Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day

Veterans Day initially commemorated the end of what was initially known as the Great War, which began with the assassination an archduke and gave birth to the twentieth century. Ninety years later, only a handful of veterans of the war remain alive.

The last living American veteran, Frank Woodruff Buckles, lied about his age in order to join the Army and served as an ambulance driver in France. At the age of 107, he still lives on his family's farm and grants periodic media interviews. The Library of Congress has preserved and made available online an oral history interview with Buckles (supplemented with digitized archival materials) that is included in its Veterans History Project.

Buckles, who took part in a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, is also, according to CNN, the "symbolic leader" of a movement to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C. honoring the service of veterans of the First World War and to fix up the city's existing memorial.

The First World War really has slipped from public view. I suspect that part of the reason is that it lacks the compelling moral narrative that guides the Allied nations' memories of the Second World War. There were no sharp ideological differences separating the combatants of the First World War, which nonetheless sent millions upon millions of their men into the meat grinder. One historian (whose name I forget) asserted that no one won the First World War: the war itself won, and everyone involved in it lost.

However, the First World War gave us the Bolshevik Revolution, an unstable and humiliated Germany, a United States wielding significant military and economic power, and myriad other economic, political, and cultural shifts that continue to shape our lives. We should pay more attention to it. Listening to the interview of Frank Buckles --or one of the 301 other First World War veterans who were interviewed for the Veterans History Project -- is a good way to start.

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