Frank Buckles, RIP

Our last veteran of World War One has passed away:

Frank Buckles, America’s last surviving World War I veteran, has died at age 110. Born on a Missouri farm, he lied about his age to enlist in the Army at 16 and went on to drive ambulances in France. A civilian during World War II, he was captured by the Japanese while working in Manila and imprisoned for more than three years. Later in life, he entered the national spotlight as a living legend and advocate for the dedication of a national World War I memorial.

The burdens of that war were fairly light upon the United States. We lost about 116,000 dead in that war – certainly a large number, but it pales in comparison to the 900,000 British deaths, the 1,400,000 French dead or the 2,000,000 German dead. And all those dead totals were from populations much smaller than ours (about 4% of all French died in World War One, about 0.1% of all Americans). In large measure, a civilization committed suicide during that terrible four years.

It still astounds the mind to think about the way they went to war – they really did go off singing to the fight. They thought it would be short and glorious. They believed in a concept called “progress” which, basing itself upon a misunderstanding of Darwin’s theories, asserted that things always improve…and thus that if there was to be a war, it was a noble action which would certainly lead to a better future. Thus the “war to end all wars”. Thus, also, the rather insane determination of all combatants to fight with every available means, fair and foul, until absolute victory was won – even though, as Churchill pointed out, victory was to be bought so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat. Here is what they did:

Germany having let Hell loose kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity and international law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated the strife of armies. The wounded died between the lines; the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations in to submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered, often slowly, in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strength of armies was limited only the the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves; and these were of doubtful utility. Winston Churchill, The World Crisis

Of course, Churchill was a bit wrong there – but not on purpose. What he thought of as being a Christian civilization was, in large measure, already being displaced by post-Christian civilization. And thus there was no room in that war for a truce, or for considerations about non-combatants. The madness of that war proved a mere curtain-raiser for the absolute wicked insanity of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. Whenever I read about the war, I feel like weeping – just in transcribing that passage I choked up. As we mark the passing of the last of our veterans of that war, we should also pause to think about all of those who died – so many of whom now lie in nameless graves, the very nations they fought to defend no longer existing.

And when men die in war, even if they fight for the other side, charity should move us to try and make a better world in their honor. The people of that war are almost all dead, now. Perhaps a few more veterans still linger on, though it is to be doubted – those who were very young children at the time also live with us, but in a very few years everyone who lived during that time will be gone. And we should remember them all, and what they did and pledge ourselves to making a better world. A world in which, even if there is to be war, there will at least never be a war again where we tear at each other and seek mutual extermination. A world of justice and mercy, even if not a world of peace.