A Prisoner's Parole - His Word of Honor

Honor, integrity, honesty―qualities that were once considered valuable, sometimes more valuable than life itself. An interesting example of this was the parole given by a prisoner of war.
By Earl Hunsinger

How valuable is your word? There was a time, not too long ago, when a man's word was his bond, when a handshake was a done deal, when a man would rather die than suffer dishonor. In today's litigious world, this idea of basic and inherent integrity is foreign to most. Honor, is perceived as a concept from a different world, one that was simpler, or more naive, than the one in which we live. One of the best examples of this principle involves the treatment of prisoners of war.

Since man first began waging war, the question of what to do with captured enemy soldiers has always posed a problem. At times they have simply been executed, to prevent them from ever again posing a threat. In other instances, enemy soldiers and captured non-combatants have been enslaved, being viewed as just another part of the spoils of war.

Another custom that developed was the exchange of prisoners. This was more humane and less costly than trying to maintain large prisons. A group of soldiers from one side would be exchanged for an equal number on the other. Officers would be exchanged for those of equal rank. For noblemen, which most officers were, a monetary ransom was frequently paid instead of an exchange. By the middle ages this had become formalized to the point where there were laws and customs governing the practice, based on the code of chivalry. Since communication was slow, a captured nobleman was often given the opportunity for parole and sent home. The English word parole comes from French and basically refers to a man's word of honor. Being on parole meant that he gave his word that he would not take up arms again until his ransom had been paid or he was officially exchanged, often for an enemy nobleman that had likewise been sent home. Such a parole would normally be only for the duration of that particular war, since it was considered unfair to try to exact a pledge to never again take up arms for one's country. The significant point is that while on parole, the man would be trusted not to take up arms again. Normally this pledge of honor was scrupulously observed, and was respected even by the man's monarch.

Paroling enemy troops began at least as long ago as the time of ancient Carthage. Roman poets and historians tell the story of a general named Regulus, who was captured by the Carthaginians in 255 B.C.E. After being a prisoner for five years, he was sent back to Rome with terms of peace. According to the book The Story of the Greatest Nations by Edward Sylvester, "He was on parole and went in the company of the Punic envoys, on the pledge that if he failed to obtain the terms proposed, he was to return and suffer the penalty of death." He actually persuaded the senate not to accept the terms proposed, feeling that they weren't in the best interests of Rome. Viewing it as a matter of honor, he refused to break his parole, preferring instead to return to Carthage, where he was executed.

The parole of prisoners of war continued right until the American Civil war. It has been said that at one point, the confederate states were only able to maintain their strength because of the prisoner exchange system. Eventually it was seen that such an exchange was only prolonging the fighting.

The Geneva Convention even outlines regulations governing the paroling of prisoners. However, this is rarely done today. For example, the current policy of the United States Department of Defense is that service members are not authorized to sign or enter into any kind of parole agreement.

The wars were just as brutal, just as bloody, and some might say just as senseless, as the wars that are fought today. Yet it's interesting that even amid the turmoil of battle, and often the slaughter of innocent non-combatants, some sense of honor could at times be seen. Integrity was a valued commodity. A man's word was truly his bond.