Tuesday, April 03, 2007

And then there were four

This weekend brought the news that in quick succession the last U.S. female veteran and last U.S. Navy veteran of World War I had died. Now only four veterans of World War I are known to reside in the U.S., three from the U.S. Army and one from the Canadian Army. Similar handfuls survive from the other participants. Despite its inevitability, it is striking when such a large cohort of people disappears. A huge chapter of human history loses all its living witnesses.

My own grandfather was a doughboy, though he never spoke about it. I have a few mementos of his service -- his helmet, a reproduction of the photo of his unit before it shipped out and a copy of his war diary lovingly transcribed by my mother from the disintegrating original. I am only one dereference away, but that is still a great distance.

World War I got scant attention in my grade school history classes -- a mention of the assassination which fermented it (which was probably the only mention ever of the Habsburgs!), a recitation of the events leading to U.S. entry, and perhaps an iconic picture of an American soldier in the Ardennes. The Armistice and the Paris peace talks would about round it out. Given the late entry of the U.S. and the still debated impact of its entry, and the fact that my history classes were universally parochial in their world view, it is not surprising.

On reflection, what is perhaps more striking is the minimal number of scientific or technological changes which are routinely traced to The Great War, particularly in contrast to the greater cataclysm it helped set up. While a number of innovations in human slaughter are routinely cited, about the only non-military influence I can immediately think of is the impact on aviation -- both by driving technical advances and by generating a large pool of pilots, who would later barnstorm across the U.S.

World War II on the other hand is permanently associated with a large number of technologies. Perhaps first on the list would be atomic energy, but radar and rocketry would be close behind. In the biomedical arena, WW2 caused a huge push forward in antibiotic production methods.

While the Genome Project seemed like big biology -- and it was, it was nothing in scale compared to the Manhattan Project or Apollo. Someday the last of these cohorts will leave this world. It may well pass unnoticed, as the prominence and certainty of military service are far beyond that of any civilian enterprise.

All of these individuals are of advanced age, considering that the war itself started 93 years ago this summer. What remarkable lives!

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