It is ironic that my post on Veterans Day happened to focus on World War I; today's New York Times has an Op-Ed piece by Richard Rubin, about the man who is the last living American veteran of World War I who actually served in France. We sent two million men over there, and he is the only one left.
The surviving man's name is Frank Buckles, and he is 106 years old. A native of Missouri, he is still living on the farm in West Virginia that he has had since the 1940's; he drove a tractor until he was 104.
Mr. Rubin points out what I had remarked upon yesterday: that World War I gets short shrift compared to later wars.
"Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Almost from the moment the armistice took effect, the United States has worked hard, it seems, to forget World War I; maybe that’s because more than 100,000 Americans never returned from it, lost for a cause that few can explain even now. The first few who did come home were given ticker-tape parades, but most returned only to silence and a good bit of indifference.
There was no G.I. Bill of Rights to see that they got a college education or vocational training, a mortgage or small-business loan. There was nothing but what remained of the lives they had left behind a year or two earlier, and the hope that they might eventually be able to return to what President Warren Harding, Wilson’s successor, would call “normalcy.” Prohibition, isolationism, the stock market bubble and the crisis in farming made that hard; the Great Depression, harder still."
He goes on to say that, four years ago, he witnessed a 106-year-old World War I veteran in a Veterans Day parade in Orleans, Massachusetts, and realized he had probably seen the last small-town Veterans Day parade featuring a World War I veteran.
A few years ago, when DH and I were at Cape Cod for Memorial Day weekend, we went to the Brewster Memorial Day parade. We were astonished to see a black car driving along in the parade with a sign proclaiming the occupant to be a World War I veteran. Brewster is only a few miles from Orleans; it's likely it was the same veteran Mr. Rubin is remembering, named J. Laurence Moffit. How many World War I veterans can there be on Cape Cod? I'm glad I had the opportunity to see Mr. Moffit in the parade.
Mr. Rubin concludes the article:
"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."
Now the veterans of World War II are rapidly passing on as well. According to Ken Burns, at the end of his documentary, The War, 1,000 are dying each day. While there is still time, we should talk to them, get them to tell their stories; ask them questions, write down the answers; have them talk to our children about the war. Try to understand the wisdom they gained from their experiences. Learn what they felt, and why. Try to understand what the world was like then.
Because someday we'll be down to the last one, the last World War II veteran, the last of his kind, and we'll never be able to ask those questions again of a living person who remembers what happened. And we need to understand, so we can prevent it from ever happening again, so there won't need to be veterans of endless wars, marching in endless parades.
Today's quote is from "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," an anti-war song by Eric Bogle, which commemorates the battle of Gallipoli during World War I, where 50,000 Australians died. Go to this link to hear it sung on YouTube. This is just a piece of the lyrics:
They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
When they carried us down the gangway
Oh nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared
Then they turned all their faces away
Now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But year after year, their numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all...