Thursday, September 28, 2006


Fate of Captives and Detainees

The United States House of Representatives just passed H.R. 6166, "To amend title 10, United States Code, to authorize trial by military commission for violations of the law of war, and for other purposes."

I'm reading W. Kendrick Pritchett, The Greek State at War: Part V (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). Chapter II, Section III (pp. 203-312), deals with the "Fate of Captives" and is a rich collection of ancient evidence for the killing, enslavement, ransom, or release of prisoners of war, along with parallels from modern warfare. The following excerpts seem especially apposite.

P. 208:
W.W. Tarn (Alexander the Great 2 [Cambridge 1948] 65-66) observes, "No public man throughout Greek history is, I think, recorded to have shown pity; it was unmanly, and best left to poets and philosophers," referring to Epikouros (for slaves) and Euripides (throughout). Rostovtzeff (SEHHW 3.1458) writes, "For the Romans, as for the Greeks, the ideas of humanitas, fides, clementia remained pure theory so far at least as concerned the practice of war."
P. 212, n. 313:
Virtually any atrocity of antiquity can be matched in the wars of the twentieth century.
P. 312:
The Greeks never romanticized war. They were too close to spear thrusts and sword hacking to regard it from a safe distance. War was a part of the fabric of society, on a par with earthquakes, droughts, destructive storms, and slavery. A speaker at the opening of Plato's Laws (1.626 A) says, "Peace is nothing more than a name, the truth being that every state is by a law of nature engaged perpetually in a war with every other state." We living more than twenty centuries later may endorse popular movements which have as their slogan "Peace at any price," but in the city-states it was a fact of life when a city destroyed a neighbor, killing the adult males and selling the women and children into slavery. The ancient, in turn, would have found our society obsessed with pity, fear, and guilt, even to the point of demoralization.

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