The War to End All Wars Didn’t Accomplish That

It was one hundred years ago that World War I exploded, though there’s not much in the way of commemoration. The world went crazy in 1914 and millions died in a four-year frenzy of killing that no one had ever seen or imagined, even in their worst nightmares.

The horrible lessons learned there, however, were soon forgotten as that war turned out to be only a tune-up for an even more horrific conflagration a generation later.

America’s last direct World War I witness and participant, West Virginian Frank Woodruff Buckles, died in February of 2011. There is no one else left to tell the story.

Like many others, I grew up with lots of Buckles’ Doughboy contemporaries. My grandfather, a World War I cavalryman, was one of them. He was born in 1897 and his hand-colored 1917 Army picture hangs on my wall. He was typical of the generation that connected America’s frontier days to our emerging modernity, saw the first automobiles, electric lights and airplanes, and lived through the sinking of the Titanic.

They were 19th century men who left home, many for the first time, to face 20th century weapons that elevated killing to the industrial factory level of efficiency that was emblematic of that new age. In what was still a horse-based United States Army, they shipped out to Europe as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force to face the horrors of mechanized warfare that obliterated an entire generation of young men. At the peak of the madness, both sides’ 19th century generals and tacticians sacrificed as many as 100,000 lives per day to the 20th century machine guns, artillery, high velocity explosives and poison gasses. The world began counting the dead by the hundreds of thousands.

Beyond the horrific slaughter of the new warfare, even more died from a panoply of diseases before they even left their mustering camps to face the Huns. After the war, death dogged the survivors relentlessly as the Spanish Influenza followed them to their homes everywhere. It took the lives of soldiers and civilians by the millions as part of a world-wide epidemic that killed so rapidly and pervasively that there were often not enough able bodied people to remove and bury the dead.

Both sides were so decimated and exhausted that they took a 20- year respite from the “war to end all wars” before resuming the slaughter in what became an even deadlier and broader World War II.

All of our nation’s warriors went through this before and since World War I, with variations in time, place and technology. Those who died gave up not only their lives, but their yet-unlived years of future happiness, creativity and societal contributions. Survivors’ lives were never the same as they dealt with the aftermath of wounds and injuries and carried memories of horrors that could never be exorcised.

Despite it all, they continued to serve as they returned home and helped build or rebuild their families, communities, institutions and the country. From the American Revolution forward, this has been the soldiers’ way and will probably always be so. This includes women who served directly, as well as those who tended the home fires and ran the factories.

Most veterans are self-effacing and usually refer to their fallen comrades as the real heroes. They have never asked for much, if anything, in return.

I still recall a conversation with my grandfather when I asked him if he ever had nightmares of his World War I experiences in Europe and he acknowledged that indeed he had and they were frequent and vivid.

When I asked him how long it had been since the memories invaded his sleep, he replied, “Last night.” He was 91 years old at the time.

Even though the last doughboy is gone, it is essential for us to not only remember and revere their sacrifices, but assure that each new generation learns the lessons they paid so dearly to pass on to us.

Dr. Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia, teaches on the graduate faculty at Muskingum University is a board member of the West Virginia Access Center for Higher Education.