For as long as there have been wars, there have been prisoners of war. Obviously, part of the reason was to take those soldiers out of the fighting. If you are fighting against less enemy combatants, you have a better change of winning. It was a simply a part of war. Both sided took prisoners, and both sides knew that the other side was going to take prisoners. It was not the fact that prisoners were taken, but rather the way they were treated that made this part of war ugly sometimes.
I’m sure that if there was work to do, it made sense to use the prisoners of war as, basically slave labor…make them earn their keep, so to speak, but often they were beaten, starved, overworked to the point of exhaustion, and basically treated like they were sub-human. Some nations were worse than others. And sometimes, the prisoners of war, weren’t even combatants, but civilians taken hostage for a variety of reasons…most of which had nothing to do with them being a danger in battle. Of course, from about the time of the Vietnam war, it became harder to tell if someone was a “combatant” or not. When children were sent out to interact with soldiers…bombs strapped to their chest…soldiers had to learn to be less than hospitable to the little ones too.
I understand the need for prisoners of war, when the war is still going on, but what is appalling is the treatment of the prisoners sometimes, and the refusal to give the prisoners back at the end of the conflict. Vietnam was also one of the times when prisoners were held long after the war. I know that sometimes the reasons for holding prisoners is that the opposing government refuses to abide by the conditions of the surrender of the losing side. Still, sometimes, the prisoners were held, for no legitimate reason, and for far longer than was reasonable. After World War II, the western Allies released their final prisoners in 1948, but many German POWs in the USSR were held for several more years. Most were used as slave labor in copper or coal mines, and anywhere between 400,000, and up to one million eventually died while in Russian custody. Some 20,000 former soldiers were still in Soviet hands at the time of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, and the last 10,000 didn’t get their freedom until 1955 and 1956 a full decade after the war had ended. That seems completely unconscionable to me, but then I’m not part of an evil nation.