The Rights of a POW

A rare photograph of Allied POWs marching in formation at Cabanatuan Prison in the early 1940s. Courtesy of the MacArthur Memorial Library, Norfolk, Virginia.

Prisoners of war (POWs) have been subject to a variety of conditions and situations throughout history. Before the Geneva convention defined (and later redefined) proper treatment, it was a virtual free-for-all regarding the treatment of POWs. During the Revolutionary War, it’s estimated that 20,000 American were captured. Many American prisoners of war during the Revolutionary war were kept aboard various British ships in damp and musty holds. Though many were released, nearly half, an estimated 8,500, died in captivity. 

Over 400,000 soldiers became POWs during the American Civil War. The death tolls for POWs were similar on both the Union and Confederate sides of the battle: 26,000 for the Confederacy and 30,000 for the Union. What likely impacted the large (and similar) death tolls on both sides of the conflict was their expectations. A short war was predicted. Conflicts that arose during the many prisoner exchanges that took place made facilities unable to handle the growing number of prisoners and soon they were overcrowded. Combine those shortfalls with mismanagement, and it led to a significant amount of suffering for prisoners, regardless of alliance.

During World War I, just 147 of the 4,120 American prisoners died during imprisonment. Most of the nations involved agreed to follow the rules laid out in the 1907 Hague Convention. Those rules dictated, among other things, that POWs be treated humanely, protected against both violence and insults, and forbade measures of reprisal. 

After World War I, the 1929 Geneva Convention detailed the rules for protecting POWs. One of the most significant parts of the 1929 Geneva Convention is that it outlaws the torture of captives. 

World War II proved to be treacherous for American service members captured by enemy forces, due in part to nations who hadn’t signed the Geneva Conventions. In Japan, American POWs were subjected to slave-like conditions, forced to provide labor in camps for what turned out to be some of Japan’s large corporate entities. Nearly four in ten American POWs perished as a result of malnourishment, sickness, and abuse at the hands of Japanese captors. 

In Germany, the fate of captured Allied forces depended on their background. If they were deemed to be any sort of “undesirable” by the German state, they could be thrown into concentration camps, executed, or subjected to the horrifying medical experiments the Nazis performed on prisoners.

After WWII ended, the Third Geneva Convention further improved language regarding the treatment of POWs. Humanity and respect were required, as was the ability to notify the family and the International Committee of the Red Cross that they were captured. They may be forced to work, but compensation was required, and the work could not be dangerous nor degrading. It also outlined a plan for quick release at the conclusion of the conflict. 

As the nature of war and conflict has changed, so has the frequency of POWs. In today’s landscape POWs are rarely captured. Since the start of the current military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, only 10 American POWs have been captured. 



Posted on April 6 2020 in Blog

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