I meant to note this at the time of publication but America now has only one surviving veteran of the First World War, Frank Buckles, age 107:
Now there is only one. When Harry Richard Lucas died recently, Frank Buckles was left as the only American soldier who can recount his personal experience in World War I. He is the last surviving American World War I veteran. The Great War, as it was once known, is receding into ancient history, an era as distant from us today as the Civil War or the American Revolution.But every war lingers, long after the last soldier has died. Generations hence, the ghosts still speak to us, even if we no longer acknowledge the voices. Look no further than our current travails in the Middle East, in large measure a result of the political consequences of World War I, which created the political boundaries of those tribal regions. And in an echo of the current presidential debate, Americans in 1917 were passionately divided about being drawn into a European conflict we had little direct stake in, arguably less than we have in Iraq today.
When Mr. Buckles went ” Over There” the nation was still more agrarian than urban and both the Civil War and Slavery remained within living memory, neither the electric light nor running water were taken for granted and motion pictures were silent. The changes that Frank Buckles has seen in his lifetime surpass that of most 500 year periods in history.
WWI had been overshadowed for decades by the sheer enormity of it’s larger and more lethal sequel, the Second World War but historians are coming to see the Great War as a watershed in modern history, the tipping point at which the twentieth century went unpredictably, horribly, wrong. John Keegan elegantly writes of the war, despite having been “curiously civilized”, cutting down a generation like stalks of wheat and twisting the survivors, turning them against the liberal and rational civilization of the Enlightenment. The war’s unprecedented slaughter desensitized Europeans to violence and cultivated widespread disillusionment with the traditional order, leaving a spiritual and political vacumn that would be filled by the malevolent dynamism of Fascism and Communism.
For practical purposes, that “Lost Generation” is now gone and the “Greatest Generation” that had to fight WWII and “finish the job” is going fast. Let’s hope the hard lessons they learned do not pass from memory along with them.