Frank Buckles and ‘The American Century’

A photo of Frank Buckles. Flickr user: JSF539 (Creative Commons)

Frank Buckles, the last (known) surviving American veteran of World War I, died this week at the age of 110. Beyond the impressive number of years logged on this world, Buckles also had a pretty amazing life story. Coming from modest beginnings in rural Oklahoma, he developed a tenacious attitude towards serving his country as a teenager, and was turned away several times before finally fudging his age to enlist. After military service he worked in the shipping industry, and during World War II, he was captured by the Japanese while traveling in the Philippines. He would be held in a prison came for three years before allied forces released him.

On Monday President Obama released a statement on Buckles’ death. In part the statement read, “Frank Buckles lived the American century.”¬†As I heard it over the radio and read it online, that statement struck me.

No matter your political leanings, it seems easy to state as fact that presidents are generally quite careful with their public language. “The” American century would suggest there was only one, wouldn’t it? Buckles lived the American century, which is now over. Whether or not he wants talk radio to pick that up, this is what President Obama is saying, and he’s privy to a lot more briefings than we are. So what does that admission mean?

It means a few different things. One, that Obama is looking at a world that is already post-American hegemony. Military power, economic power, tech, population size and relative wealth–in a century that is no longer American, other countries are going to be the top in these interconnected areas, and Obama’s statement suggests a pretty significant policy paradigm shift. Two, that admission means we, as Americans, may be faced with the unthinkable: that we are no longer the biggest, the best, the mostest awesomest.

So how do you feel now that the American century is over? Queasy? Terrified? Relieved?

This isn’t a new idea, to be sure. I’ve had enough government professors and read enough Op-Eds about the decline of “American empire” to know that, and probably, so have you. But just because it’s subtle doesn’t mean a statement like Obama’s is insignificant.

The summer I turned 21, I was living in Boston and working at a small pizza joint near Berklee School of Music. One day several British men came in, obviously on holiday, and ordered a few pies and several pitchers. We got into a friendly discussion about a recent trip I’d taken to Europe–one where I had discovered the amazing fact that in several countries across the pond, they are serious about conserving power. In lots of buildings, you’ll find those energy-saving lights that ¬†unless you press a button on each floor as you walk up the stairs, will go out. When I told them how amazed I was at this, they just laughed.

“America is so young,” said one of the ruddy-faced young men. “You don’t know what it’s like yet, to have to live with the rest of the world. In England, we know we do not have a choice.”

That’s always stayed with me. Again, an obvious statement, and one that may be more based in geographic realities than in the passage of time. Either way, when your country’s leader signals he understands you’re no longer top dog, that’s bad and good news.

This century–which I imagine will belong to a certain giant country in Asia–maybe we will learn to better live with the rest of the world. Buckles was proud of America, and willing to die for it. But I’d like to think that he understood serving your country–perhaps the same way Obama seems to understand it–is a complicated office.

About Ben

Ben Brock Johnson is a print, radio, and new media journalist working in New York City.
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