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Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Stories of Berga What Would You Do? Timeline & Maps Berga and Beyond War Crimes
Intro POWs and the Laws of War WWII and Its Legacy
POWs and the Laws of War
Intro Traditional Laws of War World War II and Berga The Legacy of WWII

Traditional Laws of War
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Dead soldiers

Dead Confederate soldiers in the Battle of Gettysburg's "slaughter pen" during the U.S. Civil War.

Old cannon

A cannon used in the American Civil War.

By Anne E. Mahle

Since medieval times military leaders have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to develop and adhere to standards of conduct regarding the status of individual members of the opposing military force who are captured during combat. It is unclear when the term "prisoner of war" was first used. The Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague II), promulgated in 1899, however, was the first international convention to use this identifying label.

At the Battle of Soleferino, tens of thousands of soldiers were left wounded and dying on the battlefield.
The earliest standards governing the treatment of combatants and non-combatants (or civilians) during warfare stemmed from traditions of chivalry. These traditions held that a captured warrior could not be used against his own forces and that these individuals could not simply be executed upon capture (although they often were). These chivalric traditions stemmed principally from kings' "ordinances of war," were not codified in any meaningful way until late in the nineteenth century, and were, at best, difficult to enforce.

The first international agreement to address the condition of soldiers on the battlefield was the 1864 Convention on the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded on the Field of Battle, referred to commonly as the Red Cross Convention. The Red Cross Convention came about because of the horror witnessed by townspeople at the Battle of Soleferino, where tens of thousands of soldiers were left wounded and dying on the battlefield; like nearly every development in the laws of war, it took a shocking event to effect change.

Anne Mahle is an attorney at Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis. During law school she worked at the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California Berkeley (Boalt Hall).

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