Frank Buckles passed away last week at 110 years of age. One hundred and ten years is a pretty long time to be alive. That means he wasn’t just a World War I vet — but he’s so old he was born shortly after the Spanish American War ended.
Buckles entered a world very different from the one he just left. He arrived before radio broadcasting, assembly line production, electronic flight and electric washing machines. And ironically for a man named Buckles, he was born before the fasteners that enabled the bra. Corsets and hot air balloons were the “technology of his day.”
But, because he’s our eldest veteran, it’s interesting to think about more than just what everyday folk did or didn’t have. It’s interesting to think about what the military hadn’t yet acquired. There were no gun silencers, no SONAR, and no RADAR.
Heck, when Buckles went to war they didn’t even have submachine guns. And neither the military nor civilians had today’s most basic life saving medications — such as penicillin.
All these realities contributed to the roughly 25 million combat-related casualties of that war. Other factors like the influenza epidemic of 1918 cause historians to disagree on exact numbers.
According to “The Longman Companion to the First World War,” the U.S. involvement was great while the casualties were comparatively low. Buckles was one of 4,272,500 soldiers this country deployed during the two years we participated in The Great War. Only 8 percent of the U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded — compared with 55 percent for Russian casualties and 75 percent for the French — so the odds were good that the U.S. would be the country with a survivor of the war living this far into the 21st century.
In some ways Buckles merely represents a brave man with a hearty constitution and good genes. But when looked at through the broader lens supplied by time, Buckles outlived more than 50 million of World War I’s deployed soldiers and reminds us today of the price paid by unresolved political quarrels and the resulting armed conflict.
I guess that’s why I’m shaking my head at Speaker of the House John Boehner. You may have heard that folks in the United States — mostly veterans groups but folks like me are with them on this — think that Buckles deserves to lie in state at the Capitol as a sign of respect for the man he was and the slice of history he represents. Boehner doesn’t agree. Maybe Boehner doesn’t think Buckles should lie in the rotunda because the eight weeks Boehner was in the U.S. Navy didn’t instill in him enough respect for guys like Buckles who actually went to war.
See, when Buckles was 67 years old — long after World War II and Korea — the U.S. was in full-blown conflict in Vietnam. The death toll in that war was highest among conscripted infantrymen, so guys like Boehner enlisted in the Navy to increase their chances of making it out alive. Turns out Boehner didn’t have much to worry about — he was discharged after just eight weeks because of a bad back.
Maybe if Boehner had stayed in the service he would have cared more about things like veterans’ health care. But on Mar. 16, 2005 — when Buckles was 104 years old and certainly representative of vets who might need health care — John Boehner voted against increasing funding for military health care.
Worse still, it’s not just what Buckles represents as a veteran that Boehner doesn’t think is worth displaying in the Capitol. Boehner also — again possibly because eight weeks just wasn’t long enough to get a good feel for what it’s like to be a troop willing to sacrifice everything for his or her country — doesn’t have a lot of concern for the lives of what I call the pre-veterans: the men and women whose service is ongoing.
A few years before he voted against the vets’ increased health care, John Boehner voted against the Obey amendment to HR 3289. The Obey amendment would have added $3.6 billion to improve the quality of life for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seems to me Buckles has earned his place in Washington. It’s Boehner who is there taking up way too much space.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@ hotmail.com.