Prisoner of War: the conundrum of a commodity from Sun Tzu to ISIS

The term Prisoner of War (PoW) has strong emotive connotations; the trials and tribulations, the mistreatment and summary executions, the heroism and futile resistance. Not only during the World Wars of the 20th century – when the scale and reporting of enemy imprisonment reached a global audience – but from the first pitched battles to the urban warfare currently ensnaring the Middle East, the fate of the PoW has sparked debate and controversy.

The first use in the English language of the term ‘Prisoner of War’ has purportedly been discovered by a Southampton-based academic. It is ascribed to Bernard, Count de Ventadour, captured by English forces at the Battle of Poitiers (1356) during the Hundred Years’ War.

The Battle of Poitiers, along with Agincourt, marked a high point for England in the Hundred Years’ War

Court documents relating to the Count’s imprisonment show that far from humanitarian concerns, what seemingly prompted the use of the term ‘Prisoner of War’ was commercial consideration. The Count was a commodity, his captor being entitled to his property and assets and hence this new ‘legal status’ was conferred upon the prisoner.

Indeed, de Ventadour was ultimately bought by none other than King Edward III, who paid the Count’s ‘legal’ owner, Lord Burghersh, £5,000 for his acquisition. This was a staggering sum of money for the time and can be explained by the fact that King Edward used the Count to strengthen his hand in the ransom negotiations aimed at securing the release of French King John II, who had also been captured at Poitiers. By 1360, the Count de Ventadour was a free man. All legal and above board it seems.

The capture of King John II

Of course, the exchange of PoWs hasn’t gone away, even if their value is now chiefly of political, rather than economic, significance. Prisoner transaction remains common currency in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and there has been controversy over the United States’ decision to swap Taliban prisoners for their own captured soldiers.

Theoretically, we have clear global regulations about how to treat PoWs. The Geneva Convention of 1929, born out of the horrors of the First World War, set a standard for maintaining prisoner well-being and was followed in 1950 by the 143-article long ‘Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 75 U.N.T.S. 135’.

‘In particular they must be protected from acts of violence, insults and public curiosity; in addition, it is forbidden to carry out reprisals against them’.

PoWs suffering at the hands of their German captors during WWI

Yet laws mean little in times of war. PoWs in the days of de Ventadour were hardly assured of their survival after capture, Joan of Arc being a particularly notable case in point. This vulnerability has not diminished in the modern era. From the concentration camps and death marches of WWII, through to the ISIS rampage across Iraq and Syria, the life of a PoW often hangs in the balance.

Ultimately, PoWs present a conundrum to their captors; what value they  hold and what to do with them are rarely easy to fathom.

American PoWs suffer at the hands of their Japanese captors during the brutal Bataan Death March in 1942

There is no space to go into depth here on the legal, ethical, economic and military dilemmas surrounding the acquisition, treatment of, and exchange of PoWs. So one prominent thinker will have to suffice.

Sun Tzu (544-496BC), the famed Chinese strategist of the Eastern Zhou period, pondered, amongst a myriad of considerations in his monumentally influential treatise Art of War, the fate of prisoners.

In the section of his treatise entitled ‘Waging War’, he suggests:

The captured soldiers should be kindly treated and kept. This is called, using the conquered foe to augment one’s own strength.

Sun Tzu is perhaps second only to Confucius in the pantheon of Chinese thinkers

So, treating prisoners with decency may win them over to your side, a useful tactic when trying to sustain lengthy campaigns over vast tracts of land.

Similarly, in a later passage, Sun Tzu remarks:

It is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Countless times through history we have heard tale of surrendered battalions put to use for their captors’ benefits, whether it be for fighting, labour or more nefarious purposes.

Meager rations for Soviet PoWs enduring forced labour under the Nazis in WWII

In a less overt reference, Sun Tzu addresses the issue of spies:

It is through the information brought by the converted spy that we are able to acquire and employ local and inward spies. It is owing to his information, again, that we can cause the doomed spy to carry false tidings to the enemy. Lastly, it is by his information that the surviving spy can be used on appointed occasions. 

Military prisoners have proven to be a mine of information. Why rid yourself of an asset whose knowledge can both supplement your own and undermine that of your enemy? As Sun Tzu summarises:

The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality.

It is interesting that a man who advocated plunder and merciless suppression in vanquished territories could simultaneously appreciate the subtlety of warfare, the bigger picture beyond the battlefield. In no place does he advocate the maltreatment or execution of prisoners. Knowledge and allegiance can be won by patience and kindness.

But as he shrewdly acknowledged:

All warfare is based on deception.

Why trust your enemy, even if he is a prisoner whose survival depends on your goodwill? Is this not the reason why so many PoWs are tortured for information, a misconception that only under duress will they speak the truth?

Guantanamo Bay remains open, the Trump administration repealing Obama’s failed promise to close the controversial facility. What good has torture played in the American War on Terror? Would it not have been better to follow the advice of the sage Sun Tzu?

The difficulties of what to do with PoWs – however you wish to define such people – will continue to perplex and antagonise. Humanitarian concern will duel for supremacy with political and military gain in the mind of the captor, the occasional bloodthirstiness not withstanding. Those in command of the key to the prison exercise all-encompassing power.

Eunuchs dance attendance at the Persian court of Shah Abbas I. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported that in the 5th century BC prisoners of war, especially “boys of unusual beauty,” were often castrated and sold to the “barbarians” (Persians), who considered them more trustworthy than other males (Persian Wars 8.105).

It is a topic that has consumed the greatest minds, and those with the greatest intentions, for thousands of years. No simple answer awaits and none will be proffered.  For the Prisoner of War, fate trumps all.

Further Reading

Sawyer, R.D. (1994) Sun Tzu: Art of War


Caxton, the Printing Press and the Disintegration of Communication

A researcher at the University of Reading has made a startling discovery. Pasted into the spine of an unrelated text Erika Delbecque found a double-sided leaf of paper thought to have been printed on one of William Caxton’s first presses, probably in the 1470s.

One of the beautifully-preserved Caxton pages

The pages are from a book called the Sarum Ordinal, a guide book for priests detailing the feast days of English saints. They are thought to be unique, with no other known copies in the world. Indeed, the only other eight pages from the text believed to have survived are currently housed in the British Library.

Such a seminal find is not only incredibly rare but also illuminating, particularly pertinent in our modern society of instant communication.

William Caxton (1422-1491)

Caxton was a merchant who had spent much of his career in the Low Countries, where he had been exposed to the new printing technologies pioneered and perfected by the German Johannes Gutenberg during the mid-fifteenth century.

In 1476, Caxton brought his own press to Westminster and started printing a range of British and foreign literature. Amongst his early focuses were Chaucer, Malory, Gower and Lydgate. By reading these literary titans, Caxton claimed in his 1477 Book of Curtesye, one improved his social education. The work of Chaucer, he noted, ‘enlumened hast alle our bretayne’.

Caxton demonstrating his printing press to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth

The importance of the establishment and expansion of the printing press and printing houses in Europe during the 15th century cannot be overstated. Volumes and volumes of treatises, religious texts and prose were no longer the preserve of the monarchy, the clergy and the ennobled. The dissemination of the printed word – particularly when published in the vernacular – made a greater contribution to the spread of ideas through societies than any other invention in the late medieval period.

Not only books but pamphlets began to proliferate, allowing radical theories and doctrines uncensored by the authorities to find a path to the less enlightened. It was of little relevance that illiteracy rates remained high; it only took the voice of one who could read to impart upon the masses the myriad terrors and delights of the new printed form.

Extract from the Gutenberg Bible

This, in turn, fostered a greater intermixing of the previously segregated class structures, as the influential realised the power of print over the unprivileged. In many cases, this increased social cohesion. The folk tales of old, many now committed to parchment, were embellished by the great stories of European literature. Whilst for agitators like the Protestant reformers, a platform for their eventual triumph over the forces of tradition had been created.

It is the nature of technological development that in some industries change is gradual, whilst in others it is both explosive and tumultuous. The printing press undoubtedly falls into the latter category and, indeed, the communication of the written word barely changed for the 500 years after its inception.

Books, pamphlets and (from the early 17th century) newspapers remained the primary sources of information for a mass audience into the late 20th century when the next tumultuous change occurred; the invention of instant messaging.

Starting with computers and progressing through mobile phones and the internet, the ability to communicate information to billions of others instantaneously has altered the course of history. Now with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat, anyone with an internet connection has access to almost limitless news and knowledge at the touch of a button.

An unmistakable symbol…Twitter has changed the way we communicate and read news

The process of communicating with one another has never been easier and yet, if anything, social cohesion has diminished. People no longer need to interact in the flesh, living their lives as keyboard warriors at the forefront of technical change. Whilst in some instances this has brought people closer together, people who would otherwise never interact, in too many cases the results are negative.

It is surely a fact that a person is less likely to spread hate and abuse in person than they are online? How many men and women would be openly homophobic, sexist, racist or generally unreasonable when face-to-face with their apparent adversaries? How many would publish their views in a book, a pamphlet or a newspaper? The norms of conventional society have simply yet to translate to the world wide web, where vitriol and anger is the order of the day.

Caxton and his fellow pioneers would doubtless be horrified by the gradual diversion away from their beloved presses, whose transformational importance is symbolised in the beauty of the early printed works. The masters of the trade knew the sanctity of their craft.

Perhaps this is why the Reading discovery evokes a poignancy equal to its historic value. We must remember how precious the art of communication really is.