Prisoners of War: A Returned Reality
Modern warfare is accelerated: operations on a battlefield with multiple domains are carried out faster and on a more diverse battlefield. In the future fight on equal terms, the clashes could escalate into conflicts in which traditional forces intervene, resolve and maneuver to the advantage. Wars of maneuver create situations where the enemy can capture soldiers, and the risk of being captured is much higher in a larger conflict than in counterinsurgency operations. During a major conflict, aircrews rescue over enemy controlled areas, and the turbulence that comes with a flowing battlefield creates the risk of soldiers and marines being captured by the enemy (e.g., disoriented soldiers are captured by an advancing enemy or convoys are ambushed and survivors captured).
Even if the US and its coalition partners are tactically or technologically superior, there will be situations and niches within the conflict in which friendly forces have a compromising position. As a historical example: at the end of November 1944, most Allied troops believed the war in Europe was over, but just a few weeks later the sudden German counter-offensive in the Battle of the Bulge captured 20,000 Americans within a few days.
Surrender is a rational choice, when all other means are exhausted, that troops should be taught as a means of continuing to resist the enemy. But the context of the surrender is essential. When you run out of the means to resist on the battlefield and capture is the only option, you have fulfilled your obligation and now have the opportunity to continue the fight as a prisoner of war truck as a fighter.
During two decades of fighting the Global War on Terrorism, the likelihood that a soldier would be captured was slim. When a soldier was captured, the personnel were recovered relatively close to the area where the capture took place. However, in a similar conflict, friendly forces could be overrun by a rapidly advancing enemy seeking the advantage of an attack before a fait accompli, and restoration could be impossible for the foreseeable future due to a lack of local resources, numerous captured soldiers, and the chaos in the The beginning of the war.
The prioritization of survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) and training on the code of conduct fell by the wayside. The Army’s regulations governing such training – Army Regulation 525-28 – were last updated in 2010 and designate the U.S. Joint Forces Command (dissolved in 2011) as the executive agent for personnel recovery. The last decades have steered the SERE training in such a way that it corresponds to the operational environment of counterinsurgency. There is a need to realign training and teaching to prepare for the potential operational environment in which peer-to-peer actors and major conflicts arise.
In a study from 1964 entitled “Captivity and behavior in captivity”, former prisoners of war from the Korean War were asked about their experiences. The repeated response from the former prisoners of war was that they felt unprepared to deal with the captivity. The unpreparedness made her less able to endure the long imprisonment mentally and physically. The risks are not unique to the time in captivity; Unprepared for the possibility of capture, soldiers are more likely to panic during the capture. Panic increases the risk of being shot or attacked with force. Panic and shock can also trigger violent interrogation, as soldiers in a vulnerable state are viewed as the target of intelligence-gathering.
Soldiers who panic at the site of capture are avoidable casualties. As an analogy to a similarly stressful and risky action, we can compare the capture of soldiers to the abandonment of a sinking ship. The WWII naval classic “How to Abandon Ship” (1943) states: “Most casualties at sea are actually the result of panic that is the product of ignorance.” In World War II, the probability that a Sailors whose ship was torpedoed or shot at by cannons died three times more often from panic and unpreparedness to leave the ship than the guns had targeted the ship.
Training and mental preparation for the possibility of capture serve several purposes. A mentally prepared soldier is less irrational when captured and tries to protect himself, his comrades and critical information. It is important that a soldier clearly understand his or her rights as a prisoner of war under international law. We also know that such training is effective as mental preparation in case it happens: the lessons from Korea served as lessons in training and preparing prisoners of war for Vietnam to survive their time in captivity.
In this new normal of competition and potentially rapidly escalating near peer conflicts, it is vital that lessons learned are not overlooked. We should begin now to prepare our armed forces for the opportunity to spend time in captivity, to provide them with the tools to survive if this should occur.
Dr. Jan Kallberg is a scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, editor-in-chief of the Cyber Defense Review and assistant professor at the US Military Academy. Lt. Col. Todd Arnold is a research fellow at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) of the US Military Academy Policy or Position of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, or the US Military Academy of the Ministry of Defense.
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