What is Lost When Veterans Pass?

By Rick Atkinson
9/21/2009 • World War II

Germany, 1945 (National Archives).
Germany, 1945 (National Archives).

What does it mean for a nation to lose what has been deemed its greatest generation?

Over the next 10 years, some 2 million veterans of World War II will die. With them will disappear their unique ability to bear witness, to remind us of the awful toll of all-out war—in this case, the deadliest war in modern history. But what, more precisely, will be lost once this generation of first-person witnesses is gone? In a special report in the November 2009 issue of World War II, a historian, a photographer, and several veterans themselves pose answers to that question. In the following essay, Rick Atkinson explores what happens to history when those who lived it can no longer tell their stories.

The statistics are as stark as mortality itself: Of the 16,112,566 American veterans of the Second World War, fewer than 2.5 million remain alive. With another 311,000 projected to die this year, they are passing at the rate of 852 a day, or 35 an hour, or about one every two minutes. Sometime around Christmas 2014, the number will dip below one million, according to demographic tables compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and a decade later, in 2024, fewer than 100,000 will remain. In 2036, the latest year for which figures have been calculated, the cohort that fought and won the most destructive war in human history will be reduced to 370 survivors, less than half the size of an infantry battalion.

What is lost, in this slow march to the grave? What is lost to history, to historians, to our culture? If the private deprivation seems obvious—fathers and grandfathers gone, widows bereft of companionship—the public depletion is harder to assess. As we move toward the day when not a single participant remains alive to tell his tale, what does it mean for a nation to lose what has been deemed its greatest generation?

Historians surely will soldier on without them. World War II may be mankind’s most documented event. The U.S. Army records alone—a mere slice of the global archive—weigh 17,120 tons, enough to fill 188 miles of filing cabinets set side by side. Vast caches of oral histories and personal reminiscences abound, including hundreds of nearly contemporaneous combat interviews at the U.S. National Archives, thousands of detailed veteran questionnaires collected by the U.S. Army Military History Institute, and tens of thousands of accounts accumulated in the Library of Congress, various university repositories, and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Enduring military histories are often written without direct assistance from battlefield participants, such as James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Hew Strachan’s monumental chronicle of World War I (not to mention Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War). “Our understanding of any era continues to become richer and more complex over time because historians build upon the work of one another, allowing a fuller and more nuanced accounting with each decade that passes,” says Tami Davis Biddle, a professor at the U.S. Army War College.

Future World War II historians may find themselves unshackled from sentiment, vainglory, and the war’s “Higher Disneyfication,” in the trenchant phrase of Paul Fussell, an army lieutenant in Europe in 1944 and 1945. Fussell, who recovered from grievous battle wounds to become an author and English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, complained that “the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty.” In a similar vein, the historian Sir Michael Howard, who also saw action as a young officer in Europe, observed that “the Second World War is ransacked to provide material for the glorification of our past.”

Flinty-eyed assessment may be easier without the emotional tangle inevitable in writing about parents and grandparents who have been anointed virtual demigods. “Historians will be less influenced by the passions and prejudices of the people living through those events,” predicts Col. Lance Betros, head of West Point’s history department. “There will be less sentimentalism and pandering to particular audiences.”

The passing of veterans from earlier wars offers clues about how this cultural transition will unfold. For one thing, it will be a protracted farewell: the last Revolutionary War vet lingered until after the Civil War, dying in 1869 at the age of 109, while some War of 1812 veterans lived to see the 20th century, and Civil War veterans lived into the 1950s. The last Spanish-American War survivor died in 1992, at 106. Of the two million Americans who fought in France in World War I, the last survivor, Frank W. Buckles, turned 108 on February 1.

Yet as the generations inexorably rise and fall, so do remembrance and ritual evolve. “No longer do Americans drink ritualistic toasts on Independence Day to military leaders such as Generals Warren and Montgomery and Commanders Decatur and Perry,” G. Kurt Piehler wrote in Remembering War the American Way. “Few Americans remember the U.S.S. Maine.” Edward M. Coffman, the dean of American military historians, recalled that as a boy in Kentucky in the 1930s “there was the minute of silence on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month that we school children observed.” Such observances of the Great War are rare today in America, Coffman added, in part because “the coming of World War II pushed aside memories of the earlier war.”

As veterans die off, their progeny tend to scrutinize the wars they fought more critically. The Civil War for decades was viewed as a struggle to preserve the Union, “with slavery as a political and social issue being minimized,” cultural historian Michael Kammen recently wrote. “Not until well after the Civil War centennial did most historians and the public begin to acknowledge the centrality of slavery and its potential expansion as primary issues that triggered hostilities.” In the 64 years since World War II ended, the doughty triumphalism that long characterized the conflict in American popular culture—evinced in films like The Longest Day and Patton—has been partly eclipsed by deeper reflection on the Holocaust, as well as the role of women, blacks, Hispanics, and the nuanced influence of domestic politics on American foreign policy. “In virtually every decade since 1945,” says Mark A. Stoler, professor emeritus of history at the University of Vermont, “there’s been a shift in focus, both in historians’ attention and in popular views of the war.”

Controversies that kindled passions for years will no doubt get a cooler, more dispassionate assessment as the war and its warriors fade into the past, from the consequences of the Yalta summit to the use of the atomic bomb. Various overworked analogies—such as comparing every tinhorn megalomaniac to Adolf Hitler—should lose some of their vibrancy. “The myths of World War II include the assertion that ‘appeasement’ is a dirty word, when in fact it often works,” Stoler adds. Moreover, as Michael Howard has observed, “Each upcoming generation asks a different set of questions from the same body of material. When we get a generation that not only has no personal memory of the war, but whose parents have no personal memory either, then all kinds of questions and problems arise which never occurred to those among us who went through that experience.”

That generation is now of age.

Yet who can doubt that the loss is profound? As the generation dies, so dies the living memory of a calamity that extinguished 60 million lives.

“We’ll lose much of the emotional connection, because living witnesses, no matter how aged, generally compel us more than a passed generation,” says Paul H. Herbert, executive director of the Cantigny First Division Foundation. “We’ll also lose the veterans’ check on our own romantic tendencies. There will be no one to throw the b.s. flag.” So too will fade the organic recollection of a singular epoch in American history. “We never fought a war where the entire country was so much a part of the war effort,” says Dr. James B. Peake, who served as secretary of veterans affairs under George W. Bush. “That’s what we may lose: the sense of community, of commitment, the sense of what it takes.”

For all the stories told and retold, countless others will go untold. No one bears witness to the most elemental emotions of war, including fear and despair, better than those who were there. “I was scared for twenty-three months,” a soldier in the 36th Infantry Division once confessed. “I saw the best troops in the world cut down and replaced three or four times.” No one can convey the vivid immediacy of combat better than the eyewitness, whether the antiaircraft fire at Ploesti—“it came like a mighty shout, a malediction hurling up at us through four miles of twisting wind. They were everywhere; the dark flowers of flak were everywhere”—or the sight of a doomed bomber over Bremen: “The plane lost speed, slipped back and spiralled gently down. I saw a piece of wing shatter and fly off like a target in skeet shooting. The broken wing was jagged and flaming.”

Who but the veteran can better convey the stain that war leaves on the young, as in J. Glenn Gray’s confession to his wartime diary: “My conscience seems to become little by little sooted.” Who but the veteran can explain both the love among battlefield comrades and the small, dense pellet of remorse carried by those who survive when others do not? “I must pursue the shadows to some middle ground,” pilot John Muirhead wrote, “for I am strangely bound to all that happened to them.”

Who but the old man looking back can testify to what no young man should ever have to witness, like the veteran from the 157th Infantry Regiment who in April 1945 arrived by jeep at the Dachau rail siding? “The cars were right up to the gate, crammed with bodies, bodies fallen out and laying on the ties and the rails, stark naked. They hadn’t begun to bloat and decompose, and it was a warm day, the smell just starting…. Right then I knew the whole two years overseas wasn’t wasted.” One of his buddies added, “You’d never been quite all that sure why you were fighting, but by God when you saw that, you knew.”

There’s the nub: the ability to attest, with authenticity and authority, why they fought, suffered, and died. “There is something that is born deep inside us,” a medic who landed at Salerno wrote his wife, “when we come to know why we are here, when we have learned how very important it was that we did leave you and all we love.”

Samuel Hynes, a marine fighter pilot in World War II, wrote, “If we would understand humankind’s most violent episodes, we must understand them humanly, in the lives of individuals.” It is the individuals who are leaving us, one by one by one.

Yesterday another battalion went to its reward, followed by another today. Another will follow tomorrow. “The Civil War defined who we are as a people and a nation,” says Mark Stoler. “World War II on the other hand defines not who we are internally, but what we are in the rest of the world.” That definition remains a work in progress, to be carried forward by generations yet unborn, overwatched by ghosts.

Leave the last word to a veteran, Charles R. Cawthon, a newspaperman from Tennessee who eventually commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 116th Infantry Regiment. “Each man’s war is separate and personal unto himself and not exactly like that of any other,” Cawthon wrote. “It is fought first within his own heart and soul, and the outcome is buried with his bones.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of World War II magazine.

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