The Event Horizon of Memory, In Honor of the Ten Surviving Veterans of the Great War

...who are:

  • Claude Stanly Choules, Australia
  • John Campbell Ross, Australia
  • Fernand Goux, France
  • Pierre Picault, France
  • Henry William Allingham, United Kingdom
  • Netherwood Hughes, United Kingdom
  • Henry John Patch, United Kingdom
  • William Frederick Stone, United States
  • John Henry Foster Babcock, United States
  • Frank Woodruff Buckles, United States

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surviving_veterans_of_World_War_I

The last surviving veteran of a Central Powers Nation, Franz Künstler of Austria (Austro-Hungary), died in May.

Of the greatest war that had — in its day — ever been fought; the war that unmade four empires, rewrote the maps of Europe, near Asia, and Africa; the war that destroyed the last great age of globalism; the war so total that it was called, for fifteen years, the Great War: almost no one remains who remembers that war first hand. In four years, the last vestiges of the medieval Europe of kings, fiefdoms and peasantry were unwritten. In only a few years, no one alive will remember that ancient world.

Before I was born, November 11 was Armistice Day. These men were elder statesmen, gentle retirees, and they were everywhere. Today we look over the boundary of oral history and history. A thing we lived through will become a thing we read about.

We can turn the wheel forward: sometime around my own retirement, no one alive will have fought through World War II.

And we can turn this wheel backward: when my father was born, the codgers playing checkers in front of the feed store were Civil War veterans.

When we measure history in lifespans, it becomes shorter. By this measure, Napoleon conquered Europe only three lifetimes ago. For almost a century, when people spoke of “The Wars,” they meant the ones Napoleon started. (When I was a kid, people said “the war“ and meant WWII. No one says “the war” anymore, unless they mean “this war,” that is, the one we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

With that new span of measurement — lifespans, not years, or decades, or generations — the progress of the last five hundred years takes on a frightening dimension. For 17 lifespans, the people of Europe toiled in varying states of serfdom within a religious and political framework that transcended all memory: living and written. Think about living within a social order that was almost exactly like your parents’ social order; who in turn lived almost exactly as their own parents had lived ... for seventeen lifetimes.

On an archaeological timescale, agriculture — the foundation of almost all existing social order — is ten times longer: 170 generations. Only one tenth of that time — those 17 endless lifetimes — have passed since the fall of the Roman Empire. But agriculture is itself but a blink: human beings, in their present shape, have been making tools, singing songs, telling stories, hunting, fishing, building: for 900 lifetimes.

Of those 900 lifetimes, we have lived with “modernism” (capitalism, democracy, equality, science, and progress) for only seven lifetimes. The United States is only barely three lifetimes old.

I think the men whose names appear above fought for the victory of Modernism over Feudalism, although they almost certainly didn’t see it that way. In 1900, serious thought about history and politics contended with the fate of empires: British, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Chinese...by 1919, only one of those empires mattered. As the Great War slips over the Event Horizon of a Single Lifetime, we might start to think that the modern world order — the one with capitalism and science and so forth — is here to stay. When we consider the weight of all the lifetimes before, however, our modern world order may feel a little fragile.