FROM THE EDITOR: The slow death of living history

(BRANDON HANSEN/Managing Editor of the Chewelah Independent)

One thing that always blew my mind was footage of Civil War veterans holding parades during the 1930s and finding out that the last veteran from that war died in the 1950s.

Heck, there are even soldiers who served in both the Civil War and the first World War.

At last Saturday’s 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, only one of the three remaining survivors of the USS Arizona attended the event. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft sneak-attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, pulling the nation into World War 2.

World War 2 was the most transformative war in the 20th century, but one thing that scares me a bit is how we are losing the living history from that time period.

With most WW2 vets in their 80s and 90s, the nature of human mortality is taking over, and roughly 389K veterans from that war are still alive today, compared to the 16 million U.S. vets who served in the war.

Slowly we’re losing that living connection to the war and that time period. The last living veteran of World War 1 was Britain’s Florence Green who passed away in 2012 at the age of 100, and the last known combat vet who passed away was Claude Choules in 2011.

History can be a tough nut to crack. Think of all the different “realities” we have today from the right and left on the same events. Now, consider you’re a historian and you’re dealing with different sources with different takes on how a complex and vast war went. With each passing veteran, we lose a link to an important time in human history and sadly there is no more insight, thoughts or feelings they can give on the manner.

To me it’s both sad and a little scary. These vets were the last to see the last truly global conflict. They lived in a time where dictatorships, communism, democracy and actually a few monarchies existed side by side. They saw the human toll on their fellow soldiers, experienced the horrible human experience that is combat after many had also gone through the Great Depression.

They experienced a world completely different from our own, one in much greater turmoil and one that was on the brink of a true disaster if the Axis won.

The issue now becomes understanding WW2 when nobody alive from that time is able to tell you what it was like. Listen to a few lectures on YouTube about the war and you’ll see vast gaps in views of the war. For years we used German general accounts about how the Eastern Front developed, apparently accepting their bias as fact. Once the Iron Curtain fell, we got the Russian side of things and began to understand more and more the horrible human toll.

As a millennial, I can say I haven’t seen fascism rise or fall. I don’t know what it looks like, I don’t know what the feelings of the people will be if something like this happens. There is no living context for me. Just words in a history book that says Hitler and Mussolini rose to power.

I can’t tell you what a large tank battle looks like, or what combat on a global scale feels like overseas and back on the home front.

Sometimes it seems humans’ biggest failings are not grasping what has happened outside of living memory. As we lose that generation that had to fight a global war, what is our viewpoint on future global wars? I would rather have those who understand the true horrors of war make the decisions that determine our foreign policy. Can we understand what we are committing ourselves to in the future?

Perspective is a very important thing as time marches on, we love our perspective on things when they become a distant memory or something that we read about. Hearsay and “analysis” take over, narratives are constructed and history is reshaped. Historians today still argue over if Germany had a chance to win WW2, what the causes of WW1 were and how the world could have avoided these conflicts.

But as more people from that time period pass away, it becomes more and more just speculation and a matter of opinion. I’m not one to say history repeats itself – it’s much more complicated and nuanced than that – but it is a shame that aging causes us to lose these viewpoints and information from a generation that saved us all from fascism.