|By H. Wayne Elliott
During the American Civil War soldiers rarely wore any sort of identifying disk. Before battle most soldiers would write their name and unit on a slip of paper and pin it to their backs. That simple battlefield expedient sometimes worked. A few soldiers bought ornate engraved pins or metal identification tags from sutlers. The tags had the soldier’s name and unit and, sometimes, his hometown. Neither government issued identification disks. The haphazard way in which soldiers were identified probably explains why almost half the Civil War graves in national cemeteries are marked “unknown.”
Only a few years later, in the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian Army issued not only identification disks but required each Prussian soldier to carry an identification card. These cards were called the soldier’s grabstein (his “tombstone”). Today, the laws of war require that soldiers be identified. In the not-too-distant future we can expect to find electronic disks that would contain a great deal of information about the soldier. DNA coding may mean that there simply will be no more “unknown soldiers.” Regardless of the methods used, identification as a lawful combatant and a member of the armed forces is crucial to determining the treatment to be afforded—whether sick, wounded, dead, or captured; whether a soldier, medic, or civilian.
While the military uniform may be circumstantial evidence that the person in it is a lawful combatant, the laws of war do not recognize the uniform alone as absolute proof that a person is a member of the military. Status as a member of the military is important. A person who participates in hostilities without being authorized to do so by proper authorities runs the risk of being charged as an unlawful combatant and prosecuted as such. Perhaps more important, a party to the conflict is not obligated to extend prisoner of war status to persons who are not lawful combatants. For this reason, armies make every effort to identify those who serve it in combat.
In most armies today soldiers carry identity disks (often referred to as dog tags in the U.S. forces). The disks are referred to in the First Geneva Convention of 1949 in connection with the duty to identify the wounded and the dead. However, the conventions themselves do not mandate that such tags be issued or that the soldier actually carry them. The disks generally have the soldier’s name, identifying number, blood type, and religion. These facts would be important considerations in providing proper care in case the soldier is wounded or killed. The disks are primarily intended as a means to aid in the identification of the soldier who, because of wounds or death, otherwise might be unidentified.
Article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention requires that each party to a conflict issue an identity card to persons who are liable to become prisoners of war. The card must include the person’s name, rank, identifying number, and date of birth. The card can also include other information as well as the person’s signature, fingerprints, and a photograph. The card must be shown by the prisoner on demand, but it cannot be taken away from him. The drafters of the convention required only information that would have no real intelligence value so the captor would have no reason to take the card from the prisoner. If the prisoner has lost the card, Article 18 requires that the detaining (i.e., the capturing) power provide him with another similar card.
The identification card is also important in determining the treatment to be afforded the prisoner of war. The rank of the prisoner of war at the time of capture is on the card and will determine whether the captive is to be treated as an officer or enlisted person. The duties expected of prisoners of war vary with rank, so the card is quite important.
Related to the requirements governing the identification card are the general rules concerning prisoner interrogation. The captive is “bound” to give only his name, rank, date of birth, and serial number when questioned. This requirement is often misunderstood. The Third Geneva Convention, in Article 17, requires that this information be given. The same information is on the identification card, and that card must be shown upon demand. Hence, there is no reason not to provide it when questioned. While this is all the prisoner is bound to give, the captor might ask for more information, including militarily sensitive data. Nonetheless, the POW need not respond with anything more than the four items set out in the Third Geneva Convention and may not be punished or mistreated for failing to do so.
Those who are given an opportunity to observe or talk with prisoners of war should ask to see the identification documents. Not only is the card evidence of the person’s status under the laws of war, its absence is evidence that the captor is not in full compliance with the same laws. The presence of the identity disks and the identification card is a ready and visible means of determining some minimal level of compliance with the laws of war concerning prisoners.
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