Monday, November 12, 2007

Over There - and Gone Forever.

I had a great weekend at Georgetown, but owing to schoolwork I'm going to have to postpone a report until later in the week. In the meantime, I'd like to call your attention to an uncommonly eloquent op-ed piece in today's New York Times, in which author Richard Rubin reflects upon a sad but inevitable historicial phenomenon that interest me a great deal, namely what happens when our society loses a living link to events of the distant past. Rubin writes in the context of the quiet disappearance of the remaining World War I veterans. Here's some of what Rubin has to say:
By any conceivable measure, Frank Buckles has led an extraordinary life. Born on a farm in Missouri in February 1901, he saw his first automobile in his hometown in 1905, and his first airplane at the Illinois State Fair in 1907. At 15 he moved on his own to Oklahoma and went to work at a bank; in the 1940s, he spent more than three years as a Japanese prisoner of war. When he returned to the United States, he married, had a daughter and bought a farm near Charles Town, W. Va., where he lives to this day. He drove a tractor until he was 104.

But even more significant than the remarkable details of Mr. Buckles's life is what he represents: Of the two million soldiers the United States sent to France in World War I, he is the only one left.

This Veterans Day marked the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war. The holiday, first proclaimed as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and renamed in 1954 to honor veterans of all wars, has become, in the minds of many Americans, little more than a point between Halloween and Thanksgiving when banks closed and mail isn't delivered. But there's a good chance that this Veterans Day will prove to be the last with a living American World War I veteran. (Mr. Buckles is one of only three left; the other two were still in basic training in the United States when the war ended.) Ten died in the last year. The youngest of them was 105.

. . .

Four years ago, I attended a Veterans Day observance in Orleans, Mass. Near the head of the parade, a 106-year-old named J. Laurence Moffitt rode in a Japanese sedan, waving to the small crowd of onlookers and sporting the same helmet he had seen wearing in the Aegonne Forest at the moment the armistice took effect, 85 years earlier.

I didn't know it then, but that was, in all likelihood, the last small-town American Veterans Day parade to feature a World War I veteran. The years since have seen the passing of one last after another - the last combat-wounded veteran, the last Marine, the last African-American, the last Yeomanette - until now, we are down to the last of the last.

It's hard for anyone, I imagine, to say what is it that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It's not that World War I will then become history; it's been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can't quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can't stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.
The rest of the op-ed, in which Rubin argues that World War I veterans have always been ignored in a way that World War II veterans never have, is worth reading. Though Rubin writes in an American context, the issues of historical memory that stem from the loss of the few remaining veterans of the First World War are universal. I suspect the transition by which the Great War becomes "just beyond our grasp somehow" will be felt much more strongly in Europe, where the War had a much greater impact than it did here. Even so, the transition should mean something for Americans as well. When Frank Buckles passes away, we should take notice. AMDG.


At 11/13/2007 2:47 AM, Blogger Jason said...

Have you read Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory?

At 11/13/2007 10:51 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

No, I haven't read Fussell's book yet, but I've been meaning to - it's been on my shopping list for months, but I haven't bought it yet.


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