Life and Death in Captivity

Life and Death in Captivity

The Abuse of Prisoners during War

Geoffrey P. R. Wallace

Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2015, 296 pages

Book Review published on: April 7, 2017

Is there an explanation as to why some countries treat prisoners of war in a relatively humane manner during times of war while others seem more than willing to take actions at the opposite end of the spectrum? Are there consistent themes or patterns evident? In Life and Death in Captivity: The Abuse of Prisoners during War, Geoffrey P. R. Wallace answers these questions by constructing a data set that guides his historical examination of the treatment of prisoners from the late-nineteenth century through the beginning of the twenty-first century.

While acknowledging that prisoner abuse occurs in intrastate (the most common form of conflict today) and extrastate wars, Wallace limits the scope by focusing on examining the causation of prisoner abuse during modern interstate wars. The sheer volume of data required to examine prisoner abuse across all types of war necessitates using this scope limitation. He further limits the study by not attempting to explain every instance of prisoner abuse committed during a given war, but rather he focuses on the policies of nation-states vice the actions of single soldiers or small units.

Prisoner abuse as defined by Wallace is “a military strategy enacted by political and military authorities that involves the intentional killing or harming, either directly or indirectly, of enemy combatants who have laid down their arms and surrendered.” There are four components to this definition that he spends some time in examining. This is important as it helps Wallace frame his examination of prisoner abuse. First, he wrestles with the complexities of exactly who should be considered to be a combatant accorded the rights of a prisoner of war. Second, he develops the case that systematic prisoner abuse is the result of government policies and practices. Third, there is a range of levels to prisoner abuse. Finally, the fourth component is that intentions matter.

Wallace lays out the case that nation-states are cognizant of the costs and the benefits of prisoner abuse and therefore make deliberate decisions on how they are going to treat those captured and under their control. Nation-states are also influenced by their type of government, with democracies the most likely to be constrained by domestic considerations. The very nature of the conflict has the greatest impact on understanding the patterns of prisoner abuse with a war of territorial expansion having the most influence on how prisoners are treated. Surprisingly, Wallace found that cultural differences were less predictive in how prisoners were treated by various nation-states.

Throughout this work, Wallace unmistakably connects the dots. He provides ample evidence to support his conclusions through thorough and detailed research. The tables and graphs clearly support his findings and provide clarity. The appendix adds additional depth in understanding and a statistical analysis of prisoner abuse that should be referenced by readers as they progress through the chapters to gain further insight into prisoner abuse during interstate war.

In summary, Wallace provides a detailed and necessary examination of an often uncomfortable topic that I highly recommend for those readers who seek to gain an understanding of the reasons for and causes of prisoner abuse during war.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Roger J. Linder, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas