Capable Captors

Genuine instances of prisoner treatment are limited solely to those belligerents deemed “capable captors." A state is considered a capable captor if it meets both of the following two criteria concerning autonomy and opportunity. First, a state must have the capacity for an independent prisoner policy. This is not really a concern in wars between only two states, but in conflicts involving large coalitions subordinate alliance partners often have little leeway in adopting military practices separate from their more powerful patrons. During the Korean War allied forces were nominally under a unified UN command, but the United States dominated all aspects of the planning and prosecution of the war, especially with regard to prisoners.48 “Beneath a thin veneer of respect for the authority of the United Nations, Americans conducted the war as they saw fit."49 Similarly, a host of countries technically contributed to the large coalition constructed under UN authority to counter Iraqi aggression in the Persian Gulf War. Yet the planning and care for surrendering Iraqi prisoners were primarily directed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, supplemented somewhat by Britain and France, with others members playing a minor role.50

By the same token, violations committed by smaller partners are more appropriately viewed as the responsibility of the larger countries controlling the military coalition. After the failed Dieppe Raid of August 1942 against a German- controlled port in Normandy, it was found that the Allied attackers had bound and blindfolded captured German troops, and orders to this effect were also recovered. While the attacking contingents were primarily composed of Canadian troops, the overall planning for the military operations and the specific orders were primarily made by the Combined Operations Headquarters of the British War Office.51

Prisoner treatment by states occupying such subordinate positions should not be treated as distinct episodes since their behavior toward captives is not independent, but largely determined by their overarching ally or allies. Only when belligerents possess separate operational control over prisoner treatment are they considered to have an independent prisoner policy, as in the case of U.S. and British forces during the Second World War.

Second, even if a state is deemed sufficiently autonomous in formulating and implementing prisoner policies, it must also have a sincere opportunity to either treat enemy combatants well or mistreat them. Most wars involve both sides capturing substantial, though not necessarily equal, numbers of soldiers from opposing forces. In cases of particularly one-sided fighting, however, it is not uncommon for the losing side to capture few if any prisoners from their superior adversary. During the Second World War Belgium was quickly overrun by Germany's armed forces, and records indicate no German prisoners were captured.52 Saudi Arabia likewise easily pushed aside Yemeni defenses during their war in 1934, meaning Yemen had little if any opportunity to capture Saudi combatants.53 In a similar manner, preoccupied with a more pressing two-front war in Europe, German forces stationed in the Far East and Pacific were overwhelmed after Japan's entry into the First World War on the side of the Entente powers. While Japan captured over four thousand German prisoners during its limited military operations, an outmatched Germany was not able to capture a single Japanese soldier.54

Coding such belligerents as captors not engaging in prisoner abuse would equate states that never had a meaningful chance to harm enemy combatants with those captors, like the United States during the Persian Gulf War, that actually had an opportunity and actively chose to treat their captives decently. The latter are legitimate negative cases of prisoner abuse, since the state in question committed few if any violations against their prisoners. In contrast, the former are inappropriate, or at best irrelevant, for purposes of comparison, because resorting to abuse is impossible when no prisoners are held.55 Investigating patterns of prisoner treatment is thus limited to cases of states that had both an independent prisoner policy and an opportunity to harm enemy combatants.

Of course, hypothetically speaking, if a country adopted a universal take-noprisoners policy, then such a captor may perversely be considered incapable according to the second criterion. Yet even some of the worst abusers from the last century of warfare, such as Nazi Germany on the eastern front during the Second World War or China in the Korean War, took many surrendering soldiers into captivity. Furthermore, summary executions are considered violations of the laws of war and thus count as prisoner abuse by a capable captor.56 The key is rather to exclude from consideration belligerents without the capacity (whether because of subordinate allied status or the absence of the chance) to engage in and be considered responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners in the first place.

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