Stories of aging veterans have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. I can recall watching Wimbledon with my sister in the early 1980s during the Bjorg/McEnroe/Connors era and seeing the elderly World War I veterans sitting together in their designated section. There were fewer every year. Aging soldiers are compelling, ironically enough, for their ordinariness. The generals of the Great War, middle-aged during the conflict, died off in the 1930s and 1940s. The same of course happened with the Second World War, when generals like Eisenhower (1969), de Gaulle (1970), and Montgomery (1976) passed on in the decades after the war. Robert E. Lee died in 1870, just five years after Appomattox. The young enlisted men of any conflict obviously live decades longer until, inevitably, the millions become thousands who become hundreds and then dozens until eventually there are a mere handful left. Then the man who went over the top at the Somme or made it all the way to the Angle during Pickett’s Charge becomes noteworthy precisely because he is one of the last remaining to tell the story. The few who live into true old age become anachronisms, living symbols of another time. We are seeing this happen now with World War II veterans, who are roughly the same age today as Civil War veterans in the 1910s and 1920s. Knowing that in a few short decades they too will be no more makes me feel old and a little sad.
The aging soldier
04 Wednesday May 2011
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