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A prisoner of war (POW, PoW, PW, P/W, WP, or PsW) or enemy prisoner of war (EPW) is a combatant who is held in continuing custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict. The earliest recorded usage of the phrase is dated 1660.
- 1 Reasons for continuing custody
- 2 Ancient times
- 3 Middle Ages
- 4 Modern times
- 5 Adjustment to conditions
- 6 Preparation for release
- 7 Adjustment to civilan life
- 8 See also
- 9 References
Reasons for continuing custody
According to John Hickman, captor states hold captured combatants and non-combatants in continuing custody for a range of legitimate and illegitimate reasons. They are held to isolate them from combatants still in the field, to release and repatriate them in an orderly manner after hostilities, to demonstrate military victory, to punish them, to prosecute them for war crimes, to exploit them for their labor, to recruit or even conscript them as their own combatants, to collect military and political intelligence from them, and to indoctrinate them in new political or religious beliefs.
For most of human history, depending on the culture of the victors, combatants on the losing side in a battle could expect to be either slaughtered or enslaved. Typically, little distinction was made between combatants and civilians, although women and children were more likely to be spared. Sometimes the purpose of a battle, if not a war, was to capture women, a practice known as raptio; the Rape of the Sabines was a large mass abduction by the founders of Rome. Typically women had no rights, were held legally as chattel, and would not be accepted back by their birth families once they had borne children to those who had killed their mothers, brothers and fathers.
In the Fourth Century AD, the Bishop Acacius of Amida, touched by the plight of Persian prisoners captured in a recent war with the Roman Empire - who were held in his town under appalling conditions, and destined for a life of slavery - took the initiative of ransoming them, by selling his church's precious gold and silver vessels, and letting them return to their country. For this he was eventually canonised - which testifies to his act being exceptional.
Likewise the distinction between POW and slave is not always clear. Some of the Native Americans captured Europeans and used them as both labourers and bargaining chips; see for example, John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nootka people on the Pacific Northwest Coast in 1802–1805.
- See also: Prisoners of war in Islam
During Childeric's siege and blockade of Paris in 464, the nun Geneviève (later canonised as the city's Patron Saint) pleaded with the Frankish King for the welfare of prisoners of war and met with a favorable response. Later, Clovis I liberated captives after Genevieve urged him to do so.
In the later Middle Ages, a number of religious wars were particularly ferocious. In Christian Europe, the extermination of the heretics or "non-believers" was considered desirable. Examples include the 13th century Albigensian Crusade and the Northern Crusades. Likewise the inhabitants of conquered cities were frequently massacred during the Crusades against the Muslims in the 11th century and the 12th century. Noblemen could hope to be ransomed; their families would have to send to their captors large sums of wealth commensurate with the social status of the captive. Many French prisoners of war were killed during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In the samurai-dominated Japan there was no custom of ransoming prisoners of war, who were for the most part summarily executed.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, upon capture, those captives not executed were made to beg for their subsistence. During the early reforms under Islam, Muhammad changed this custom and made it the responsibility of the Islamic government to provide food and clothing, on a reasonable basis, to captives, regardless of their religion. If the prisoners were in the custody of a person, then the responsibility was on the individual. He established the rule that prisoners of war must be guarded and not ill-treated, and that after the fighting was over, the prisoners were expected to be either released or ransomed. However, the leader of the Muslim force capturing non-Muslim prisoners could choose whether to kill prisoners, to ransom them, to enslave them, or to cut off their hands and feet on alternate sides. The freeing of prisoners in particular was highly recommended as a charitable act. Mecca was the first city to have the benevolent code applied. However, Christians who were captured in the Crusades were sold into slavery if they could not pay a ransom.
The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War, established the rule that prisoners of war should be released without ransom at the end of hostilities and that they should be allowed to return to their homelands.
During the 19th century, efforts increased to improve the treatment and processing of prisoners. The extensive period of conflict during the Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), followed by the Anglo-American War of 1812, led to the emergence of a cartel system for the exchange of prisoners, even while the belligerents were at war. A cartel was usually arranged by the respective armed service for the exchange of like ranked personnel. The aim was to achieve a reduction in the number of prisoners held, while at the same time alleviating shortages of skilled personnel in the home country.
Later, as result of these emerging conventions a number of international conferences were held, starting with the Brussels Conference of 1874, with nations agreeing that it was necessary to prevent inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of weapons causing unnecessary harm. Although no agreements were immediately ratified by the participating nations, work was continued that resulted in new conventions being adopted and becoming recognized as international law, that specified that prisoners of war are required to be treated humanely and diplomatically.
Hague and Geneva Conventions
Specifically, Chapter II of the Annex to the 1907 Hague Convention covered the treatment of prisoners of war in detail. These were further expanded in the Third Geneva Convention of 1929, and its revision of 1949. Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention protects captured military personnel, some guerrilla fighters and certain civilians. It applies from the moment a prisoner is captured until he or she is released or repatriated. One of the main provisions of the convention makes it illegal to torture prisoners and states that a prisoner can only be required to give their name, date of birth, rank and service number (if applicable).
However, nations vary in their dedication to following these laws, and historically the treatment of POWs has varied greatly. During the 20th century, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were notorious for atrocities against prisoners during World War II. The German military used the Soviet Union's refusal to sign the Geneva Convention as a reason for not providing the necessities of life to Russian POWs. North Korean and North and South Vietnamese forces routinely killed or mistreated prisoners taken during those conflicts.
To be entitled to prisoner-of-war status, captured service members must be lawful combatants entitled to combatant's privilege—which gives them immunity from punishment for crimes constituting lawful acts of war, e.g., killing enemy troops. To qualify under the Third Geneva Convention, a combatant must have conducted military operations according to the laws and customs of war, be part of a chain of command, wear a "fixed distinctive marking, visible from a distance" and bear arms openly. Thus, uniforms and/or badges are important in determining prisoner-of-war status; and francs-tireurs, terrorists, saboteurs, mercenaries and spies do not qualify. In practice, these criteria are not always interpreted strictly. Guerrillas, for example, do not necessarily wear an issued uniform nor carry arms openly, yet captured combatants of this type have sometimes been granted POW status. The criteria are generally applicable to international armed conflicts. In civil wars, insurgents are often treated as traitors or criminals by government forces, and are sometimes executed. However, in the American Civil War, both sides treated captured troops as POWs, presumably out of reciprocity, though the Union regarded Confederacy personnel as separatist rebels. However, guerrillas and other irregular combatants generally cannot expect to simultaneously benefit from both civilian and military status.
The United States Military Code of Conduct
The United States Military Code of Conduct, Articles III, for United States service members who have been taken prisoner. They were created in response to the breakdown of leadership which can happen in a typical environment such as a POW situation, specifically when US forces were POWs during the Korean War. When a person is taken prisoner, the Code of Conduct reminds the service member that the chain of command is still in effect (the highest ranking service member,eligible to command, regardless of armed service branch, is in command), and that the service member cannot receive special favors or parole from their captors, lest this undermine the service member's chain of command.
Adjustment to conditions
Psychological care of POWs
Preparation for release
Adjustment to civilan life
- Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-140-51312-4.
- "History of Europe, p.362—by Norman Davies ISBN 0-19-520912-5
- "But when the outcries of the lackies and boies, which ran awaie for feare of the Frenchmen thus spoiling the campe came to the kings eares, he doubting least his enimies should gather togither againe, and begin a new field; and mistrusting further that the prisoners would be an aid to his enimies, or the verie enimies to their takers in deed if they were suffered to live, contrarie to his accustomed gentleness, commended by sound of trumpet, that everie man (upon pain and death) should uncontinentlie slaie his prisoner. When this dolorous decree, and pitifull proclamation was pronounced, pitie it was to see how some Frenchmen were suddenlie sticked with daggers, some were brained with pollaxes, some slaine with malls, others had their throats cut, and some their bellies panched, so that in effect, having respect to the great number, few prisoners were saved." : Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, quoted by Andrew Gurr in his introduction to (2005) King Henry V, Cambridge University Press.
- Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, The Journal of Japanese Studies
- Maududi (1967), Introduction of Ad-Dahr, "Period of revelation", p. 159.
- Nigosian, S. A. (2004). Islam. Its History, Teaching, and Practices, 115, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- "Prisoner of war", Encyclopedia Britannica
- In South Vietnamese Jails. URL accessed on 30 November 2009.
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