How To Survive In Captivity

Posted 06 Dec 2010

I have a good friend who is a former special forces soldier. We sat down to lunch a few days ago and he told me about a lot of the training that they go through.

  Every special forces soldier gets millions of dollars worth of training making them best trained military soldiers to have ever walked on this planet.  He didn't get into anything that he was prohibited from sharing, of course, but I was fascinated by some of the things he shared about surviving capture by an enemy and even torture. 

There are two fundamental principles that keep soldiers, and anyone else, alive and strong through such an extreme experience: Following the rules and winning small mental victories.

Surviving Capture Rule #1: Follow The Rules

Whether captured by an opposing army, a brutal dictator, a rogue band of narco-terrorists, or some other hostile group, the first rule is to obey your captor.  They may or may not care about your survival, but they sure as heck aren't going to keep you alive if you are a nuisance.  You are at their mercy and should do everything you can to get on their good side. Complying quickly with their orders is one of the best ways to do this.


They will inevitably have unfair and stupid rules.  Violating unfair and stupid rules could lead to severe punishment and maybe even death.  The endearing image of Steve McQueen tossing a baseball against the wall in solitary confinement in The Great Escape couldn't be further from the truth.  In those kinds of dire circumstances staying alive by following the orders of your captors is the highest priority.

Surviving Capture Rule #2: Win Secret Mini-Battles

Your mental strength is the other essential element to surviving captivity.  Surviving physically might be worthless unless you survive mentally as well.

To avoid being broken down mentally you need to find ways to win secret battles against your captors.  Although not the best example, one of the POW's imprisoned with John McCain found a way to sew images on the inside of his clothes to win a small victory against his captors. 

Evey in V for Vendetta beat her "captors" and stayed mentally strong by reading the journal hidden in crack of her cell wall.  Secretly flipping your captor the bird while their back is turned can be another victory.  You did it, they didn't see you do it, you win.

Why Should You Care?

There are very few of us who will be in a position like Elizabeth Smart, Aung San Suu Kyi, John McCain, or hostages of the FARC.  It is more likely that we might find ourselves traveling in a dictatorship or even living in a formerly free country that has succumbed to the principles of totalitarianism, where fundamental human rights are not respected by the government.

The world is full of countries that accept torture, order assassination of its citizens that are not even charged with a crime, defend institutionalized sexual assault, and humiliate innocent people by forcing public nudity.  North Koreans, for example, fell captive to their government and need to obey the ridiculous laws as strictly as they can to keep from being imprisoned or publicly executed.   People in these circumstances are captives and need to use the same tactics to survive both mentally and physically.  But if they are to survive mentally, they need to find small ways to win little secret victories against their captor.

Obeying Ridiculous Laws

Many laws are ridiculous.  If a law violates a fundamental human right, for example, it is ridiculous.  It might be better to obey a ridiculous law and suffer a little bit than experience  the greater suffering that might come from violating a law. 

Violating the law gives captors an excuse to do terrible things, often with the support of the public who may be unsympathetic to people who violate the law.  Non-violent civil disobedience is still a common practice and, after exhaustion of all available legal remedies, may be a successful way to combat immoral laws.  Be prepared to pay the legal price for engaging in civil disobedience.

You Need Privacy To Win Little Victories

You cannot win little victories like Evey Hammond, or John McCain's cell mate without privacy.  The tools and tactics of and the book How To Vanish are essential to helping you maintain privacy in case you might find yourself in one of the unfortunate situations of an oppressed citizen, traveler, or other captive.

If you encrypt a birthday message to your grandma, just so someone else can't read it, you have won a small victory.  If you encrypt your grocery list, you have won a small victory.  If you shop anonymously with cash and don't use an identifying shopper card to buy your groceries, you have won a small victory. 

If you watch the latest episode of the Office over an encrypted VPN, you have won a small victory.  Burying a gold or silver coin in a place only you know about is a small victory.  These small victories will help you survive captivity both physically and mentally.


Stay alive and win small victories.  Use the legal tools and techniques from How to Vanish to do that.  If you haven't already gotten your copy of the book How To Vanish, check it out so you have a whole arsenal of ways to win little victories.