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Detention in a World War I POW Camp

Geoffrey S. Corn
Tuesday, January 17, 2017, 3:00 PM

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A retrospective review essay on Jean Renoir's classic film, La Grande Illusion (1937).


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PDF version

A retrospective review essay on Jean Renoir's classic film, La Grande Illusion (1937).


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It is an axiom of the law of armed conflict that “enemy belligerent” detention is not punitive. Instead, the exclusive justification for such detention is to prevent the enemy captive from returning to hostilities. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the numerous provisions of the 1949 Third Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (or, in JAG-speak, “GPW”).

In my pre-JAG Army days, I knew there was something called “the Geneva Convention” (though, candidly, I did not even know there was more than one, let alone that the 1949 version had been preceded by a 1929 version) and that prisoners of war (POWs) were to be dealt with in accordance with it. In practical terms, this meant I was supposed to follow the “five S’s” in dealing with POWs: Secure, Silence, Segregate, Safeguard, and Speed to the rear area. Oh, and having watched The Bridge Over the River Kwai, I also knew officers were not obligated to work. (To be sure, this provision of the law of armed conflict probably should have been intuitive. After all, my noncommissioned officer (NCOs) would routinely remind me that, unlike officers, they actually “worked for a living.”)

It therefore came as a significant surprise to me to learn, during my first JAG course, the extent to which the GPW seeks to ensure that POW detention does not have a punitive characteristic. Everything from the right to correspondence and to receive aid packages, to the provisions related to recreational activities, reflect this basic axiom.

Of course, these provisions also led some high-level U.S. government officials to characterize the GPW as “quaint” and “antiquated” when the U.S. initiated its post 9/11 belligerent detention regime. Why should the United States apply or even worry about these extensive rules vis-à-vis “unlawful” or “unprivileged” belligerents? Eventually the advice of professional law of armed conflict lawyers in the U.S. government prevailed, concluding that, as a matter of law, although the GPW applied to these post 9/11 detainees when it came to determining their legal status, they failed to qualify as “privileged” belligerents/POWs. As a result—and excepting the most basic rights applicable to any detainee, such as the right to be treated humanely and the right to interact with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—they were not entitled to the POW treatment that, for example, the United States government would demand of any adversary for its own captured soldiers.

My point is not to rehash the many twists and turns of now very old and chewed-over legal arguments over the status of these post 9/11 detainees under the law of armed conflict, and certainly not to try and sum up the years-long debates over their status in a sentence or two. Rather, my purpose is to note that as a matter of policy, and whatever exactly the legal categories applied to these detainees, the practical conditions of detention imposed on them—including the inapplicability of most of the GPW privileges afforded POWs—have seemed to move the true nature of their detention much closer to a punitive model than a purely “detention” one. This was only exacerbated by the prospect of “generational” detention (as it was characterized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush).

It was at about this time—the mid-2000s—that I saw for the first time a remarkable film, Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic, La Grande Illusion. Set in World War I, the film traces the story of the complex relationship between several French POWs and their German captors, most notably the relationship between two military professionals of Europe’s officer class—a French pilot and the aristocratic German officer commanding the POW camp. The film seeks to draw the viewer into an understanding of the distinction between the attitudes of the dwindling class of aristocratic professional officers in Europe’s military establishments of the late 19th century, and the attitudes of ordinary citizens called into military service in war, but who—under the relentless manpower pressures of World War I—would come gradually to replace the professionals in the officer class of their respective national armies.

The film’s exploration of the relationship between captive and captor offers unusual insight, moreover, into the stresses arising between the complex social understandings underlying a “civilized” detention regime that historically arose out of shared class and profession-based affinities among Europe’s professional military officers, on the one hand, and the ever-present, simmering feelings of hostility that the citizen-soldiers of each side—ordinary people tasked to wage war on behalf of their respective nation-states —toward those on the other side, on the other hand. These tensions do not begin with World War I; they begin at least as far back as the rise of the citizen-armies of Europe and the mobilization of the whole of society for war—something that started with the French Revolution and Napoleon, expanded under conditions of industrialized warfare in the American Civil War (though significantly and imprudently ignored as a harbinger by European militaries at the time), and then emerged full-blown in World War I.

The mobilization of whole societies to war unleashed passions and commitments that turned out to be different in important respects from the sensibilities of duty and obligation of the pre-World War I European officer class. The obligations and deep loyalties of ordinary soldiers to their own side, their own commitment to prevailing in the conflict, reflected in no small part a profound desire not merely to vindicate whatever causes led to war, but also to give meaning to the sacrifice of ordinary people such as oneself, the ordinary young men of one’s own side. That a side honors its dead not least by winning might be one way to express the sentiment.

It is of course quite true that commitment to this form of honor can work against the elaboration of a lasting peace among adversaries. And it is also true that such notions of honor can be ground to dust by the sheer accumulation of casualties and by an accumulating sense of the utter futility of all those sacrifices; this occurred in the armies of more than one party in World War I, and something like this plays a role in La Grande Illusion. But the commitment of ordinary people (as part of their identification as citizens and soldiers of a nation-state) had another effect in World War I, which was to overwhelm and ultimately upend the sense of identification and reciprocal sympathy among the upper tiers of Europe’s traditional officer class that, in important ways in an earlier era, at least partly transcended national affiliation and provided part of the functional basis for what we identify today as the “chivalric” roots of the laws of armed conflict.

La Grande Illusion examines World War I’s upending of these sources of reciprocity—reciprocal treatment according to shared understandings among professional soldiers, or at least among the officers, as to what one professional officer (and member, so to speak, of the transnational military guild) owed to a fellow professional similarly situated on the other side. These sympathies found no true correlate among ordinary citizen-soldiers of the sides in European wars from at least World War I onwards—at least not insofar as they derive from such class, guild, and professional bonds as ordinary people, mobilized into war not as military professionals but as citizens, would share or understand. La Grande Illusion is a film about the disappearance of these professional, cross-national sympathies and identities and with them many of the chivalric practices they had fostered—evaporating, so to speak, under the pressure of industrial warfare waged by the whole nation-in-arms.

One way this theme plays out in the film is its suggestion of the futility of war. Futility is an important theme in many works of art and literature arising from World War I, of course. And one expression of it, perhaps, is that men who might have shared a drink or sat at table together instead find themselves anonymously and remotely killing each other with machine guns and artillery across the no-man’s land between the trenches. Such works as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That are among the many that raise, one way or another, a form of reciprocal sympathy that might be able to survive the collapse of that form of reciprocal sympathy based on shared (or at least equivalent) aristocratic class or shared profession. The sensibility that survives is far more elemental, and perhaps it helps explain the famous temporary Christmas truces that occurred in 1914, five months into the war, but which, as the hardness of war settled in for all parties, were not repeated in later years. It is simply to be able instinctively to see the poor devil on the other side as being not so different from yourself; as a guide to action, it starts to look like the Golden Rule. It is important, however, because arguably it is a sympathy based not in transnational class or transnational profession of arms—the eroding sensibility for which La Grande Illusion is an elegy—but instead in a common, shared humanity.

While the literature and art that came out of World War I focused in great part on the futility of war, much of that work did so by putting on center stage battle, fighting, and day-to-day life in the trenches, capturing the horrific paradox of World War I as it played out particularly on the Western front: industrial slaughter on a scale fundamentally unimaginable and ungraspable, producing tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties in a single battle (the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, which had its centenary this year, produced over 57,000 British casualties alone), on the one hand. And yet, for all those human souls wiped off the earth in a few hours, an essentially static front line persisted essentially unchanged for years, on the other hand. Futility, indeed.

Importantly, La Grande Illusion is different in its focus. It takes place not in the trenches, but in a POW detention camp. The venue of a detention camp has the effect of putting the focus of the film and viewer upon “reciprocal sympathy” and practices in the treatment of the enemy that derive from it. This is in no small part because, while battle or life in the trenches tends to few or no direct interactions with the enemy, detention almost by definition is about direct, daily interaction, albeit under very special social conditions. Detention of the enemy tests the meaning, root sources, and presence of this “reciprocal sympathy” in ways far more subtle and powerful than simply battle itself or life among your own comrades, even in the trenches on the front line. And the directly social nature of detention points to another peculiar difference between the conduct of hostilities in battle and detention. It has frequently been pointed out, for example, in national and international debates over detention at Guantanamo or drone warfare that courts and judges have been far more willing to step into controversies over detention practices, while being far less willing, or simply unwilling, to intervene in the conduct of something seemingly far more consequential—killing and the use of lethal force in war, whether a World War I battle, or a contemporary act of killing with a drone strike.

Whatever position one takes on these debates, morally or legally, detention inevitably puts the detailed, granular understandings of what reciprocity toward the enemy means squarely in the analytic crosshairs. In that regard, framing La Grande Illusion in the context of capture and detention, and physically setting the film in a detention camp, was a shrewd choice by Renoir. His exploration of the social subtleties arising in and from conditions of detentions and its rules are a significant part of why the film remains relevant today.

Thus the film opens with a fascinating insight into the sensibility of the tail end of the era of chivalry. Two French aviators—the most chivalric of the military services in that era, and perhaps it bears noting that during World War I Renoir himself was a French reconnaissance pilot—are shot down over German territory and quickly captured by German ground forces. The commander of the German squadron—the officer who will later re-emerge as the commander of the POW camp where these French aviators are held—orders his subordinates to find out if any of the French captives are officers, and if so to have them brought to the German officer’s mess for lunch. One of the French captives is an aristocrat and a career military officer; the other a wartime addition to the ranks. The German commander and his subordinates greet their captives as if they are long-awaited guests: salutes are exchanged, and the French officers are invited to the table for a meal.

The German commander, also an aristocrat and professional officer, engages in an exchange with his French counterpart in an effort to explore their common pre-war social connections. The two politely retrace their careers and friends and colleagues they have both encountered in the small circle of aristocratic officers in Europe. While this occurs, one German officer leans over to the other French officer, whose arm is in a sling due to a wound, and graciously offers to cut his meat. And, in one final manifestation of the dying era of chivalry, two German pilots appear with a wreath prepared in honor of a French pilot lost early in battle that day, and the German commander announces they shall fly over the French airfield and drop it as a sign of honor for his courage and sacrifice.

Chivalric niceties don’t last too long, however, and our French officers find themselves in a POW camp. When the two captured pilots arrive, they are introduced to camp life by their fellow Frenchmen. The German guards are elderly and obviously unfit for frontline service; the POWs are mixed bag, some very average Frenchmen, some aristocrats, and some of other nationalities like Russian or British. Care packages from home seem to be a regular luxury, at least for a few of the more affluent POWs, at times resulting in the French enjoying better culinary conditions than their captors. But the ultimate objective of the captives is clear from the outset: escape. A tunneling effort proves futile as the French POWs are transferred, finally ending up in an old German castle transformed into a POW facility. And here an old connection is resurrected to become a focal point of the story.

The German officer who had welcomed his French aviation counterparts with a “civilized” entry into captivity appears again, this time as the POW camp commander. The story turns to the relationship between these two professional military officers, the German commander and the French aristocrat. The German commander, now in a brace from injuries sustained in combat, is still as welcoming to his French captive as he when he welcomed him to his mess. His incapacity to fly has resulted in his being relegated to a role he obviously has no enthusiasm for. Surrounded by conscripts and reservists, his isolation from his own subordinates is palpable. Ironically, he turns to his French counterpart as a source of companionship. It becomes clear that for the German commander, the links of the professional and chivalrous warrior are stronger than their bonds to their own countrymen, or so he hopes. In contrast, our French officer has in no way forgotten his ultimate obligation: to escape and return to his own lines. In what feels almost tragic, he exploits his captor’s desire for meaningful connection to set the conditions for his inevitable escape effort, an effort he knows will be perceived by his counterpart as a betrayal.

Our German commander is not naïve. But his expectation is that the “unprofessional” POWs will be the ones plotting to escape, and it is this risk that he diligently but professionally seeks to mitigate. This leads to a predictable game of cat and mouse, with the POWs finding motivation in their ability to make the mundane tasks of camp administration constantly more difficult. Several of the non-career French POWs carefully plot an escape; like their professional countryman, they never waver in their determination to return to their own lines and continue their duty as soldiers. When the time comes to execute the escape, however, our professional French officer decides he will provide the essential distraction by conducting his own open and unrealistic escape effort. This leads to the climax of his German counterpart’s disillusion: after pleading for him to give up the effort and come down from a high perch on the castle walls, our German officer is finally compelled to shoot and kill his French counterpart. In a sense, he shoots himself. The symbolism is profound: chivalry and the code of the professional warrior is really just a fig leaf that covers the brutal reality of war, which in turn is defined by the duty to fight and kill on behalf of the State.

The distraction is successful, however, and two French officers make their escape. Yet the film culminates with their own disillusionment with the entire notion of war – the recognition of war’s futility. In their effort to avoid detection, they turn to a lonely German woman tending to her farm and young child alone because her husband was killed in the war. Despite the language barrier, the human connection is almost immediate, and the woman ends up sharing the warmth of unexpected intimacy with one of the French POWs. Millions of men on both sides of the border have ruthlessly and mechanically engaged in mortal combat for years, but why?

In truth, the human connection is ultimately far more profound than either transnational identification of class and profession, but likewise far more profound than divisions of national identity, which lead men to kill and be killed, anonymously and remotely, across the trench lines. As the film concludes, we are left to ponder this sad reality. One can imagine what it must have been like to see this film in the year it premiered, 1937, when the cataclysmic reality of a major war between France and Germany once again seemed inevitable, and anxieties over the return of total warfare were steadily rising across Europe.

For us today, La Grande Illusion continues to offer indispensable insight into the chivalric foundations of the modern law of armed conflict. The film provides an unusual opportunity to contemplate the complicated balance of interests associated with rules related to POWs and other detainees, rules that seek to mitigate the misery of captivity for individuals who are expected to seek every opportunity to escape or otherwise force their captive to devote maximum resources to their detention.

Geoffrey Corn is the George R. Killam, Jr. Chair of Criminal Law and the Director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law. Corn is a Lieutenant Colonel (retired) having served 22 years in the Army as both a tactical intelligence officer and a military attorney. His career culminated as the Army’s senior law of armed conflict expert advisor.

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