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For many battles when one side is obviously superior I observe that victors(bad side) almost never finish his enemy.

For instance:

The outcome of battle is similar, weaker side(good one from movies) is defeated but some ship survives(may be heavily damaged but still with life support). Is it part of "Shock and awe" doctrine to leave witnesses of power and break resistance? Or just is it nice for movies?

What are other advantages of not destroying enemy entirely(maybe ambush for rescue)?

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    $\begingroup$ I know that Genghis Kahn did this on occasion. For example, when besieging a Chinese city, one of the defenders fell from the wall and survived. He was captured and spared. Genghis was impressed with his luck for surviving the fall. The entire population of the city were killed, men women and children. Except for the one guy who fell off the wall, who was released to spread the word. Good propaganda. Many cities surrendered after that without a fight. $\endgroup$
    – Smoj
    Dec 18, 2015 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ Mao in the Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung advises to make prisoners, disarm them and then let them free. The idea of this doctrine was to show to the opponents troops that they were on the side of the bad guys. However, I do not know if it was used in practice. $\endgroup$
    – Kolaru
    Dec 18, 2015 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Smoj I can't help but wonder, does that story of how the man survived also come from this one man who may have actually done something completely different, and probably embarassing or shameful? ;) $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2015 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble I'm sure the guy got a few free drinks out of the story, he would have needed them. I believe it was documented by both the Chinese and the Mongols themselves. But Genghis Kahn was well aware of the power of propaganda, and the benefits of having an enemy lay down arms without a fight, out of fear. In some cases, the citizens of towns mutinied against town authorities who didn't want to surrender and handed them over to the Mongols, rather than die. From goat herder without a tribe, to conqueror of millions, across China and Europe in his lifetime. Incredible guy. $\endgroup$
    – Smoj
    Dec 19, 2015 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ It depends entirely on goal satisfaction. This is the heart of tactical selection. Does leaving "witnesses" satisfy a strategic goal? If so, sure leave them. If not, will killing them pay off in reduced resistance later (due to fewer remaining fighters to regroup -- and they usually will regroup). Killing has a cost. This is one of the primary functions of light cavalry in formation combat (and air cavalry today): to ride down the strays once ranks break. But tactical decisions should satisfy strategy goals. Many militaries have been shallow in the strategy department, though. $\endgroup$
    – zxq9
    Dec 19, 2015 at 11:43

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On a practical basis, allowing your enemies to surrender has several benefits:

  • It makes other enemies more likely to surrender in the future, reducing your losses. If you have to kill 100% of your opponents in every single battle, you will also take more casualties. If you have a reputation for accepting surrenders, people are more likely to consider that an option.
  • In some cultures you can ransom back captured enemies. At the very least, you can likely trade them for your own soldiers that have been captured.
  • If an agreement such as the Geneva Convention exists, you may be violating it by killing all of your enemies. That could cause other groups to ally against you.

More importantly, however, very few fights are actually that decisive. Unless you can somehow force your opponent into a situation where they can't run away, most battles will end with a retreat and regroup. Once it becomes obvious that you're losing and the chance of victory is very small, the logical strategy is to go somewhere else and try again.

So except in cases where one side has a fixed defensive point (a city or other installation), it's very rare for a situation like you describe to happen.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, if your opponents are trapped and know surrender isn't an option they're likely to engage in suicide attacks. There was actually a US kamikaze pilot in WWII--his plane was damaged, he knew he wasn't getting back to the carrier. Bailing out was at best a Japanese POW camp and it was unlikely he would be picked up. He chose to kamikaze instead. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2015 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ Also, if your enemy fight with no chance for your mercy. He will fight more strongly. $\endgroup$
    – Kii
    Dec 19, 2015 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ Also, POWs are also frequently used for labor (which can be legal under the Geneva convention). Potentially a very efficient labor force $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2015 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Kii makes a very good point. The Mexican Army sounded no-quarter at the Battle of the Alamo and suffered impressive losses at the hands of desperate men. $\endgroup$
    – Nohbdy
    Dec 20, 2015 at 2:36
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It's necessary to divide the discussion into two parts: real battles and literary battles. We'll start with real battles.

Other than very small battles (a few dozen or so people) it's essentially impossible to kill everybody on the losing side. Battles are confusing, chaotic events, and spread over a large area. Furthermore, there is typically a wide range of competence among the participants, and a determined, very good combatant (or group of combatants) can generally find a soft spot in the other side. This will allow them to cut their way free. Furthermore, most large military forces contain light, fast units used for reconnaissance, and these scout units are unlikely to take part in the worst of the fighting, and will be well-situated to flee when the battle is lost.

Also, unless the winning side has absolute superiority, they will be unable to completely surround the losers to prevent escapees. To do so invites overwhelming local attacks by the surrounded unit, as the surrounded unit takes on one small part of the other side, defeats it with small losses, and then moves on to the next one. This is called defeat in detail. And if one side does have such overwhelming superiority, the other side will probably do its best to avoid battle in the first place.

Now, as to unreal battles. Umm. It's hard to figure out where to start. Cartoon battles don't have a whole lot of connection to reality, so it's entirely up to the writer to determine what happens. You do realize this, right? In the case of the links you provided, having survivors provides for story continuity, as the survivors go on to avenge the loss. Plus, of course, if the good guys are all killed off in the first scene it's hard to have the rest of the story.

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    $\begingroup$ I would also go so far as to say that in many cases the military commander of the winning side might prefer that the results of a battle not be known to the commanders of the losing side. If the losing side's leaders never hear from their troops again, they lose out on very important bits of military intelligence (types of weapons, troop strength, tactics used, etc.) that are very important during the prosecution of a war. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Dec 19, 2015 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ otoh, running down strays was a primary function of light cavalry. It generally helps you win the next battles. $\endgroup$
    – zxq9
    Dec 19, 2015 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @zxq9 - The light cav chasing the light cav will almost certainly not result in total extermination. It's like the reason a cheetah fails about 90% of its' chases - the cheetah is running for its dinner, but the antelope is running for its life. $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2015 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast Light cav is typically a tiny component of a combined force, but in massive victories often responsible for a disproportionate number of enemy kills. The idea isn't to chase light cav with light cav (you're right, they will get away) it is to exterminate the infantry, artillery, and support formations. $\endgroup$
    – zxq9
    Dec 20, 2015 at 3:10
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast You are entirely correct. It is almost impossible to kill everyone. Usually survivors escape early, though, so this makes the "leave witness of defeat" bit tricky, as they didn't witness the defeat. So not sure if that qualifies for OP's question. ? Occasionally the terrain is unfavorable and the whole formation is pinched (river/swamps to the rear) or even more spectacularly, encircled (in modern battles this is nearly impossible). That said, of those who were encircled at Trebia, none were left alive (but Tiberius did escape with his bodyguard). $\endgroup$
    – zxq9
    Dec 20, 2015 at 5:59
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The main advantage of not destroying the enemy utterly is that there generally is no benefit from utter destruction while there is a real cost from committing resources to it.

For example, pursuing fleeing enemies means detaching a force to follow them which means the pursuing force will not be available for anything else. Unless you have an abundance of fast troops, this is usually bad use of resources. Fast troops are generally more useful for screening and reconnaissance and committing them to vanity projects will potentially leave you exposed to enemy stratagems that otherwise would have failed. A policy pursuing fleeing enemies also gives the enemy a trivially exploitable and predictable opportunity to lure the pursuing force into an ambush. Which is even worse use of resources.

Similarly every enemy that flees or surrenders instead of being killed is one less opportunity for your forces to take casualties. Psychologically such "total kill" policy works two ways. It promotes desertion and lack of resistance, which is good and works well for fast campaigns. But if the fighting drags on, the campaign becomes prolonged, you will be fighting enemy that is committed to fighting to the death. This usually translates to high morale for them and high casualties for you. Manuals since ancient times have strongly advised to avoid situations where enemy can't escape for a good reason. So a "total kill" policy should always be targeted on only those cases where either making your potential opponents choose not to fight at all is a priority or you are already fighting fully committed enemies.

Historical examples would be Mongols needing to minimize time consuming siege warfare to fully exploit their superior mobility or religious or ethnic warfare that might already extermination wars, anyway. Asymmetric warfare between superior occupying force and a resistance movement can sometimes devolve into this, if the occupation prioritizes scaring people into not supporting the resistance. But as this causes heavy collateral damage, it is rare unless the occupiers have lot more area under occupation than they can or want to control.Germany had such situation during the World War 2.

One consideration is that the enemy soldiers are also resources with value and dead humans are usually nearly worthless or even have negative value as you need to commit forces to disposing of the bodies. The exception would be if the dead soldiers have value as food or trophies. But generally armies are too large for that value to remain worthwhile if you kill everyone. So this is only realistic for skirmishes or asymmetric warfare where the defeated force is small in relation to the victors.

Generally almost all of the value of the captured soldiers is in their ability to work and they are used as forced labor or sold to slavery. There is also real political value in returning prisoners of war after the war or even exchanging or selling them back during it. This is true even if the "enemy" is supposed to not exist after the war. In that case you have supplanted the enemy and the value of enemy soldiers you did not kill is now your resource. These value considerations do apply to letting fleeing enemies get away, not just on what to do with captured enemies. If your best option is to let them go, why spend resources capturing them?

From the viewpoint of military strategy you should also remember that the goal is usually to destroy the ability of the enemy force to oppose you, not to kill soldiers. As others have noted killing everyone is actually very difficult, so there is almost always several vastly easier methods to achieve your goals without killing everyone. The big exception in history is siege warfare, where you already may have the enemy surrounded and the fighting will likely get ugly and chaotic anyway. In such situations massacres have happened.

I hope this actually contains an answer to the question. In any case it should be useful in giving some context.

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  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, it is difficult to even exterminate an unarmed, pre-labeled, isolated, caged civil population. The Nazis were unable to pursue their war and actually wipe out the "undesirables" -- and the cost of one effort undermined the other in critical ways. Sometimes "not killing" isn't the right answer just because killing may be personally objectionable -- a default policy of "kill everything at all costs" is simply impossible to support without exhausting your resources. Its horrible, stupid, unthinking policy. $\endgroup$
    – zxq9
    Dec 20, 2015 at 6:04
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In addition to Dan Smolinske's answers, which I think are spot on, leaving witnesses is also an essential part of information warfare. Anyone who has studied war knows that the perceptions of the civilian population is important for ensuring support of the military. Thus, the military provides a great deal of propaganda, which is always one sided.

A survivor can tell a different story, and its hard to argue with an eye-witness. This can soften the resolve of the civilians. It can also soften the resolve of the military, if that individual is returned to duty, but that tends to be more difficult because the military tends to have more resolve to deal with.

However, leaving a survivor leaves a little bit of unknown. The effect of the battle will be more widespread, and less in your control. If you are sufficiently superior, and really just want to finish squashing the worthless vermin so you can get back to your Croquet match, you may be willing to spend more energy to crush the vermin in a way that doesn't depend upon you observing their response to your survivors. If you find the vermin to be so unworthy that you don't even care to win the information game, why leave a survivor, just wipe them out.

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Even in real battles where the one side was destroyed to the last man (think of the fate of the Spartan "300" in the battle of Thermopylae, the Texans at the Alamo or the French Foreign Legion troops at Camarón), enough people manage to escape in the confusion to bring the story back to their homes. As well, the victors will probably have a story to tell as well, for propaganda purposes.

While a 100% casualty rate in warfare is very rare (we remember the 300, the Alamo and Camarón because they are unusual events), there are usually enough eye witnesses for both sides, including disengaged forces in the reserve or flanks, Non-combatants who are following the force or even journalists in the modern era, who will be able to piece together at least part of the story. As well, while a defeated force is usually bad for morale, the historical examples ended up stiffening the resolve of the survivors, most of whom took it upon themselves to either avenge the deaths, or become more determined to fight and fight well to prevent such a fate from happening to them as well...

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Not really answering the question but many armies try to injure enemy soldiers rather than kill them, on the logic that an wounded soldier takes up more resources than a dead one.

I have heard many cases of attacks designed to demoralize enemy where survivors are left, but for a NATO force it is not currently common practice.

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  • $\begingroup$ Land mines are often used to achieve this. The Viet Cong, (and the Viet Minh before them) used punji sticks to do this. Sharpened sticks at the bottom of a covered and camouflaged hole, often smeared with human faeces to cause infection. A soldier steps on them, doesn't die, but needs to be cared for and then extracted. Possibly losing the foot and not being able to return as a combatant. $\endgroup$
    – Smoj
    Dec 19, 2015 at 1:55
  • $\begingroup$ As an example, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFM-1 for a type of landmine designed to be dispersed by air instead of manual burying. When stepped upon, it is practically unable to kill a soldier due to the tiny amount of explosive, but it will blow off a foot, removing the soldier and his helpers from action. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Dec 19, 2015 at 9:04
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Often desertion from battle was punishable by death. The commanders of the losing side will want to have an ordered retreat, where entire units of troops survive, and will actively work towards that goal when the battle is lost but not yet over. As commander of the winning side you want the enemy to make an ordered surrender or an unordered retreat where people flee disorderly, which makes it much easier to run them down, and the survivors may be unable to rejoin their army without facing severe penalties. In both of these cases you have survivors to spread the word but got rid of the enemy combatants.

Even if you kill all enemies, in battles of tens of thousands it's incredibly likely that some will survive by feigning death and sneaking away in the night.

The times where you'd let entire units flee is if you either cannot stop them easily or with low risk*, if there are diplomatic reasons (sign of goodwill), or you are reasonably certain you won't have to face the troops again. Keep in mind even in the diplomatic case it's often better to capture and disarm the enemy, then release them, instead of just letting them retreat on their own.

*Stopping a retreating unit is hard if the commanders' attention is required in other places. Stopping a retreating unit is high risk if the terrain makes it possible that enemy reinforcements could lie in ambush. It's even harder and riskier if the enemy unit is still in good shape and can defend itself.

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In medieval times persons of rank where clearly defined from the rank and file grunt with the idea that you were more valuable alive as a captor than dead (held for ransom). These prisoners were not imprisoned but often were treated accoring to their rank and kept in open custody.

In today's world where snipers abound badges of rank are greatly subdued and hard to distinguish from even moderate distances.

Another item of note was the pardoning of captured enemies with their promise not to fight this was practiced from at least the days of Caesar until the American Civil War.

Current Military Codes (i.e. UCMJ) , specify that an officer cannot accept a pardon but must must continue to fight on.

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This verse is about God showing other people why wicked people were destroyed, by allowing them to observe the character of survivors.

Ezekiel 14:23 You will be consoled when you see their conduct and their actions, for you will know that I have done nothing in it without cause, declares the Sovereign LORD." NIV

But, certainly, a more common motive for leaving or releasing survivors is to demoralize rather than "console".

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. Do take some time to take the tour. A thought on your answer: I see the point with letting survivors of the losing side live. If their character can be judged, then the slaughter can be justified as "we cleansed the land of evil", but this should only work in fiction. People, especially of today, should see the other side as humans; sadly they seldom do and instead only see what they believe the other side to be. As such, there is no difference in letting them live, they are already judged as monsters no matter the truth. $\endgroup$
    – Mrkvička
    Mar 10, 2017 at 14:58

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