U.S. Prisoner of War, Detainee Operations Need More Advance Planning

For Release

June 9, 2011

Prisoner-of-war and detainee operations are a crucial component in the successful prosecution of a conflict — particularly in counterinsurgency operations — and should be upgraded to receive more attention and better advance preparation, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

From the handling of German prisoners during World War II to the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the RAND study documents how the U.S. military has consistently underestimated the number of captives it will hold during conflicts, resulting in a hasty scramble for resources to meet operational needs, and inadequate doctrine and policy.

The RAND study found a striking repetition of assumptions and mistakes each time the United States becomes involved in a military conflict. First, the military does not develop a sufficient plan for how to house and handle captured enemy combatants, obliging it to start improvising in the heat of battle. Then, it assumes that all captives share the same political beliefs and allegiances, which leads to conflict and violence among a detention population that is made up of groups that may have longstanding disputes.

After sorting those factors out, the military realizes it has a unique opportunity to influence detainees for the better and prepare them to play a constructive role in the post-conflict period, according to researchers. So military leaders develop education programs on the fly to help educate, deradicalize or otherwise influence prisoners.

The study from the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center presents a historical analysis of prisoner of war operations during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as detailed analyses of detainee operations during the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

Although prisoner-of-war and detainee operations ultimately tend to become extensive, military planners and policymakers have repeatedly treated such operations as an afterthought. And yet, determining how to hold, question, influence and release captured adversaries can be an important component of military strategy, both during the conflict and in reconstruction efforts afterward, according to researchers.

For example, during World War II, U.S. military authorities incorrectly viewed German prisoners as a homogenous group that could be left, for purposes of easier management, to the internal command of its own leaders. This inadvertently allowed a minority of committed Nazis to dominate and terrorize the other prisoners.

During the Korean War, the United States was struggling to implement the principles of the Geneva Convention of 1945, and was unprepared for the large number of Korean prisoners who did not want to be repatriated to their homelands after the war. Prisoner education programs were successful, but sometimes contributed to polarization among prisoners: dedicated communist prisoners, for example, would work to disrupt civic education classes.

Managing prisoner-of-war and detainee populations is not just a matter of housing and feeding prisoners, according to the study. It also can be an opportunity to influence not only the detainees, but their families and friends as well. During World War II, many of the German POWs came to view the United States in a much more positive light and changed their views about the United States and democracy. Many learned English, befriended their guards and stayed in touch with them for many years after the war ended.

The study recommends that a detailed doctrine should be in place prior to entering into a conflict, and that detainees should be surveyed when they first arrive. Information gathered would help prevent conflicts among the detainee population and provide details about opponents' motivation, aiding in the structure of education programs.

The study, "The Battle Behind the Wire: The U.S. Prisoner and Detainee Operations from World War II to Iraq," is available at www.rand.org. The authors are Elvira N. Loredo, Jeremiah Goulka, Cheryl Benard and Andres Villamizar of RAND, and Edward O'Connell, Thomas Sullivan and Cathryn Quantic Thurston, all formerly of RAND.

Research for the study was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence community.

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