Prisoners of war: a reality turned around


Modern warfare is accelerated: Operations on a multi-domain battlefield are faster and take place on a more disparate battlefield. In the near future peer combat, conflicts could escalate into conflicts in which traditional task forces engage, disengage, and maneuver to gain an advantage. Maneuver warfare generates situations where the adversary can capture military personnel, and the risk of being a prisoner of war (PW) is much higher in a major conflict compared to counterinsurgency operations. During a major conflict, crews leap over enemy-controlled areas and the commotion that accompanies a fluid battlefield creates a risk for Soldiers and Marines to be captured by the enemy (for example, disoriented soldiers are captured by an advancing enemy or convoys are ambushed and survivors captured).

Even if the United States and its coalition partners possess tactical or technological superiority, there will be situations and pockets within the conflict where friendly forces are faced with a compromising position. As a historical example, in late November 1944 most Allied troops believed the war in Europe was over, but a few weeks later the sudden German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge captured 20,000 Americans within days. .

Surrender is a rational decision, when all other means are exhausted, that the troops must be taught as a means of continuing to resist the enemy. But the context of the surrender is essential. If you no longer have the means to resist on the battlefield and capture is the only option, you have fulfilled your obligation and now have the option to continue fighting as a Vice POW as a fighter.

During a two-decade global war on terror, the likelihood of a soldier being captured was low. If a soldier was captured, personnel retrieval was relatively close to the area where the capture took place. However, in a close peer conflict, friendly forces might be overrun by a rapidly advancing adversary seeking the benefit of a fait accompli attack, and personnel recovery might be impossible in the foreseeable future due to a lack of of local resources, many captured soldiers, and chaos in the initial period of the war.

Prioritizing survival, evasion, resistance and evasion (SERE) training and the code of conduct has fallen through the cracks. Army regulations governing such training – Army Regulation 525-28 – were last updated in 2010 and designate the United States Joint Forces Command (disbanded in 2011) as the agent. executive for staff recovery. The past decades have oriented SERE training to match the operational environment of the counterinsurgency. There is a need to realign training and doctrine in view of the potential operating environment facing peer actors and larger scale conflicts.

In one 1964 study titled “The History of Captivity and Behavior in Captivity,” former Korean War prisoners of war were asked about their experience. The repeated response from former prisoners of war was that they did not feel prepared to face captivity. The lack of preparation made them less able to endure the long captivity mentally and physically. The risks aren’t just during captive time; not being prepared for the eventuality of capture increases the likelihood that soldiers will panic during capture. Panic increases the risk of being shot or targeted with violence. Panic and shock can also trigger violent interrogations, as soldiers in a vulnerable state are seen as a target of opportunity to extract information.

Soldiers who panic upon capture are preventable losses. By analogy with a similar stressful and high-risk action, we can compare captured soldiers to abandoned a sinking ship. In the classic WWII (1943) naval book “How to Abandon a Ship” it is written: “Most casualties at sea are in fact the result of panic, which is the product of ignorance”. During World War II, a sailor whose ship was torpedoed or bombarded with guns was three times more likely to die of panic and not be prepared to abandon the ship instead of guns aimed at the ship.

Training and mental preparation for the possibility of a capture serves several purposes. A mentally prepared soldier is less likely to act irrationally upon capture and instead seeks to protect himself, his comrades and critical information. It is essential that a soldier clearly understands his rights as prisoners of war in accordance with international law. We also know that such training is effective as mental preparation in case that should happen: lessons learned from Korea have served as lessons for training and preparing prisoners of war in Vietnam to survive their time of war. captivity.

In this new normal of competition and the potentially rapidly escalating peer conflict, it is extremely important not to overlook the lessons that have already been learned. We should start preparing our forces now for the possibility of spending time in captivity to provide them with the tools they need to survive if that happens.

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. Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Arnold is a researcher at the Army Cyber ​​Institute at West Point and an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the United States Military Academy (EECS). The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the policy or position of the Army Cyber ​​Institute at West Point, the United States Military Academy, or the Department of Defense.

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial and as such the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond or would like to submit your own editorial, please contact Military Times Editor-in-Chief Howard Altman, [email protected].


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