Culture

The War We Forgot

Of the 2 million American soldiers sent to the trenches during World War I, only Frank Woodruff Buckles is still alive. The retired Army corporal, who turned 107 this month, is all that prevents the first world war from slipping into the secondhand past. Harry Landis, the only other known WWI veteran, died at 108 last week in Tampa, Fla. We're about to "lose a living touchstone of history," says Bob Patrick, director of the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project. Yet the United States has no firm or official plans to mark the passing of its last WWI veteran. "Frankly, we're trying to keep the focus on the living," says Phil Budahan, director of media relations for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Britain plans to hold an elaborate ceremony at Westminster Abbey when the last of its three remaining WWI veterans die. Canada and France, which each have one remaining veteran, have also announced plans to hold a state funeral. In fact, America's plans are more akin to those of its wartime enemy, Germany, whose last veteran died last month at 107 without official fanfare.

In America, the first world war remains a largely forgotten conflict. It has no national monument on the Washington Mall, no blockbuster film, no iconic image equivalent to soldiers' raising the flag on Iwo Jima. There wasn't even a reliable list of living veterans until a writer, researching a book about the war's place in the shadows, tallied one for himself in 2004. "Nobody—not the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion—knew how many there were," says Richard Rubin, author of the forthcoming book "The Last of the Doughboys." As far as he could tell, "that chapter of history was closed."

So why the seeming lack of interest? The physical distance from the front lines is one reason. The war's naively grand promise—"to make the world safe for democracy"— also left people cold. But it might ultimately come down to records: WWI was the last war fought without modern methods of bearing witness. There are virtually no film reels, few battle photographs, only a smattering of reliable frontline news reports, and much of what exists was either produced under suffocating censorship or made as propaganda. "It's all fake. Nobody filmed a single battle," says Jay Winter, a professor of history at Yale University, whose Emmy-winning television documentary "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century" supplemented newsreels with staged scenes. Frank Buckles has only three photos of himself in uniform, and all of them are portraits.

Rebooting the memory of WWI matters for reasons other than nostalgia. Historians see the conflict as the original canvas on which many aspects of today's Iraq War were drawn. "Most of the problems we're grappling with in the Middle East are legacies of the great military binge of 1914–1918," says Niall Ferguson, a revisionist British historian and author of several studies of war. He adds that the British also faced an insurgency when they invaded Baghdad and declared themselves liberators in 1917. "The American case in Iraq is one of historical ignorance," he says. In recent years, Buckles has also become a reluctant spokesperson for his generation—its impact and its memory. "Might as well be me," he told NEWSWEEK, adding that an official service honoring all U.S. veterans when he dies would be the "right thing to do."

For now, the primarily privately funded World War One Museum in Kansas City, Mo., is the only national institution with plans to commemorate the end of the Doughboy generation. "We just don't know what that means yet," says Denise Rendina, a spokeswoman for the museum. The VA says that all plans must come from Congress, while the White House Commission on Remembrance, the agency officially tasked with honoring "America's fallen," says it will invite Buckles to join a national flag-raising tour that began in December. There's just one problem: the touring flag is from a World War II memorial.