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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Great War


It Didn’t End Anything…

The “war to end all wars” didn’t.

In fact the case can be persuasively made that what before World War II was commonly called “the great war” really began a vicious spiral of nearly continuous war, killing and destruction that made the 20th Century the most violent century.

I got to thinking about this after reading a moving tribute in the Washington Post this week to the last American veteran of the great war, Frank Woodruff Buckles. Buckles died recently at the ripe old age of 110. What things he saw in his long life.

Paul Duggan’s Post story made the point that Buckles, a West Virginia boy, was among the nearly 5 million Americans who were in uniform in 1917 and 1918. More than 116,000 of them died. Frank was the last one; a link in a now broken chain back to a time when there was no GI Bill, virtually no health care for returning doughboys and little acknowledgment from either the government or the public.

By 1930 the war was thought by many in the United States to have been a great mistake, a fight not ours that had scarred – and scared – a generation. Isolationism dominated American foreign policy and the U.S. Senate even investigated the “merchants of death,” who many thought had profited from the wartime sale of American munitions.

Today, its the World War II “greatest generation” that gets the attention, but it was the war Frank Buckles and his generation fought that really defined the 20th Century. The war now mostly relegated to the dusty back shelf of American history still echoes down to us today in so many ways.

The modern map of Europe and the Middle East is the result of that war. We now have a modern democracy and a NATO ally in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire ended with the war. The last Russian Tsar was ushered out and Lenin and eventually Stalin ushered in as a result of that war. The war brought an end to emperors in Germany and Austria-Hungary and made France and Britain fearful of the rise of the Bolsheviks, but even more fearful of another European war.

An Austrian corporal injured in a gas attack in that war, used the defeat of Germany and its allies as a springboard to create what became the horrors of Nazism. Winston Churchill knew both glory and defeat in the great war and at its end helped invent the country where today American soldiers still try to create a democracy. Iraq, born of the great war and always an unnatural nation, has long been a violent and troubled place.

Woodrow Wilson, a prickly idealist about many things, thought the world – and his own nation – would study the horrors of the trenches, the gas attacks, the vast machine gun slaughter, and conclude that nations must band together to ensure a lasting peace. By 1920, Wilson couldn’t get the U.S. Senate to support his grand ambition of a League of Nations. By 1931, Japan had invade Manchuria, Hitler and his followers where marching in the streets of Bavaria and Mussolini was planning a “new Roman Empire” that would begin with the conquest of Ethiopia.

By 1939, barely 20 years after the war to end all wars had sputtered to a uneasy conclusion in muddy fields in France, most of the world was at war again.

World War I produced Captain Harry Truman, who served in France, and Lt. Col Dwight Eisenhower, who never got out of the country. George Patton saw action as the first U.S. tank commander in France and Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney were both ambulance drivers. Hermann Goering learned most of what he needed to know to command the German Luftwaffe as a World War I fighter pilot.

It was Frank Buckles’s fate to be the last solider of the great war. We should remember him for what he did and remember his war for what it did, too.

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