Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I, lived through the rise of the United States as a major world power and survived long enough to see the beginning of its decline. He died Sunday, aged 110, and much of America's greatness passed along with him.
Mr. Buckles was witness to profound changes in U.S. history. He was born in the waning days of William McKinley's first term. Then the country was in the middle of an industrial expansion that made the United States one of the world's largest economies. It was the age of empires, when European states controlled most of the globe and the British Royal Navy kept the peace of the seas. That was an era of progress when the consensus view was that all the great problems had been solved or soon would be, and technological improvements would help usher in a century of peace and plenty.
The guns of August 1914 changed all that. The impact of the war in which Mr. Buckles was so eager to participate was profound. Around 16 million people died, four empires vanished and no government that entered the war in 1914 was in power at the end of it. America emerged as a fully fledged global power and international industrial force. The conflict ended the relatively more orderly period of the 99-year Pax Britannica and began a renewed age of ideological conflict that continues to the present day.
Strong challenges to Western democracy took root in the aftermath of the First World War, most prominently fascism, Nazism, Japanese imperialism and Soviet communism. The first three brought on the Second World War and another 60-70 million dead. The last remained a direct challenge until 1991 and continues by extension in North Korea and communist China.
The impact of World War I did not end with the collapse of global communism. The conflict also saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. Most of the current national borders in that region were drawn as a result of the war, chiefly by agreements among the European colonial powers seeking to secure energy resources and trade routes. The war also produced the 1917 Balfour declaration which was the first official step towards the creation of the state of Israel.
To Islamic extremists, these events were catastrophic. When Kemal Ataturk ended Ottoman rule, he also abolished the Islamic caliphate. According to Muslim radicals, this act - combined with carving up the Ottoman lands into separate independent states and the emergence of what they disparagingly call the "Zionist entity" - was the modern era's original sin. A direct line can be drawn between these events and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when according to Osama bin Laden, "the sword reached America after 80 years." Al Qaeda's primary strategic objective, as well as that of extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, is to return the Mideast region to where it was before World War I took it all away.
During his long life, Mr. Buckles witnessed incredible advances in technology, medicine and communications that have touched every corner of the globe and dramatically changed how Americans live. He lived through an historic moment that took place around 1950. America's share of global gross domestic product, which had been rising since the country was founded, peaked and began to decline. U.S. global influence would remain strong for decades, but American supremacy waned quickly. Today, President Obama not only speaks openly of the declining ability of the United States decisively to influence world events, he welcomes it.
All of these remarkable events happened in the life of one man. The lesson of Mr. Buckles' amazing century and 10 years is that change is a part of life, and that none of the futures that we can imagine will be as compelling as that which actually happens. A more sobering warning is that Americans cannot be assured of a future in which they enjoy the wealth, power, influence and freedoms to which they have been accustomed. Unless the American spirit can be reawakened, the children being born today may look back in their dotage and reminisce about the nation that was the United States, and sadly shake their heads at the heartbreak that followed.
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