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Relevance to the Study of Wartime Conduct and Contemporary Armed Conflict

Each of the main contributors to prisoner abuse—the severity of the fighting, territorial ambitions, and democracy—is not simply a product of wars from a bygone era that have since faded or disappeared from relevance. Rather, all remain readily apparent and central for thinking about the conditions under which prisoners are likely to be treated properly or unfavorably. The main findings thus have several implications for the broader study of political violence and wartime conduct in both the contemporary era and when looking ahead.

The Severity of the Fighting

The impact of the severity of the fighting confirms other research showing that events on the ground feed back and influence choices over how to treat vulnerable groups during wartime. Just as armed forces may shift attacks onto civilians when facing setbacks on the battlefield, so too do captured combatants become ready targets for coercion when belligerents face trying circumstances.1 The world has fortunately avoided for more than a half century the sort of drawn- out, all-embracing conflicts typified by the two world wars. Recent work shows that the probability of a soldier dying in battle — one of the general metrics for the intensity of warfare—has declined at a fairly consistent basis since the beginning of the twentieth century.2 If wars are becoming less severe on the whole (even if not disappearing outright), then one of the main contributors to wartime violence may be diminishing as well, which offers some hopeful news for troops worried over captivity in current or future conflicts. On the other hand, other research argues that the number of battle deaths has shown no clear downward trend, suggesting this component of the nature of the conflict has not improved, but neither has it gotten any worse.3

According to the data used in the analysis for this book, the chances of a war devolving into attritional fighting has remained relatively flat from the end of the nineteenth century through the early years of the twenty-first century.4 Some recent conflicts have certainly been rapid and decisive, such as the success of Operation Desert Storm when Iraqi military forces were dismantled in a matter of days with tens of thousands of prisoners flocking to the positions of the U.S.-led coalition. Other episodes indicate, however, that wars of attrition will continue to be a hazard for the current era and beyond. The heavy fighting along a fortified front that characterized the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was in many ways reminiscent of the trenches stretching up and down much of western Europe during the First World War. During the fighting between the two countries in the Horn of Africa, tens of thousands of troops died in hopeless frontal assaults, while prisoners from both sides were horribly abused.5

Even if standard wars of attrition do eventually subside, the growing attention to guerrilla warfare points to several similar dynamics that result in more severe conflicts overall.6 Avoidance of set-piece battles, reliance on the local population, and the difficulty of locating dispersed and often autonomous groups of enemy forces all mean that civilians have been particularly victimized in such drawn-out irregular conflicts.7 Yet one of the lessons from the Vietnam War is that guerrillas are also extremely vulnerable once in captivity.8 Given the greater challenges to gathering intelligence on insurgent adversaries, captors may be much more willing to turn to harsh interrogation techniques against detainees in an attempt to gain important information. Compounded by attempts by incumbent powers to delegitimize guerrilla tactics, much less recognize the status of guerrillas as official combatants, conduct toward these enemy armed forces upon capture can be quite poor. Whether on the conventional battlefield or in newly emerging irregular theaters of operations, the severity of the conflict is likely to continue to figure prominently in how captured enemy combatants are treated.

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