Bryan Caplan  

Why Rational Tribalists Should Treat Prisoners Humanely

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Soon after the first Iraq torture scandal, I remember a pompous politician declaring (more or less) that "The reason why we don't torture prisoners is so American soldiers don't get tortured." Whatever you think about torture, this argument seems underwhelming. Why should you expect the enemy would reciprocate? After all, cooperation has already broken down. That's why you're at war!

You could appeal to universal human rights, but that will probably fall on deaf ears. Most people are going to listen to the tribalist who declares, "All I care about is saving American/German/Russian/Roman lives!"

There is however a reason for treating prisoners well that should appeal to any rational tribalist. Even if you only care about the lives of the people on your side, there is a good reason to treat prisoners well. Namely:

Treating prisoners well encourages enemy soldiers to surrender, and treating prisoners badly encourages enemy soldiers to fight to the death.

Notice: This argument works even if the other side proverbially "takes no prisoners." It doesn't matter how bad the other side is. If an army wants to make its job as easy as possible, it will establish a transparent reputation for treating prisoners like kings. In fact, it would be wise to harshly punish its own soldiers for mistreating prisoners.

This interestingly came up in over-rated Oscar nominee Letters from Iwo Jima. The Japanese are stubbornly resisting the American assault, but finally two desert and surrender. Before long, the Americans shoot the prisoners. When the deserters' troop finds their bodies, their officer says "Let this be a lesson to you." Why not fight to the death if the Americans are going to kill you anyway?

While it might seem like dramatic license, this scene is quite consistent with one of my favorite books on World War II: John Dower's War Without Mercy. The Pacific war was vicious on both sides. But the Americans could have made their lives a lot easier if they had made it clear to each and every Japanese soldier that surrender pays.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Bart writes:

Though if you go overboard by treating POW's too much like kings, surrendering might be seen as selling out, and fighting would be perceived as the more respectable choice.

John Thacker writes:

Yes, that effect certainly can and does happen. But surely that analysis also suggests absolute brutality against enemy soldiers (but not civilians, who have not volunteered to fight) up until the point the enemy surrenders, at which point it becomes lenient.

In any case, we Americans already have a reputation for treating prisoners like kings compared to all the other sides in the Middle East. See for example this article, where the prisoners say that they much preferred having the Americans in charge rather than the Iraqi government.

silviu writes:

The game doesn’t always have to have that solution: an atrocious reputation may make other less likely to fight you in the first place.

Deliberate atrocity was a common strategy throughout history, particularly in ancient times. The Assyrians used it to great effectiveness, as did Alexander the Great and the Romans. There are many episodes during the crusaders in which both sides punished resisting cities with savage massacres.

The message was always the same: fight us and we will be ruthless, murdering both civilians and captured soldiers alike.

Clearly this "atrocity" strategy is not something the US (or any country?)can credibly commit to today. I’m not so sure the same goes for the tribesmen. Graphic tapes of beheadings put a lot of pressure on some governments to withdraw from Iraq, for example. The Spain bombings changed the outcome of an election through a “no negotiation if you fight”/take no prisoners strategy. At some margin, this “tough” line strategy can also have an effect on troop recruitment.

SheetWise writes:

Lesson 1: One should not engage in war unless you understand who the enemy is and you're willing to kill them upon sight.

Lesson 2: Knowing they will be killed upon sight, enemy uses all available assets to appear as friendly.

Lesson 3: One should not engage in war unless you understand that killing, including killing of innocents will take place.

Lesson Last: Death in battle is not opposed to life everlasting -- it is opposed to death at some other time.

This is true for the combatents as well as innocent victims of war. There is a calculus for mortality -- our enemies embrace it and we deny it.

Has anyone done the research on the mortality rate for 150,000 18-30 year olds STATESIDE? How about those in high-risk occupations? Say, roofing, farming, or commercial fishing -- after all, this is a volunteer force. Any actuaries out there?

Let's not delude ourselves into believing that the alternative to dying is living.

It is, at its very best, living longer.

Richard Pointer writes:

It's interesting. In the Livonian War (1558-1583) Ivan the Terrible was very kind to Livonian Prisoners for the first ten years of the war. He was trying to show that surrender pays. Livonians used propaganda and stories of how brutal he was to his own people to make Livonians fight Ivan with all their might.

If one reads Antonio Possevino's diplomatic work he recounts how Russian's would fight to the death when in Livonia. He attributed this to the horrid treatment Russian's would receive if they were found to be insubordinate. However, this doesn't make sense. It was most likely that Livonians were horribly cruel to Russians that surrendered and Russians found starvation to be a better end than Livonian torture.

shecky writes:

In a conflict such as Iraq or Afghanistan, torture seems a good way to lose the moral high ground. When the forward thinking Western liberators end up behaving too much like the last thug in power, there's little incentive to lend a hand to the foreigners in the power struggle. We can torture our own just fine, thank you.

Torture as a means of gathering intelligence also seems a way to get lots of bad information, leading to bad decision making and wasted resources following bad leads.

John S Bolton writes:

why must a one-worlder perspective be smuggled in, smearing patriots as tribalists?
Is it because there exists no rational argument for disloyalism, where there is assumed to be no national population to which loyalty is owed above foreigners, even foreigners who are attacking, through aggression across the borders?
There is no rationality in the attempted idealization of the stateless person.
Citizens of the world, disunite... you have nothing to lose but your fake ID's and anarchist teen fantasies.

Ubermensch writes:

Hope the following isn't terribly off-topic, but I'm curious whether Bryan's same reasoning would apply to violent (even non-violent?) criminals in our society? If so, is this a good counter-argument to capital punishment?

FBC3 writes:

re: Ubermenschs comment - Bryans reasoning can be applied to the "3 strike" laws in which a criminal with 2 strikes will execute witnesses because the third strike punishment is just as severe as a murder conviction, even if the third strike crime is relatively minor compared with murder.

ZH writes:

The unanswered question is, would what Caplan writes apply to Muslim extremist terrorists who are brainwashed, often from a young age in Madrassahs to hate the West and fight the West. While it may be possible to convince a few terrorists, to convince so many people in the situation of these terrorists is unlikely. The rationalist approach will not apply to those who are irrational due to brainwashing and cultural expectations. And in the case of the current war, any benefits with regard to not torturing prisoners must be balanced against possible intellignece benefits.

j writes:

Too narrow a vision of how wars are fought. What is the main problem of a chief? That his troops do not want to fight. They will not move, they will not attack the enemy. The enemy troops feel the same way. And what's better than spend the war in a confortable prisioners camp? So problem number one is to harden our boys determination. We have to show them that the enemy is a beast, a barbarian, a hun and they eat small children for breakfast. Each cruel, barbarian action is godsent and for both sides. Treating too well the enemy is no good for our boys fighting moral, and not for theirs. Cruelty and crimes must be committed. fear should be beaten into the hearts of the combattants. Fraternization is punishable with death to make it no option. pardoning them is out of question. Win or die must the option. If a general fails to impose that rules for the game, we better go home. The others are also human beings, pay taxes (maybe even less than we do) and they make good liquor too.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Silviu writes:

The game doesn’t always have to have that solution: an atrocious reputation may make other less likely to fight you in the first place.
Deliberate atrocity was a common strategy throughout history, particularly in ancient times. The Assyrians used it to great effectiveness, as did Alexander the Great and the Romans. There are many episodes during the crusaders in which both sides punished resisting cities with savage massacres.
The message was always the same: fight us and we will be ruthless, murdering both civilians and captured soldiers alike.

An atrocious reputation may deter leaders from going to war in the first place - especially if the leaders care about their people. But an atrocious reputation isn't going to deter conscripts fighting for a dictatorship. They don't face the choice to have a war or not have a war - only the choice to fight or not.

Steve Sailer writes:

Long, long before Iwo Jima, Japanese prisoners had earned a reputation as refusing to play by the rules, and thus were too dangerous to try to take prisoner. For example, Samuel Eliot Morrison cites the case of the wounded Japanese prisoner who grabbed the scalpel from the hand of the American surgeon trying to save his life and murdered him. Not surrendering was fundamental Japanese policy during WWII -- it was supposed to make up for Japan's huge industrial deficits relative to the U.S.

Bill writes:

This interestingly came up in over-rated Oscar nominee Letters from Iwo Jima.

Over-rated? I loved it. Well, there's no accounting for taste, even between two people who both like Ayn Rand.

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