The War We Forgot

Article excerpt

Byline: Tony Dokoupil

World War I has no national monument. No iconic images. And only one soldier is still alive.

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. …