Monday, November 12, 2007

The Last Veteran of the War to End All Wars

Frank Buckles is 106 years old and is probably the last surviving veteran of World War I.

Sitting in a wheelchair with a military field cap on his head and a heavy blanket across his lap, Buckles recalled lying about his age to a Marine recruiter at a fair in Kansas to enlist when he was 16. On his arrival in France, he said, he was touched by the sight of so many people wearing black armbands in memory of loved ones who had already died.

Asked what he thought about attending a service for his duty while the United States is engaged in armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Buckles replied: “I’m no authority, but I’m not in favor of war unless it’s an emergency.”

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Richard Rubin notes that we will lose more than just a veteran after Mr. Buckles passes from the scene.

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 been wearing in the Argonne 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 for certain what it is 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.

Today is the federal holiday marking Veterans Day, although yesterday was the real anniversary of the day that the armistice was signed in 1918. The British and the Canadians call this day Remembrance Day, and perhaps that’s a more appropriate title, since we should never forget the service that these people gave us, and every day should be Veterans Day.