March 2, 2008

The Last of His Kind


In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles finally brought an end to World War I. Over two million Americans served in this War to End All Wars--and now only one of them remains. His name is Frank Woodruff Buckles and he is 107 years old. He is the last of his kind.

When Frank Buckles leaves this Earth, we will lose our final thread to the Great War. Yet the United States has no firm plans to honor the passing of its last WWI veteran. No ceremony. No state funeral. No words of commemoration. The memory of World War I seems to have been lost in our national history--eclipsed by the romanticism surrounding WWII or the controversies of Vietnam. There is not even a WWI memorial on the Washington Mall.

Americans have largely forgotten WWI, which was fought between 1914-1918. There are various explanations for this lapse in our memory: the war was mostly a European conflict, the war was fought for nonsensical reasons, the war leaves no iconic images, etc. Indeed, it is easy to forget a war that seems like it was fought long, long ago. After all, WWI stems from an imperialistic world where czars still ruled Russia and where the Ottoman empire stood on its last legs.

But the impact of WWI cannot be erased. The world today is built upon a war that was fought nearly a hundred years ago. The Great War set off a chain of events that reverberates into our own time: The Roaring Twenties and the break from Victorian propriety. The Great Depression. World War II. The Cold War. Vietnam. Even the conflict in Iraq bears seeds from the WWI era. "Most of the problems we're grappling with in the Middle East are legacies of the great military binge of 1914–1918," says Niall Ferguson, a revisionist British historian.

For now, Frank Buckles remains surprisingly healthy and robust despite his 107 years. For now, Americans still have a human connection to an event that changed our world completely. Yet sometime soon Frank too will pass away and join his fellow comrades on the other side. And at that point the Great War will finally become something of the past and something of history books.

Something to be forgotten.

*Note: After writing this entry, I discovered that the World War I Museum in Kansas City recently announced that it will honor Frank Buckles once he dies. This is a small step forward to better incorporate WWI into our national narrative but I can't help but think that WWI history will continue to gather dust. Kind of like the War of 1812 or the Spanish-American War.

2 comments:

  1. my great grandpa fought in the great war. i will always remember the stories my grandpa told of his dad.

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  2. I think WWI gets skimmed over because of the bad name it gives Nationalism-- not the kind of war that gives you warm patriotic feelings.

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