Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Final Slight

Frank Buckles died more than a week ago, but he still hasn't been laid to rest. Instead, the remains of America's last World War I veteran are at the center of a political controversy that speaks to greater issues, including our collective remembrance of those who serve.

Mr. Buckles passed away on 27 February at the age of 110. His death came more than 90 years after he left the Army and 93 years since he enlisted as a 16-year-old Missouri farm boy. As with others who volunteered during World War I, Buckles lied about his age to enter the military. He never saw combat, but served as an ambulance driver in England and France, and later, escorted enemy POWs back to Germany after the Armistice.

Following his discharge in 1920, Mr. Buckles led an adventurous, but largely anonymous life. He spent years working abroad as a representative for various steamship lines; in December 1941, was in Manila when the Japanese attacked the Philippines. Captured a few months later, Buckles spent the rest of the war in Japanese prison camps before being liberated in 1945. He retired from the shipping business in the early 1950s, purchasing a 300-acre cattle farm in West Virginia where lived with his life and daughter.

In fact, Frank Buckles didn't gain a measure of fame until the last decade of his remarkable life, when he was identified as one of the last surviving U.S. veterans of World War I. With the death of Harry Richard Landis in February 2008, Buckles became our final, living link to the nearly five million Americans who served in the Great War. He was featured in a segment on NBC Nightly News on Memorial Day 2007; he met with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office a few months later and was featured in a Pentagon photo exhibition on America's last World War I veterans. He testified before Congress in 2009, pressing lawmakers for a national memorial to honor Americans who served in the First World War.

At the time of his passing on 27 February, Mr. Buckles was a national icon. So, it was hardly surprising when West Virginia Senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin proposed that Buckles's coffin be placed in the Capitol rotunda--an honor granted to other American heroes, ranging from civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, to former Presidents Ronald Reagan.

But House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid turned down the request, proposing instead that Buckles be honored with a ceremony at the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetary (where he will be buried) and a separate tribute at the Capitol. While Democrats have blamed Boehner for the decision, both the speaker and the majority leader determine who will be allowed to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Call it a bi-partisan snub.

And, to some degree, their decision is justified. Mr. Buckles's status as the last doughboy was the product of good genes and a strong constitution. His military service was honorable, but unheroic. In fact, Frank Buckles's brief Army career did not qualify him for burial at Arlington. He received a waiver through the intervention of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, an Annapolis graduate and tireless advocate for veterans.

Still, we think Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid got it wrong. Allowing Frank Buckles to lie in state in the Capitol would be a symbolic step towards righting a generational slight. When Buckles and other veterans came home from World War I, there were a few speeches and parades, and that was about it. There was no G.I. Bill with generous education benefits and home loan programs; no guarantee for life-time health care through the Veterans Administration, and no memorial honoring those who served.

Evidence of the nation's collective indifference can be found on the National Mall in Washington. You'll find a memorial for the wars in Vietnam, Korea and World War II. But there is no national monument honoring the millions who wore the uniform in the "War to End All Wars." There is a local memorial, erected in tribute to residents of Washington D.C. who served in the conflict. After decades of neglect, the monument is finally getting an over-due face lift. But the re-dedication of that memorial--and the construction of any national monument--will come too late to honor those who actually served.

So, in that respect, it is fitting that Mr. Buckles lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, symbolizing a nation's belated acknowledgement to all those who served in World War I. He would be the first "ordinary" service member from that conflict to lie in state since 1921, when the Unknown Soldier from the from the war was afforded the honor, prior to final entombment at Arlington.

Without the support of the House Speaker or the Senate Majority Leader, Frank Buckles will not lie in state in the Capitol. If nothing else, Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid deserve points for consistency; since that day in 1921 when the Unknown Soldier from the First World War was honored with a state funeral, official Washington has been largely indifferent to the men (and a few women) who served "over there."
ADDENDUM: The Buckles kerfuffle erupted about the same time the Washington Post published a superb article on Marine Corps Lieutenant General John F. Kelly, who lost a son in Afghanistan last November. General Kelly believes--and we certainly agree--that most Americans are oblivious to the sacrifices of military members and their families. Our treatment of World War I veterans, culminating in the slight of the late Frank Buckles, is a sad reminder that some things never change.

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