"Relatively few young people have much recollection that these people did anything really important. World War II has dominated war history in the media in the 20th century. My students think World War I is World War II. The experience of World War I was just as powerful, but the memory is much weaker."
For the surviving American veterans, the war occupied just a year or two in lives destined to amass eight more decades of personal significance. They think of themselves primarily as former steelworkers and postal clerks and businessmen, as husbands, fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, not as former soldiers.
Still, the eyes of the entire country, as well as the Western world, were fixed on them as young men ready to live at close quarters with death.
Anniversaries stir our desire to remember, and the 80th anniversary of anything that can be marked by living participants is remarkable in itself. The French government is seeking to identify American World War I veterans who served in France so that it may confer on each of them the French Legion of Honor this year, before they, like the great mass of their fellows, exist only in memory.
In the 23 years that Muriel Sue Parkhurst has worked for Veterans of World War I of the U.S.A., the rear guard has dwindled from 750,000 to half of 1% of that figure. Nearly all the survivors live in homes or hospitals for the elderly.
"To me, every one of them is so special. I sometimes get off the phone and sob myself to sleep because I've just learned I've lost another one," says Parkhurst, who is executive director of the Virginia-based organization.
"In the spring and the summer, I lose them at a lesser rate, because that's when they're in better health. But [during] the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, it increases, because they get miserably lonesome. I mean, they've outlived their wives, outlived their children, outlived their dogs.
"At one of the national conventions, I told them I forbid any more of them to die."
The members of the rear guard have come full circle, living again at close quarters with death, and deserve to be placed clearly before our eyes once more. Time has shrunk them. It has creased their skin, hobbled their steps and drained the reserves of their vital organs, so that their every day is lived on a razor's edge of will.
But, adamant in their manliness, beautiful in their frailty, they evoke a powerful sense of something definitive in our past that can never be remembered in the same way once they've departed.