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