Paul Pillar

The Last Doughboy

The final surviving American veteran of World War I, Frank W. Buckles, died earlier this week at the age of 110. Having retained a sharp mind and good humor into his advanced age, Buckles gracefully filled the role that the luck of longevity had given to him. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki commented that with Buckles's passing America had lost not only “a living link to an important era in our nation's history” but also “a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated.”

Although a milestone such as this is obviously inevitable, it still ought to be a source of regret to anyone wanting to learn from history and to avoid repeating its mistakes. Americans—especially, though not uniquely, Americans—tend to forget too soon the emotions, costs, and lessons associated with past wars. More specifically, we tend to forget wars other than the most recent one—a habit that is the basis for the concept of preparing to fight the last war. The war in which Buckles served had been expected to be a fast-moving offensive contest, not the static trench warfare that the western front settled into. That experience in turn led to an expectation that World War II would be more of the same, not the blitzkrieg that materialized. The smashing U.S. victory over Iraq in 1991 fed expectations that the offensive war against Iraq launched in 2003 would be just as easy. A later improvement in the security situation in Iraq fed the belief that the key to counterinsurgency success had been found and could be applied in Afghanistan. None of these efforts made full use of lessons from the Vietnam War, which demonstrated both the positive and negative sides of counterinsurgency and the limitations of fighting a determined foe on his home turf. And even though Vietnam also demonstrated the fallacies in domino theories and in the idea that backing away from an unproductive endeavor damages one's credibility, we still hear those notions today. The truce in Vietnam began 38 years ago. Very few of those who served in that conflict are in the U.S. military today, and many of them have already passed away.

The experiences of Frank Buckles made him particularly conscious of the impact on the military and civilians alike of more than one war, not just the most recent war. In World War I he served behind the lines as an ambulance driver. He personally suffered more during World War II, when as a shipping clerk in the Philippines he was interned for three debilitating years under Japanese occupation.

We shouldn't need military veterans around to inculcate in us the lessons of past wars. But the veterans do embody experiences, some of them incredibly trying, that most of those who have not worn the uniform have not experienced. And they do serve as living reminders of episodes in our history that have much to teach.

As cohorts of veterans age, others will eventually be identified, like Frank Buckles, as the last surviving participants in each war that came after World War I. Let's try to absorb as many of the lessons that we can from those later conflicts while some of those who served in them are still alive. That would be a tribute to the veterans as well as a basis for making smarter policies.