Among warring factions, some groups throughout history have sought to strike fear into their adversaries by 'making examples' of any members of the opposing force(s) that they capture alive, by means of torture and the like.

At first glance, this would seem to lead to a tactical advantage, as soldiers might be too scared to oppose them in the first place (lest they get captured), or perhaps commit suicide if capture seemed inevitable.

I'm looking for historical precedents that either illustrate the success of this approach, or that discredit it tactically.

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    You might look at Arab Israeli conflicts - there are reports that Arab soldiers refused to surrender to units that might include female fighters. (That isn't about cruelty, but it might help to study willingness to surrender.)
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 12:52

1 Answer 1


Both sides of this tactic has been used throughout human history. On the one hand, mistreating POWs may make soldiers run in fear rather than fight. On the other hand, those same soldiers will be less likely to surrender if they're cornered.

Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.

This answer will be punctuated with quotes from The Art Of War. While it doesn't speak specifically about the treatment of prisoners, it does talk much about the virtues of victory without fighting.

A reputation for poor treatment of POWs was more successful in pre-modern times when most "soldiers" were conscripts and mercenaries formed around a cadre of professionals. Morale, not bloodshed, was the defining factor in battle; victory was to break your opponent's formation and see them flee the field. Battles were often fought on open plains, so soldiers always had the option to run away. Formations like the phalanx were designed as much to prevent soldiers from running as they were for protection. Sun Tzu puts it best...

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.

Another successful version, used throughout antiquity, is a hybrid. You ensure your army has a reputation for bloodlust. Then, when attacking a town, you promise clemency only if a town surrenders without a fight. The attacking army avoids the need for a lengthy and expensive siege, plus they get an intact town to use for logistics, and they don't have to worry about angry townsfolk. The defending townsfolk don't need to face potential starvation followed by being sacked by an angry army, and they can sell their goods to the soldiers. This is particularly successful if the town is only moderately loyal to whatever empire conquered it last time. The Mongols were particularly adept at both sides of this tactic, keeping their word to spare a town which surrendered, and ensuring that towns which resisted were wiped from the Earth. They even allowed people to escape just to spread the fear of the Mongols.

Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.

The modern version of this is to request surrender in order to save a city from a lengthy bombardment. After an example was made of Rotterdam, this happened throughout WWII. Manila, Paris, Cracow and Brussels were declared open cities in the early days before it was understood what Axis occupation would be like. Rome, Athens and Hamburg later were declared open for the Allies.

One successful version is to use propaganda to convince your own soldiers that the enemy are monsters, whether they are or not. Not only will this embolden your soldiers by making your cause the righteous one, but it will also make them think twice about surrendering. All sides in WWII used this tactic, the Japanese illustrated the most successful and most tragic use of this tactic in the Battle of Okinawa when they fought a hopeless defense to nearly the last man.

Where the tactic of instilling fear backfired dramatically is on the Eastern Front of WWII, first for the Germans, later for the Soviets. First, the Germans squandered their early advantage as "liberators" against Stalin by brutalizing the population. Instead of encouraging an uprising against Stalin, they fueled a partisan campaign against the Germans. Later, the Soviets retaliated against the Germans leading Germans to fight fiercely against the Soviets knowing what sort of vengeance a victorious Soviet army might take on Germany. This lead to many Germans fleeing west and choosing to surrender to the Allies which reaped the Allies a treasure trove of intellectuals, commanders and equipment for the Cold War.

I'll leave the last words for Sun Tzu.

Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.

  • Very interesting discourse. As a tangent, regarding your point about the tactic's usefulness in pre-modern times, I feel as though fear-of-capture is and has been used advantageously in modern times by two seperate groups: Mexican Drug Gangs and ISIS.
    – Black
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 2:43
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    @Francis Gangs are muddled. They're businesses, not armies. They're not seeking to conquer territory or overthrow a government, they want to protect their illegal business. They do try to dissipate opposition through fear, but mainly by threatening people's families and homes and businesses. As for ISIS, their use of terror could fill its own answer. Beyond the tactical and religious reasons, one idea is they're using atrocities to draw the West into open warfare which can then be used to rally the Middle East to their cause. Another is to garner media attention for recruitment.
    – Schwern
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 4:28
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    again, excellent analysis
    – Black
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 5:11
  • Unsure about your paragraph on Germany and Russia: Germany didn't want to govern most of the people in occupied Russia they wanted to drive them east or murder them (Hunger plan). On a more general note, modern annexion of territory works differently than in Ghengis Kahn times (nationalism etc) so I would be wary with direct comparisons. Otherwise, great answer.
    – mart
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 6:56
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    There's also the tit-for-tat issue. Wars generally contain more than one battle, and next time it may be you who has to surrender. So its in your own personal self-interest if the standard MO is leniency to the defeated. This was no small consideration. One WWII pilot reported that his commanding officers threatened to personally shoot down anyone caught shooting at a parachuting airman. This led to this famous incident.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 14:58

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