Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Incentives Matter

By Robert H.

I have read about 1000 articles and blog posts about how lopsided POW exchanges will incentivize and aid terrorists (see here), but exactly zero about how they will incentivize soldiers and marines.  Aren't the troops homines economici too!?

I can think of two big possible effects:

1. Troops will realize that the military will expend excessive rescources recovering them if captured, and become sloppier about avoiding capture.  This will be bad.

2. Troops will realize the military will expend excessive rescources recovering them if captured, and so fight longer and more bravely in situations where they risk capture.  This will be good.

Obviously these are two sides of the same coin.

I think there are similar trade offs if you look at the "no one left behind" philosophy more broadly:

1. Troops and civilians will realize their lives could be thrown away to save one possibly undeserving person, or even just to recover their body.  This will deject them.

2. Troops and civilians will realize that their fellows will throw their lives away in great numbers for them, even if it's just to recover their body.  This will fortify them against their worst fears and build unit cohesion.

Obviously, I'm not in a position to know whether the net effect of these policies on troop morale is positive, but it's pretty clear that military leadership has thought it was positive since at least 1942*, and purposefully inculcated a "we will not abandon you, even at seemingly irrational cost" propaganda line in order to encourage harder fighting.  And civilians seem to know about and accept this philosophy, if saving private Ryan is any judge.

So why does this "it will incentivize the troops" stuff fall off the radar when people argue about whether the cost for POW exchanges is excessive?  Isn't "we will pay an excessive cost to bring you back if you get captured" something we spend a lot of time and effort trying to credibly promise?


*At the outbreak of the war, the ethos seemed to be "we will never have to do anything to rescue you from a pow camp because you will never get captured because you will fight to the death, damn it."  See MacArthur's disappointment in the surrender of the troops at Bataan, or how most of the troops on Wake Island assumed they would fight to the death.    

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