The dwindling ranks of our World War I veterans – literally from millions to one – marks a poignant moment in our nation’s history. When Frank Buckles is gone, our direct and living connection to the Great War will be gone. Only images, artifacts, and words of the period will remain.
As one major preserver of these remains, the National Museum of Health and Medicine is a unique memorial to the war and its veterans. The museum’s collections of photographs, films, anatomical specimens, and medical equipment document not only the medical challenges and achievements of the 1917-1918 American Expeditionary Forces but also the broader social history of our soldiers “over there” and our nation at home during that watershed era. On this Memorial Day we should recognize the memories held in the public trust by – indeed the public memorial function of – the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Equally important is recognition of our traditional memorials to the World War I veterans, their war, and their experiences. Visitors to Washington’s Mall should see the World War I memorial there. Commemorating the military service of Washington residents, with its fading marble inscriptions, this site is hidden in a grove of magnolia trees just a few hundred yards from the newer National World War II Memorial. It is largely out of sight, so it is not surprising that it is out of mind as we think about and walk the landscape of the National Mall.
World War I is the first chapter in the history of the modern era. That generation was the first war generation to witness fully mechanized battle. It came of age in the face of machine guns, tanks, and gas that killed hundreds of thousands and disabled, disfigured, and traumatized hundreds of thousands more. It witnessed the horrors of war, and some lived to see another world war and wars beyond that.
The World War I generation created ideas and language that are still in use. When we describe the ongoing political battles over abortion rights as “trench warfare,” the terrain after a natural disaster as “no man’s land,” and the victims of hurricanes as “shell-shocked,” we are using descriptions that have their origin in the generation that – with the passing of Frank Buckles – will soon leave us entirely.
That generation also witnessed a public health tragedy. The 1918 flu outbreak was the worst epidemic in American history, killing more than 675,000 Americans and tens of millions worldwide. This event and the generation that confronted it have been in the headlines today as we brace ourselves for another possible pandemic, perhaps one on the scale of 1918. We were unprepared then to deal with such a crisis, and we are unprepared now.
The World War I generation witnessed medical innovation. On the battlefront, wounded American soldiers benefited from doctors adopting the World War I French system of triage, the sorting casualties according to the severity of wounds and their need for surgical treatment.
At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, and other hospitals around the country, soldiers disabled in battle received artificial limbs and braces, as well as occupational and physical therapy as part of “reconstruction programs” that sought to make wounded soldiers fit post-war civilian life.
Since World War I, triage has become a standard practice in emergency medicine. Cultivated in war, the specialized fields of orthotics, prosthetics, occupational therapy, and physical therapy have become essential to the rehabilitation of soldiers and civilians alike.
Veterans Day is the enduring legacy of World War I and its generation. It originated as “Armistice Day” on November 11, 1918 with the purpose of commemorating the end of the conflict.
But this Memorial Day – well before we observe Veterans Day this November – we should pause to remember Frank Buckles, to honor the generation he now represents alone, and to recognize the memorial mission of the National Museum of Health and Medicine as the institution faces the challenge of moving from Walter Reed as it continues to preserve the material remains left behind by Buckles and his 4.5 million comrades.
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