Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Prisoner Exchange Problem

It is well that war is so terrible, else we should become too fond of it.” – General Robert E. Lee

You know what I don’t like? I don’t like seeing those Taliban guys hugging each other after being released to their folks in Qatar. I don’t like to see those smiles on their faces, knowing that they helped run an organization that resisted American & NATO soldiers with force of arms. I don’t like thinking about the fact that these guys may have literally shot the guns that killed American soldiers. Letting them go even though they did that sucks, and there’s no two ways about it.

But I’ve read more than five minutes worth of real history in my life, not the bullshit version Hollywood or Fox News wants us to think of as “history,” and I know that Americans getting killed and hurt is part and parcel of any American national decision to go to war. Part of the thing about seeing the enemy as a human enemy, despite how distasteful I find their politics or reasons for fighting, is the acceptance that they will fight when we send men and women with guns into their country. Both sides of that coin are why decisions to go to war should never be taken so lightly.

Taking such decisions lightly means you're voluntarily giving up the context you need to judge decisions made when it comes to fighting a war. You'll let your emotions rule your decisions instead of looking at the bigger picture. Right now, we're seeing this in a big way in the controversy regarding a prisoner exchange. Now, there's a lot going on with this right now, but this is about the "controversial" issue of prisoner exchange. Because apparently, we have to go over this again.

Do you know why prisoners are taken during an armed conflict? Do you know why they are supposed to be treated humanely while in captivity? Do you know why they are supposed to be allowed to return to their families and communities as the fighting comes to an end? Do you know why we have international laws on matters such as these?

These are serious questions. Over the past 13 years, we seem to have lost the answers as a nation. Some people would have you believe that the reason to capture enemy fighters is to torture them, that's just what these "enemy combatants" deserve, amirite? Others decry those of us who believe in humane treatment and end of conflict exchange as "coddling" or "unwilling to offend" terrorists. While the urge to punish those who take up arms against our nation is a natural one, there are real reasons not to go down that path, and these reasons are all in American national security interests.

There is a very tangible, tactical reason for humane treatment of prisoners. If an enemy believes they will be mistreated, killed, or tortured if taken prisoner, they will resist all the harder against our troops. They are more likely to fight to the last man. On the other hand, if it is widely known that being taken prisoner means humane treatment at the hands of the enemy, and eventual release back to family and communities, that makes it more likely the enemy will surrender to our troops. And if there is less enemy to fight, the more likely our side is to win the conflict with fewer casualties.

Furthermore, think about what happens when the war is over, or winding down. Hopefully, America will be on the side that has won the war, and has killed or captured more of the enemy than our own side has sustained. Hopefully, those numbers mean you ARE exchanging prisoners at 5 to 1 rates or higher. And here's the hard part: you have to be mature, taking war seriously, and accept the fact that at the end of an armed conflict, we are going to release people who have shot at our soldiers. It is a tough pill to swallow, but that’s what we do because it means they are releasing our people who shot at them.

Because the very real alternative is that the other side institutes a TAKE NO PRISONERS attitude, and simply kill wounded or surrendering soldiers on OUR side, or tortures and mistreats them once captured. The expectation that both sides will behave in such humane ways to people who have been shooting at them isn’t done because we like to “coddle” or “not offend” the enemy – the expectation is they will extend the same courtesy to OUR people who we have CHOSEN to send into HARM’s WAY. That is also why people who violate those norms while in possession of prisoners are usually considered war criminals. Usually.

That's the math, boys and girls. That's why we can't sink to an enemy's level. While those gut reactions and a desire for retribution are completely natural, when you make a national decision to invade another country, you shouldn’t dehumanize an enemy so significantly that you take it as a personal insult, far away from the front lines, that the people who live in the place we are invading may choose to resist the invasion with force of arms.

That end-of-conflict trade, that rules-of-war thing that the last administration and their cheerleaders spent so much time making fun of, that practice is founded in the critically real understanding that sides in an armed conflict take prisoners in the first place, treat them humanely in the second, and release them at the end of the conflict.

Pretending prisoner exchange is some new thing cooked up by a President you don't like is simply an ignorant, Fox News and Hollywood fueled misunderstanding of American military history. I can't imagine what today's toxic media culture would make of American treatment of German prisoners.