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Repatriation Done Right – A Path to a Better Peace

Updated: Feb 28

Professor Michael A. Marra, Colonel Kevin J. Fletcher, USAF, and Ms. Mary Foster


“And if he be taken in battle ... He shall be returned to his native land, in return for his price."

 -- King Igor of Russia, Treaty with Byzantium on the return of prisoners of war, 944 A.D.


Warfare is the most complex of all human endeavors. A byproduct of war is its human cost – paid especially by those who are captured or killed. Each war ends differently, with a unique aftermath, and with its own narrative concerning the disposition of those captured or killed. Getting them back to their homelands is often as complex as war itself. Beyond purely legal or logistical considerations, it can involve profound cultural, sociological, and psychological factors as well. America’s resolve to repatriate its own warriors with dignity has inspired some of its former adversaries to emulate its approach. As various case studies show, repatriation efforts can entail complex foreign relations, in which all sides harbor political and humanitarian interests. Despite these challenges, repatriation overtures done right can offer powerful opportunities to  signal adversaries’ intentions to end hostilities in earnest, and to forge a better peace ahead.  


The Beginning of the End: Repatriating the Captured and the Fallen


All wars end. What happens afterwards is driven by how they end and what the dispositions of their combatant populations are. The desire for captives’ repatriation is as old as warfare itself. From the earliest conflicts, living and dead fighters have been retained, exchanged, sold, or otherwise negotiated over, with respect to assorted concerns about reparations. In the case of combatants who were captured or killed on contested terrain, conflict termination can result in many scenarios – from their being held for further consideration to being repatriated in-kind, or to maybe even being left in undiscovered places.

Repatriating warriors, whether living or dead, is of utmost concern to most nations, though the intensity of concern varies by culture. Repatriation here is “the act or process of restoring or returning someone or something to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship.[1] Allowing or assisting repatriation can be among the first acts to conciliate a formerly hostile relationship between combatants. Such exchanges can signal how the sides regard each other, as well as how much each values its own fighters.


Repatriation is based in Social Exchange Theory, a sociological and psychological theory that describes parties’ social interaction, as they implement a cost-benefit analysis to determine risks and benefits for some action.[2] The Theory also involves economic relationships, in which the cost-benefit analysis occurs when each party has goods the other party values.[3]

    

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban, is repatriated in Afghanistan - image provided by IntelCenter in 2010. 


For the United States, the Theory underpins several benefits of repatriation. These include upholding American values and traditions aimed at leaving no warriors behind, though many fallen U.S. military personnel remain interred in immaculate U.S. military cemeteries abroad.  The concern for all sides’ POWs’ dispositions models and reinforces desirable norms of conduct. These in turn convey a powerful “narrative” value or social credit within the international community  and to domestic audiences alike. It is a point of honor to be known as a nation that cares for all human life and dignity.


Reclaiming lost warriors is typically among a nation’s first priorities when conflict termination negotiations start. Repatriating combatants successfully can lead former adversaries to a better peace, offer new opportunities for a better future, and begin the conciliation process between all concerned. How such exchanges proceed demonstrates not only how a state or other entity regards its former foes, but also how much it values its own people. 


As repatriation is a topic upon which conflicting nations can usually agree, starting with something that is in all sides’ interests can potentially build momentum toward addressing more complex issues later. Nevertheless, each repatriation negotiation has its own context, terms, and challenges. Once negotiations allow for a repatriation process, new challenges ensue, involving the various professional experts and agencies who are charged with executing the physical repatriation operations.

 

Repatriation in Practice: the U.S. Approach


The United States repatriates its warriors through the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Its mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for 81,000 missing American personnel from past conflicts to their families and the nation.[4] DPAA’s international work involves powerful international relations overtures, which can be key tools of U.S. diplomacy – ones that can pave a way for normalizing and rehabilitating hostile relationships. The DPAA continually conducts research and operational missions involving coordination with hundreds of worldwide countries and municipalities to identify missing combatants from all America’s previous conflicts. As a global expert on repatriation operations, the United States furthers its own interests not only by bringing its own nationals home, but also by sharing its expertise to help others recover theirs.

 

The Captured


In one extraordinary example, the U.S. helped repatriate foreign captives who had been held alive for more than a quarter century. In August of 2005, the U.S. European Command got an unusual request: find the 404 POWs still being held in the vast disputed territory of Western Sahara, 26 years after a 1979 war there, and return them alive to their home country of Morocco. The United States wanted to broker “a better peace” between Morocco, Algeria, and the nonstate actor, Polisario Front, an organization which seeks Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco.[5] This U.S. repatriation effort sprang from America’s Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), following a series of terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001. The repatriation operation’s aim was to ease long-simmering regional tensions and to confine terrorism in the Maghreb to a law enforcement problem that would not worsen or spread.

           


404 Moroccan POWs being repatriated from The Polisario Front in the Sahara Desert, 2005 (Marra)


A joint, interagency task force, authorized to reclaim the Moroccan prisoners by negotiation or force, travelled to the region to find, secure, and repatriate the prisoners. The Task Force found the camp where the men were being held. It then compelled the POWs’ captors to negotiate a nonviolent but contentious agreement for the prisoners’ release. Once transferred to U.S.  military personnel’s custody, the POWs were ferried safely back to Tindouf Air Base in Algeria, where the Task Force had established an ad hoc POW processing center.

                              

Moroccan POWs being repatriated by U.S. forces in the Sahara, 2005 (Marra)


There, prisoners were positively identified, vetted, reclothed, and put on U.S. aircraft for transportation to Morocco. Various actors, agencies, and entities coordinated this repatriation, including especially U.S. Air Force and intelligence agencies, in coordination with other Joint Force elements, various command and control cells, a Marine Fire Support Team, the Algerian Army, nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Crescent, and U.S. Senate dignitaries. Senators Richard Lugar and John McCain attended the POW processing center’s closing and the prisoners’ repatriation ceremony, which marked the end of the conflict and the beginning of a new and better peace. Not all cases are as straightforward. As seen below, the nuances of some repatriation activities can signal more than peace-building overtures, and these must be considered.


Prisoner swaps have historically been a first step on the path to reconciliation.[6] Yet, how such swaps proceed will bear on whether they result in positive or negative perceptions of the exchange for one or both sides. Negotiators  who agree to (vs. reject) lopsided prisoner swaps may be perceived as communicating something about how much or how little they value their own or their opponents’ combatants. Israel’s past swap of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners it held, in exchange for just one Israeli soldier, is a case in point.[7] Though the Palestinian side celebrated the return of its thousand, Israel could celebrate its unmistakable public relations coup, in demonstrating its regard for its own warriors in such a powerful way. Further, the Palestinians’ acceptance of this trade ratio could be perceived as their showing low regard for their own people.                       


     Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, 2011, Israeli Defense Ministry/AP


Such strategic behaviors get interpreted both by audiences who belong to the conflicting outgroup and by third-party observers who make attributions about the worthiness of other groups (and how much they should be respected). Each side’s strategic actions may therefore send subtle, perhaps even unintentional cues about how much self-regard they have.


In general bargaining, groups presumably try to get the best deal possible. But when exchanging human lives, getting "more" may ironically make a group seem worth less. It can also carry  strategic consequences for a group or state’s international stature. According to Dittmann, et al, findings from seven preregistered experiments (total N = 5060), showed that groups who “negotiate a ‘better deal’ (e.g., getting multiple prisoners back in return for releasing only one outgroup prisoner; negotiating down the ‘price’ for retrieving a single prisoner) are ironically seen as placing less value on themselves, and, as a consequence, are respected less and prescribed worse treatment.”[8] 


Another factor which can affect a nation’s international respect is its inability to negotiate a suitable post-combat disposition for detainees. For example, the United States came under intense international pressure to determine the dispositions of persons it had captured during the GWOT, who it held in a U.S.-owned detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Certain detainees’ seeming indefinite incarceration without trial or tribunal caused some to question U.S. respect for human rights and the rule of law – factors affecting a state’s overall legitimacy. Resolving this challenging issue offered America the promise of better relations with vital international partners.[9] 



U.S. military police guard orange-clad detainees in a temporary camp at Guantanamo Bay naval base, Cuba. (Reuters)


A more recent negotiation of POWs’ disposition concerns a third-party country that both lost and won international regard for a precipitous repatriation during an ongoing war. In 2022, Moscow agreed that its partner Türkiye would hold POWs whom Russian forces had captured in their ongoing war on Ukraine. Though Moscow agreed to release the bulk of these prisoners, five commanders among them were to remain in Turkish custody until the war’s end. Under pressure from its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, Türkiye instead released the men back to Ukraine’s government, drawing Moscow’s ire (and undoubtedly some Turkish Allies’ favor).[10]  


Obviously, if nations or international groups disagree about terms or laws, the parties detaining war captives can be considered as violators of international laws or norms, and this can damage their credibility or legitimacy with others in the international community. As the Free World’s leader, the United States cares deeply about modeling and protecting such social currency. Proper treatment of its own captives is just one highly visible way it can help preserve and inspire shared norms. Though at times it has fallen short of this noble aspiration, the United States continues to strive for its own and others’ better conduct in this regard.


Regardless of the particulars in a given case, the 1949 Geneva Convention states that POWs must be treated humanely, which includes protecting them from torture, medical experimentation, violence, insults, and public curiosity. The Convention also mandates that their release and repatriation must be in accordance with international law. Each repatriation of prisoners typically has four stages: preparation, physical relocation, transition, and readjustment, though history reveals great variance in how prisoners are treated and processed during and after conflicts. The United States strives to adhere to the Convention’s specifics in word and deed, often inviting the free press, advocacy groups, and international observers to see its detention facilities. Such transparency can be vital to a state’s legitimacy in the international community and can garner it respect for its handling of foreign combatants.

In fact, repatriation is often the only international law-compliant response available to POWs, given the human rights and security-related concerns they face. When done well, repatriation can facilitate captives’ social reintegration, despite their previous affiliations with armed groups. This can be vital to future security and stability.


The Fallen


The DPAA is resourced for the goal of identifying 200 sets of remains per year.[11]  When U.S. remains are found and identified, the deceased’s next of kin are notified and offered options for giving their family member a dignified and honorable burial.

 

While searching for America’s missing warriors, the DPAA regularly discovers both U.S. and foreign combatants and noncombatants’ remains. When DPAA encounters and identifies non-U.S. remains, it preserves these too, and performs the further humanitarian mission of transferring them to host nation agencies for processing and potential identification. This unrequired act of compassion and respect can help the United States foster deeper, more cordial relationships with the receiving nations. The honor and good will such acts convey can move initial search and recovery agreements from transactional, administrative endeavors to transformational, relationship-building opportunities. Such overtures can even be parlayed into full diplomatic relations.


Digging for remains, regardless of side, is a foreign affairs activity. In the past, U.S. field activities have conducted archival research in North Korea, China, and Russia – nations where U.S. diplomatic relations have been uneven over time. Despite this, exchanging combatants’ remains has inspired cooperation, even during times of diplomatic animosity.


UN Command Chaplain U.S. Army Col. Sam Lee performs a blessing over 55 cases of remains returned by North Korea at Osan Air Base on July 27, 2018. Photo by Quince Lanford/U.S. Army


In many cases, DPAA discovered the remains of U.S. allies and partners’ combatants. During the Korean War, thousands of American and Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers fighting side-by-side went missing in action together, and many were presumed dead after the Armistice was agreed in 1953.[12] Since 2000, 26 sets of these remains have been repatriated to the United States and 307 sets to the ROK. Both allies continue in their shared mission to recover those lost in this war, by relying on trust, cooperation, and diplomacy.[13] 

 

    


DPAA Conducts Missing in Action (MIA) Recovery Operations of a WW II aircraft mishap in India by SSgt Erik Cardenas


DPAA-facilitated activity has deepened these allies’ mutual respect and has engendered a profound dedication to the ideals they both fought for over 70 years ago. As the DPAA continues this solemn duty, there is rarely a month that passes without another successful repatriation.


Dr. John Byrd (second from right) briefs Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center) and colleagues at the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, Dec. 26, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kathrine Dodd)


Repatriation’s Potential: A Better Peace


In the 2005 Moroccan POW repatriation case above, at the cost of no further conflict or human life, a successful POW repatriation seeded the conditions for encouraging the time and space for local African security forces to bring a modicum of stability to the Maghreb. Thus, it was a positive example of repatriation leading to a better peace.

 

Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (Honor Guard) provide full military honors during the joint funeral of U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Porter M. Pile and Tech. Sgt. James M. Triplett at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington D.C., Oct. 31, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ashleigh Maxwell)


As illustrated here, other repatriation benefits have included opening or reopening diplomatic relations between respective adversaries via military cooperation and by building mutual good faith and confidence. Such efforts serve as humanitarian confidence-building measures. In time, they can even evolve into steps towards normalizing relations between formerly adversarial countries to encourage regional peace and stability.




U.S. Navy Lieutenant Michael Carpenter, a chaplain at an interment ceremony held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, July 20, 2023. For U.S. Navy Fireman First Class Raymond Ralph Camery, who was assigned to the USS Oklahoma when the ship was sunk at Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan McElderry)


Offering to forge a repatriation agreement with a former opponent shows respect for the opponents’ living and dead, for shared cultural beliefs, and for the hurt caused to affected communities. In short, it can help restore dignity on all sides and make right some past wrongs that spawned conflicts of “fear, honor, or interest,” as the ancient Greek general and historian Thucydides articulated long ago.

Repatriating POWs or human remains after conflict involves visceral, visual manifestations of wars’ tragic costs. In theory and in practice, offers of repatriation signal states’ intention to end hostilities beyond the cessation of armed conflict. While often complicated and potentially fraught with delays, misunderstandings, or other challenges, these exchanges are acts of foreign relations, with all sides seeking political and humanitarian interests. Repatriation engenders powerful emotions within a nation and communicates an international narrative as well, as its cultural context matters. Furthermore, repatriation overtures offer the first steps in negotiations that may lead to partial or full normalization of relations between nations, regions, or even nonstate actors in the international system. Repatriation can be an enormously powerful international transaction. When done ‘right,’ it  can lead to a positive transformation of relations between nations and with that, a chance at regional stability.


[2] “What Is Social Exchange Theory?,” Tulane University School of Social Work online magazine, April 20, 2018, https://socialwork.tulane.edu/blog/social-exchange-theory/.

[3] Milan Zafirovski, “Social Exchange Theory under Scrutiny: A Positive Critique of Its Economic-Behaviorist Formulations,” Electronic Journal of Sociology (January 2005): 2–4.

[4]“Past Conflicts,” Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, last updated January 5, 2023, accessed December 15, 2023, https://www.dpaa.mil/Our-Missing/Past-Conflicts/.

[5] Houda Chograni, “The Polisario Front, Morocco, and the Western Sahara Conflict,” Arab Center Washington DC, June 22, 2021, https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/the-polisario-front-morocco-and-the-western-sahara-conflict/.

[6] Andrea G. Dittmann, Nour Kteily, and Emile Bruneau, "When Getting More Makes Groups Seem Worth Less: Negotiating a ‘Better’ Deal in Prisoner Swaps Can Ironically Signal Low Self-regard and Engender Disrespect," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 92 (2021), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103120303966.

[7] Betsy Reed, “Gilad Shalit Freed in Exchange for Palestinian Prisoners,” Guardian, 18 October, 2011, 2.56pm EST, Middle East, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/18/gilad-shalit-palestine-prisoners-freed.

[8] Dittmann, Kteily, and Bruneau, "When Getting More.”

[9] Andrew Kessinger, “Guantanamo Detainees: The View from Europe,” New Atlanticist, Atlantic Council, August 2, 2009, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/guantanamo-detainees-the-view-from-europe/.

[10] Reuters, “Moscow Denounces Return of Mariupol Commanders Sent to Turkey in Prisoner Swap,” Guardian, July 8, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jul/08/ukraine-brings-home-five-commanders-captured-in-mariupol-siege.

[11] Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency: Fulfilling Our Nation’s Promise/U.S. Department of Defense, accessed January 17, 2024, https://www.dpaa.mil/Resources/Laws-and-Directives/.

[12] Korean War POW/MIA Accounting Efforts,” National Committee on North Korea, accessed December 15, 2023, https://www.ncnk.org/resources/briefing-papers/all-briefing-papers/korean-war-powmias.

[13] “Past Conflicts.”

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