May a U.S. soldier, captured by the enemy, use deadly force to escape?

Loosely inspired by this thread:

IIRC, American servicemembers who are captured by the enemy have a duty to try to escape… but may they lawfully kill their guard(s) in doing so? How about an enemy civilian who discovers them while they’re on the lam and might turn them in? Would a downed American pilot in Germany breaking out of a Luftstalag during WW2 have different obligations than PFC Jessica Lynch, captured by the Iraqi Army in 2003, or a Ranger captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan the day after tomorrow?

The question can be posed the other way. Can an enemy soldier, in uniform, while a state of hostilities exist between the US and his/her country. lawfully kill a member of the US military or a US civilian while trying to escape from captivity, either on US soil, or on foreign soil (e.g., at Gitmo, or at a secret CIA prison)? Of course, the US military might use deadly force in trying to recapture him or her, but having done so, can the US put the enemy soldier on trial, under US law, for killing a member of the US military or a US civilian?

And then what about a so-called “unlawful combatant”, who has been captured by the US military or by the CIA, and then tries to escape using deadly force? Can he or she be tried under US law for that death?

Well, you’re at war, they are the enemy, so sure you can. OTOH, they can lawfully execute you for doing so.

I’m pretty sure the Geneva Conventions prevent their signatories from executing captured enemy soldiers purely because those soilders killed citizens of the capturing country. Otherwise they could basically just execute all POWs, since most of them were presumably captured in the course of combat in which they were trying to kill the enemy nations citizens.

Have you ever noticed that in all those POW-camp movies, the watchtowers all had machine guns?

They’re allowed to kill prisoners who try to escape. By that locgic, if you’re trying to escape, and they’re trying to kill you for it, then you can kill them too - after all, you can’t prevent a man from defending himself. And by THAT logic, if you know that they’ll try and kill you if you try to escape, and you plan on escaping (as is your obligation as a soldier), doesn’t it make sense to kill them first, as a pre-emptive measure?

Look it up.

But there’s a difference what they did before they became POW’s and after.

The legality of these things, including adherence to the Geneva Conventions (or the failure thereof) is determined by who wins the war. I have personal knowledge of two American officers who, during World War II, either had German POWs summarily executed or used POWs to clear a minefield, both “prohibited” by the Geneva Conventions. Neither of the American officers I interviewed was ever so much as reprimanded for their actions. On the other side, SS Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper and 42 of his officers and men were tried and convicted of war crimes for the Malmedy Massacre of 1944, although they were never executed.

People have this idea that war somehow has rules or even a moral code. It doesn’t. It hasn’t since the death of chivalry, long before the United States was even founded. War is a struggle for supremacy, and the loser loses everything, including the right to redress for grievances, imagined or real. The public condemnation of the alleged torture of Iraqi prisoners is an American anomaly (though one, as an American, I’m proud to see happen.) The killing of non-combatants has always been part of war. Fortunately, we humans have transcended the time when rape and pillage were the accepted right of the victor, and I’m proud that there is at least some outrcy about the way some U.S. troops have mistreated Iraqis (although I see this primarily as a failure of leadership, but that’s for another thread another time.)

If a U.S. soldier is captured in Iraq and, while escaping, kills a child to keep the child from sounding the alarm, is he wrong? Not in my book. If he makes it completely out, I’ll welcome him home with open arms — and direct him to the nearest grief counselor to help him deal with the issues he certainly will have. Of course, if he doesn’t make good on the escape attempt, I can’t cry “Foul!” when he is executed by his captors for killing the child.

Sunrazor, I’ve got to disagree with you.

The Geneva conventions aren’t a silly counterproductive “code of chivalry” that makes it harder for us to fight and win wars.

Instead they are a pragmatic way to reduce suffering while helping to WIN wars.

Why do the Geneva conventions prohibit summary execution of prisoners? Because if an enemy soldier believes he won’t be summarily executed, or tortured, or “harshly interrogated”, he’s much more likely to surrender in the first place. If the standard is summary execution for captured prisoners, well then, you won’t get any prisoners.

Does summary execution of prisoners happen? Yes it does, but it should not be encouraged, winked at, or tolerated…because that kind of thing makes winning the war harder. Same thing with murdering and raping civilians.

War isn’t violence, it isn’t destroying the enemy, it isn’t killing the enemy. War has–or should have–a PURPOSE. If the goal is just to kill the enemy then you aren’t a soldier, you’re a serial killer. And an enemy soldier that surrenders is much better for our side than an enemy soldier that has to be killed. We want the whole enemy country to surrender, right? Why would they surrender if they’re just going to be killed/tortured for surrendering?

The Geneva Conventions weren’t written by ivory tower do-gooders to make war harder. They were written by pragmatic men to reduce suffering in war as long as that reduction does not impair warfighting ability. Our goal in WWII was not genocide of Germany or Japan, it was to destroy the ability and desire of Germany and Japan to attack us. Surrender was the GOAL. So allowing the enemy to surrender is not some namby-pamby nursery-school fantasy, it is the ideal way to win the war. Winning 100 battles is not the ultimate in war. Winning without fighting any battles is the ultimate in war.

Once you are captured by the enemy, you become a POW/EPW and therefore a noncombatant.
As an EPW, rule number 1 is that you always have the right to self defense.
With that said, though you have a duty to resist and to escape you do not have the right to attack or enage your enemy.
If you sneak out of the prison camp, you are still a noncombatant until you are reunited with your country/military. Once you successfully make it back, you can join the fight again. But not until that time.
This means that you cannot kill the enemy while you’re out sneaking around. You also cannot commit crimes while you are in the country. If you sneak out of the camp, and you commit a crime like stealing a car or food or something, then you can be held as a regular prisoner (for a crime) and not as a POW. Then you’re fucked.

Even if you’re rescued by your own military. If some elite units busts in the camp to free you and your buddies, you can’t pick up a rifle and start shooting and aiding in the attack. You are a noncombatant until you are safely returned to your Army.

This applies for restrained captors–those who belong to an actual military of a real country. This does not apply to unrestained captors like terrorists or random gangs, etc.

Yes, he’s completely wrong. He’s wrong in my book, and wrong in the law books.
And I say this not because I give a shit about dead babies, but because it’s breaking set rules. As a soldier, you cannot pick and choose which rules you are going to follow.

I’ll be a little more OP specific:


Only in self defense…
Obviously there is a little room for interpretation here. But a non-dubious outlawed action would be sneaking up behind a sentry and cutting his throat or something so you can get by him and make your escape.

A civilian, by definition, is not an enemy. So this is an oxymoron. But anyway, you cannot kill them or engage them just because they discovered you. However, if the civilian is charging at you with a knife, refer to rule number 1. (You always have the right to self defense)

I’m not sure of what the laws were at that time, or exactly when the Code of Conduct was written. But I think it was shortly after WWII or around that time. So I wouldn’t know without looking it up.

Iraqi Army is one thing. Terrorists, insurgents, Al Qaeda and even the Taliban are quite another. The Code of Conduct governs a soldiers’ actions and rights as a POW/EPW. Simply being “captured” by some ragtag group doesn’t mean you’re now a POW. I don’t think we even consider half the people we’ve rounded up to be POWs so certainly we wouldn’t consider ourselves to be one.

Most definitely illegal!


If the prisoner is not using violence to escape, he or she cannot be engaged with deadly force. If a prisoner is merely running away or climbing a fence, he is just excersising his right. He cannot be killed!! He can, however, be subdued through nondeadly force, and more thoroughly restrained to prevent another such attempt.

Yes. If the POW uses violence to escape or attacks a guard or something, he can be put on trial.

I’m not sure about the term “unlawful combatant”. With all the recent wordplay and shit going on among nations and within this one regarding Gitmo prisoners and these secret prisoners the CIA is nabbing, I’m guessing the term was coined as a result of that. I dont know where they fall… I think they’re considered regular prisoners. So they could probably even be shot for running away. (fleeing felon and all that) But, again, I dont know much about that “category”.
Sorry for so many posts in this thread, I’ve been trying to work and post at the same time. Now that I’m home, I’m going to comment on a couple more things:

POWs cannot be killed simply for running away or trying to escape. If, in the course of the attempt, he attacks a soldier, then he can be dealt with appropriately. But if you have one of your POWs stand up and just start running from you, ya can’t just shoot him. You have to go get him.

Armed sentries in towers are there for a couple good reasons. One of which is not “shoot the people who try to run away”.
While prisoners are not allowed to attack the guards, combatants can. A military can send in combatants to rescue it’s POWs. The base is prison camp is guarded and defended just like any other base. They’re fair game for attacking.
Also, if a prisoner were to shank a guard or violently escape, it may be necessary to use deadly force to stop his assault. But if the weapons on the towers were there specifically to shoot prisoners, they wouldn’t be machineguns. They would be sniper rifles or similar.

Because I know people are curious: Civilian Guards in actual civilian prisons are a different matter. Those guards have a different set of guidelines. Depending on their jurisdiction, they may be able to shoot any prisoner trying to escape due to the Fleeing Felon rule or something similar. These are convicts, it’s an entirely different scenario. POWs are not criminals.

Bear Nenno got it right. If you kill someone in the act of escaping and are caught you can (and will) be charged with murder and whatever protections you may have had will disappear. You are then subject to their legal system, and if they allow torture (or even just look the other way because it’s wartime) you’re in for a very long and painful remainder of your life.

Until you are repatriated you do not have the right to kill. If you are rescued, until you are behind your own lines (assuming that the line has not moved to you) you still may not kill anybody. You are nothing but self-propelled baggage, and should you be recaptured you will simply be returned to your POW camp. That is, unless you kill somebody during your escape (see above). The self-defense exception is really a useless caveat, because you will never be able to prove it, and as a result you shouldn’t count on that as an affirmative defense if you’re a POW.

Of course, none of this matters. Historically, escapees do anything and everything in escaping, including killing the enemy. That doesn’t exactly make it legal, but it does happen.

SERE School is a big-time eye opener, let me tell you. First you learn it, then you live it, and you will never, ever be that unhappy again.

You know more about this than I do, being in the military, but I seem to remember reading (probably here) that it is even considered honourable behaviour for an escaping POW to commit a few minor crimes (such as stealing food or so) in the process of trying to rejoin his colleagues. Of course, any major crime (murder, espionage, etc.) is forbidden. Is that correct?

It’s hard to think of a situation where you could just steal food but not cause other problems or commit other crimes in the process. The apple pie on the window sil probably isn’t a realistic scenario. Maybe if you came upon an orange grove or vineyard, you would be inclined to grab a couple. But when you’re evading, unless you are in need of medical attention and are looking for a doctor (to attempt a plea for his mercy and hope he’ll treat you) or going to risk asking a church for help, then you would specifically avoid vineyards and farms because of the potential of being spotted by civilians and recaptured.
But anyway, with such a miniscule crime like stealing a couple apples or something, the main concern is not dishonor.
The biggest concern with doing those things is that if you are caught, the enemy can say “He is not a POW. He is a thief and a criminal.” Then they can keep you imprisoned according to their own criminal law and not even allow your name to be mentioned during any subsequent POW discussions or agreements the two countries might have.
So like if a country says “okay, we agree to release all of the POWs if you do such and such”.
Then our country gives them weapons or something and asks “what about SFC Jones. We have documented proof that he was captured and held as a POW. You did not release him!”
“He is not a POW. He is a criminal and was found guilty. We chopped off his hands and he has to serve 30 years in prison for stealing”

So basically, it’s best to find food elsewhere.

… and yeah, I purposely avoided answering the “dishonor” part. Especially since I already said in this thread that as soldier “cannot pick and choose what rules to obey”. At the risk of being a hypocrit, I’ll just say this:
If you do nothing worse than the minor things an average teenager would do on a random summer weekend, you’ve done nothing dishonorable.

Bear_Nenno has the right of it.

A POW is a non-combatant and thus afforded all protections due to a POW.
A POW remains a non-combatant even after escaping until such time as they are repatriated.

That said (or rather, resaid since Bear already said it) I’ll address the thievery issue.

Strictly speaking, stealing food, clothing etc would quick possibly shift the soldier from non-combatant status to run-of-the-mill criminal status which would of course void all POW protections. This is of course dependent on the laws of the “host” country.

Would such actions fall under the umbrella of “honorable?” Probably, but just like in the manner that stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family can be considered honorable, its still illegal. The courts might give you a pass (unlikely if the court happens to be in a country that you’re at war with) but that doesn’t change the legal status of your actions.

Should an escaping POW steal to further their escape? It depends. They have to weigh the necessity of theft vs the risk of losing their POW status. It’s a judgement call based on the situation.

Killing? Definitely no-no outside of self-defense.

[QUOTE=Airman Doors, USAFSERE School is a big-time eye opener, let me tell you. First you learn it, then you live it, and you will never, ever be that unhappy again.[/QUOTE]

What is SERE school?

Survival Escape Resistance and Evasion.

SERE is a Military Survival School. There are certain levels of intensity from basic to Holy Shit. Level C, I think, is mandatory for certain aviation personnel and special operations personnel because of the likelyhood of ending up behind enemy lines. The course ends with a field training excersise that ends with the evaders captured and stuck in a POW camp. Students learn how to survive behind lines and avoid being caught, then how to resist interogation, then how to survive as a POW, and ultimately how to escape and return home.