Lessons for 2021 from POWs and Sieges

Last October I looked at how the broadly-parallel experiences of prisoners of war and besieged forces could provide perspectives on the coronavirus situation. Now, as 2020 turns into 2021, I again looked at these situations to see if there are any new lessons we might want to consider.

The recent fielding of vaccines is good news, akin to a message smuggled over the wall or in a food delivery, the first friendly warplane flying overhead in years, or radio messages from a relieving force. The situation is continuing, but hope of relief is tangible. There is every expectation that within the foreseeable future some form of pre-pandemic life will return.

What lessons from released POWs and relieved sieges can we now look toward for perspective?

Several broad ones come to mind.

First, one must keep perspective. Despite positive news, the line must be held for some time yet – even if the relief or liberating forces get there, it is useless if the city has fallen beforehand. Liberation, either from prison or the breaking of a siege line, is still only one step in a process. People forget that Confederate forces remained active in East Tennessee after the Siege of Knoxville ended, or that Bastogne remained on the front lines for weeks after it was relieved in December 1944.

One of the greatest dangers is in the event of liberation itself, where there is a temptation to let down one’s guard in the euphoria of the moment. Stories come to mind of POWs killed during liberation or shortly after, or dying of reckless behavior while celebrating.

Also, there will be a period of readjustment and awkwardness. Just as some veterans had trouble adjusting to beds after years of cots or sleeping on the ground, or former POWs had to shake off a thousand little habits of survival, including saluting or bowing to their guards, so will we as a society have to transition to a new way of life. Many survivors had to readjust to common things in civilian life, even as simple as remembering how to properly dress and use manners. We will face a similar transition: from eating out in crowded restaurants, to sports games with filled stands, to vacations, and everything in between.

Lastly, the effects of this period will probably last for a while; we are already seeing commentary about that, especially regarding schools. But the pandemic’s sweeping effects will create other changes that will manifest over time. POW and siege survivors lived with their experiences to varying degrees, many (like my grandfather Boleslaw Kolakowski, a POW 1939-42 and a relative, Ivor Reginald Shelper, a POW 1942-1945) being affected for the rest of their lives. In the last year people have discovered things about themselves and society; something to ponder is, how will these lessons be applied in the future? What other changes or lingering effects may we see?

Anyone interested in exploring this topic further is directed toward the books I mentioned in my previous post. I’d also add Brian MacArthur’s Surviving the Sword, Julie Summers’ The Colonel of Tamarkan, Donald Knox’ Death March, Carlos Romulo’s I Saw the Fall of the Philippines (aka Last Man Off Bataan), and Duane Schultz’ Hero of Bataan, among others.

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