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

British Withdrawal from Afghanistan Puts Pressure on USA: can they really afford to scale back?

British combat operations in Afghanistan have ended after 13 years of struggle against the Taliban. With the US also in withdrawal mode, the onus is now firmly on the Afghan security forces to try and implement a degree of stability in this desperately troubled country. Unfortunately, in a nation which has constantly been subjected to foreign intervention and internal strife, recent history suggests that the prospects for enduring peace are slim.


The last major withdrawal by an international power from Afghanistan was when the Soviet Union conceded a stalemate against the Mujahideen after a decade of conflict and departed in 1989. Of course, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is somewhat different from the US-led intervention in 2001, yet there are some undoubted similarities. A foreign state fought an indigenous movement for control of the country, with a plethora of warlords, ethnic militias and rival factions aligning and re-aligning themselves between the two main players.

Ultimately, the Soviet withdrawal paved the way for the Afghan Civil War and the eventual seizure of power by the Taliban in 1996. It is certain that the initial Soviet invasion created the conditions for the rise of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and their presence in the country was anything but stabilizing. Their withdrawal then precipitated the rapid rise of these extremists, who sidelined the more moderate leaders of the Mujahideen and their supporters.

Many of the Mujahideen that fought the Soviets later joined the Taliban and other extremist groups
Many of the Mujahideen that fought the Soviets later joined the Taliban and other extremist groups

It did not take long for American and British forces to overthrow the Taliban government in 2001, yet eradicating this terror-loving group has proven to be a monumentally difficult task. Despite being ousted from large parts of the country, with much of its leadership eliminated, the Taliban continues to wage an insurgency. The Afghan security forces will find this increasingly hard to resist when American combat operations cease.

Despite some excellent achievements and phenomenal sacrifices, the international intervention in Afghanistan has fallen short of complete success. Unless a significant number of American troops are retained in the country for the long-term, then the Taliban will regain control of much of the country. This is partly as a result of their ability to exploit the ethnic and regional divisions of the Afghan people. Mainly, however, it is due to the fact that it has always been able to count on sanctuary in Pakistan.

Northwest Pakistan is a lawless wasteland beyond the reach of Islamabad. American drone strikes have claimed the lives of countless Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives and leaders in the region. Yet the support from the tribal elders who control much of the territory in places like North Waziristan has allowed Islamic extremists to launch cross-border raids against Afghanistan on a regular basis.

North Waziristan's rugged terrain has made it an ideal refuge for extremist groups intent on inflicting misery in Afghanistan
North Waziristan’s rugged terrain has made it an ideal refuge for extremist groups intent on inflicting misery in Afghanistan

With an ineffective Pakistani political class – which has long remained subject to the desires of the military and ISI, whose support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is barely disguised – the international coalition has been unable to deliver the death knell for the Taliban.

Put simply, it is not just Afghanistan itself but its geo-political environment that is irreparably compromised. It seems an almost impossible situation to solve and the best the Afghan people can hope for is for it to be managed effectively enough to deliver a semblance of peace.

Without British and American troops, and the sacrifices they have been willing to make, this will not be possible.

afgahn US withdrawal