History and Legal Status of Prisoners of War

The history of prisoners of war is as old as the history of warfare. In primitive times, the captured warriors were considered the personal property of the captor and were forced into slavery. During the Middle Ages, when the concept of ransom was developed, it became beneficial for warriors to capture wealthy soldiers. Holding prisoners required expenses for their upkeep; therefore, prisoners were not kept unless it was expedient to the captor to do so. Soldiers of little status or wealth were killed to reduce the enemy's numbers.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, more modern thinking on the status of prisoners of war began to develop as war began to be considered strictly a relationship between states. Individual soldiers were enemies only so long as they were armed and the captors only rights over prisoners were to keep them from returning to the battle lines. This way of thinking resulted in more humane treatment for those officially classified as prisoners of war.

Captured Americans during the Revolution were not accorded this special status as prisoners of war. The British considered the freedom fighters to be criminals and thus treated them harshly. American prisoners were held in extremely crowded ships off the coast where thousands died from starvation and exposure.

Initially during the Civil War, a system of paroles and exchanges was used. Paroled prisoners were released to their homes after signing a document pledging not to bear arms until formally exchanged. A formal exchange system was developed with the two sides meeting on the battlefield and exchanging men of equal rank.

Accusations and confusion about the number of equivalent prisoners and the South's refusal to exchange black prisoners led to a break-down of the exchange system in mid-1863. After this cessation of the exchange system, the number and size of prison camps increased drastically. The prison that was to hold the most number of men at one time, Camp Sumter, commonly called Andersonville, has since come to be considered the epitome of prison camp suffering. However, the debilitating problems at Andersonville of overcrowding and inadequate food, shelter and sanitation were present in almost all the 150 Civil War military prisons, though not on the same scale.

Concern over the treatment of civilians, prisoners and soldiers led to President Lincoln's request to Professor Francis Lieber of Columbia College to develop a set of uniform rules for treatment of prisoners of war. The 1863 "Lieber Code" on treatment of prisoners accorded basic rights to the POWs and designated a POW to be the "prisoner of the government and not the captor."

From the first Geneva Convention in 1864, to Hague Conferences in 1899, 1907, and 1914, international rules of war and universal standards for the treatment of prisoners were developed. The Geneva Convention of 1929 provided that prisoners must be treated humanely, the captive nations must supply information about any prisoners held and must permit visits to prison camps by representatives of neutral states. Of the 46 nations attending the convention, these provisions were signed by 33 nations.

The 1949 Geneva Convention that was signed by 57 nations greatly expanded and detailed rules of conduct for the protection of prisoners throughout their captivity. Humane and decent treatment of prisoners is to be a right and is not subject to the whim of the captor. The prisoners of war are to be clearly recognized as victims of events and not criminals.

Conditions confronting and treatment accorded prisoners of war are affected by such factors as climate and geography, a nation's concept of the armed forces, its view of reprisals as a "legitimate" activity of war, its acceptance or rejection of international conventions on the rights of human beings, and something as simple as the whim of individual captors. Tremendous suffering has been endured by prisoners because of cultural differences between countries. For example, during World War II, because Russia and Japan considered those that surrendered to be totally disgraced, they treated their prisoners with utmost contempt.

Despite the standards developed after the Civil War, American prisoners of war have endured many hardships. Many prisoners have lived for months and years with a crushing sense of doom, seeing their comrades dying from disease, starvation, exposure, misguided bombardments, lack of medical care, and murder by firearm, bludgeon, bayonet, and sword. Thousands have suffered through forced marches on little or no rations, while exposed to extreme weather and cruel brutalization. If too injured or ill to keep up, men were left to die. They have been victims of such war crimes as torture and mutilation, beatings, and forced labor under inhumane conditions. Prisoners have been targets of intense interrogation and political indoctrination. Most prisoners of war carry physical or psychological scars from their experiences as captives.

Just as the responsibilities of the captor nation have changed and evolved over the years, so has the responsibility of the individual prisoner. By 1952, the United Nations Command recognized that a prisoner of war can still be "an active soldier determined to fight on", implying that surrender need not necessarily be an offer of peace. In 1953 United States soldiers were issued orders that anyone taken prisoner is duty bound to try to escape. The Code of Conduct, issued on executive order by President Eisenhower in 1955, requires the military prisoner to give only name, rank, service number, and date of birth. Among its six articles are ones which require the captive to continue to resist the enemy and to escape if at all possible.

Last updated: October 26, 2022

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