provides expectations regarding when violence against captives is most likely to take place. If control over the annexed territory appears assured, then the abuse of captured combatants should follow in fairly short order. Since part of the motivation is to destroy future possible threats, then conquering captors have every incentive to enact any overall plans of prisoner abuse as soon as possible. On the other hand, if the conqueror's tenure over the newly gained territory becomes precarious because of possible incursions due to other outside challengers, then the captor state may actually have less incentive to engage in prisoner abuse. Far from being a danger, captured troops from the conquered territory may present a valuable ally against a new common threat. Outside threats may lead occupiers to hold on to surviving enemy combatants in reserve, or even deploy them in battle against mutual enemies. Disputed territories have often changed hands on numerous occasions, and antagonists at one point may turn into welcome partners at others.14 Poland offers a particularly vivid example in this regard, as the country and its people were the victims of an almost unending series of external aggressors over the course of the last several centuries.15 The most recent dismemberment and annexation of Poland early on during the Second World War through Soviet and Nazi complicity also presents a useful test case of the territorial logic and additional implications for understanding the sources of prisoner abuse. When we look at the full set of patterns in the bloodshed wrought by the Soviet Union upon Polish prisoners, the territorial dynamics underlying the conflict offer the most convincing explanation.

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