A salute to our last doughboy

America’s last surviving World War I veteran, West Virginian Frank Woodruff Buckles, died in February of 2011. Though we never met, I grew up with many of his Doughboy contemporaries. My grandfather, a World War I cavalryman, was one of them. He was born in 1897 and his hand-colored 1917 Army portrait hangs on my wall. They were the generation that connected the frontier days to our emerging modernity, saw the first automobiles and airplanes, and lived through the sinking of the Titanic.

These 19th century men left home, many for the first time, to face 20th century weapons that elevated human slaughter to the industrial factory level of efficiency that was emblematic of that new age. In what was still a horse-based United States Army, they shipped out to Europe as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force to face the horrors of mechanized warfare that obliterated an entire generation of young men. At the peak of the madness, both sides’ 19th century generals and tacticians sacrificed as many as 100,000 lives per day to the 20th century machine guns, artillery, high velocity explosives and poison gasses.

Beyond the horrific slaughter of the new warfare, even more died of disease before they even left their mustering camps to face the Huns. After the war, death dogged the survivors relentlessly as the Spanish influenza followed them to their homes everywhere. It took soldiers and civilians by the tens of thousands as part of a world-wide epidemic that killed so rapidly and pervasively that there were often not enough able bodied people to remove and bury the dead.

Both sides were so decimated and exhausted that they took a 20 year respite from the “war to end all wars” before resuming the slaughter in what became the even deadlier World War II.

All of our nation’s warriors went through this before and since World War I, with variations in time, place and technology. Those who died gave up not only their lives, but their yet-unlived years of future happiness, creativity and societal contributions. Survivors’ lives were never the same as they dealt with the aftermath of wounds and injuries and carried memories of horrors that could never be exorcised.

Despite it all, they continued to serve as they returned home and helped build or rebuild their families, communities, institutions and the country. From the American Revolution forward, this has been the soldiers’ way and will probably always be so.

This includes women who served directly, as well as those who tended the home fires and ran the farms and factories. Most veterans are self-effacing and usually refer to their fallen comrades as the real heroes. They have never asked for much, if anything, in return.

Over the years, it has become customary to honor America and those who have given so much to assure our freedoms and way of life throughout our history.

As a symbolic display of respect and remembrance for those who served, Congress enacted a law requiring proper etiquette during the playing of the National Anthem. The U.S. Code reads:

“During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there”.

Federal courts have since decided that failure to obey this statute may be construed as protected speech and may not be punished. This, however, misses the point. Appropriate conduct during our National Anthem represents basic courtesy and respect for our nation and those whose sacrifices preserved it, past and present.

Good manners are the lubricant of our social interactions and make our daily lives easier and more pleasant. Proper National Anthem etiquette is a simple display of good manners, no matter who you are or where you come from. Regardless of our individual beliefs concerning the free speech issues or whether we choose to respect or demean the sacrifices of those who served to protect us and our freedoms, we can and should at least be mannerly.

Watching ill-mannered adults’ reprehensible behavior during the playing of the Anthem, I can only surmise that they must have made a conscious and thoughtful decision to publically display their disrespect. Children whose manners are just as bad as these adults are either reflecting the views of their parents or they are the victims of poor parenting and don’t know any better.

Observing athletics teams during the playing of the Anthem and seeing fans, players and coaches with eyes on the flag and hands on the heart, I can only infer the positive qualities that they, their families and their schools value, respect and hold sacred. The converse is also true.

This silent, overt act of acknowledgement and respect during the National Anthem is a salute to all those who have served and will; especially our last Doughboy, Frank Woodruff Buckles.

Editor’s note: Dr. Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia and a Senior Fellow at the Government Policy Research Center at West Liberty University