The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror

By Robert C. Doyle | Go to book overview

Foreword

Winston Churchill said it best: “A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him.”* That is the precise situation prisoners have faced in every war: how can one survive capture when killing is the goal?

Since biblical times the fate of prisoners of war has been precarious. Ernst Jünger, a former German officer who was wounded and decorated countless times in front-line action during World War I, describes the dangers involved in the moment of capture: “The defending force, after driving their bullets into the attacking one at five paces’ distance, must take the consequences. A man cannot change his feelings again during the last rush with a veil of blood before his eyes. He does not want to take prisoners but to kill. He has no scruples left; only the spell of primeval instinct remains. It is not till blood has flowed that the mist gives way to his soul.”

The first moments after capture are breathtakingly dangerous. The prisoner’s life depends on a host of variables. Captives who fall into the hands of religious zealots or are the victims of ethnic cleansing have little chance of survival; indeed, the safety of a captive might hinge on such minor factors as whether the soldier who captures him recently lost buddies in the war or is short-tempered due to fighting in the rain or cold. Sometimes prisoners have been killed simply because they were too cumbersome to take along. Every conflict in recorded time has witnessed the mistreatment of prisoners of war.

Perhaps the most important determinant of the treatment of prisoners is the attitude or personality of the enemy. In short, how do the captors feel about their prisoners? Some armies, such as the Japanese, Soviets, and Germans in World War II, found them subhuman and treated them harshly; others, such as the German and British airmen

* Quoted in the Observer, 1952.

† Ernst Jünger, The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front (New York: Howard Fertig, 1975), 262–63.

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