There is exactly one known surviving U.S. veteran of World War I. His name is Frank Buckles. He's from Charles Town, West Virginia. He's 107 years old. Professor Edward Lengel of the University of Virginia writes in the Washington Post:
Accompanied by his daughter and an aide, the wheelchair-bound 107-year-old rolled around the small, temple-like structure, stopping occasionally to acknowledge the applause of the small crowd that had gathered to watch. He did not comment upon the memorial's unkempt appearance -- it has been neglected for three decades -- but noticed that it honored only veterans from the city. "I can read here," he said in a soft, barely audible mumble, "that it was started to include the names of those who were local."
No one, apparently, had told him that the United States has no national World War I memorial. Buckles later modestly accepted tributes from President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, asking only that all of the recently deceased U.S. veterans of World War I be honored alongside him. It was little enough to ask, after nine decades of neglect.
As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place.
World War I remains, perhaps, the most misunderstood of all wars, yet from the Treaty of Versailles, which helped lay the path to World War II, to the break-up of the Ottoman Empire into shiny new nations that never before had existed, it was, both in battle and resolution, a catastrophe that has defined Europe, the Middle East, and much of the world ever since. And I'm guessing that the name "Franz Ferdinand" is now best known as that of a Glaswegian rock band.
On this Memorial Day, we need not only remember those who have served this nation in uniform, and their families and friends. We need not only remember that our current government uses them as cannon fodder and then forgets them, almost as completely as we have all forgotten the veterans of World War I. We need to remember that it is our collective ignorance that continues to contribute to the sacrifice and waste of so many young men and women, decade after decade, in war after war that fail to resolve anything. It is not enough to simply honor what our military personnel have done. We must strive towards the ideal of their never again being sent into battle for anything less than necessity. And then we must strive towards the ideal of there eventually never again being such necessity.