It was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
But one final skirmish from the Great War is yet to be decided.Frank Buckles has been dead more than a week.
And a debate rages in Washington as to where Buckles' final duty might take him.
Buckles was the last surviving veteran of World War I. He died last week in Charles Town, WV at the age of 110.
Buckles is slated to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with extensive military honors. But Buckles' daughter, both of West Virginia's senators, his Congresswoman, the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, dozens of other lawmakers and countless others think the World War I ambulance driver is deserving of one more posting before he arrives at his Arlington resting place: the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.
The Capitol Rotunda is the nation's hall. It's a solemn sanctuary to the American experience. Paintings depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the surrender of the British at Yorktown adorn its walls. Statuary of American figures ranging from Washington, Jefferson, Reagan and Martin Luther King stand watch around the Rotunda's perimeter, protected by the canopy of the Capitol dome. In the Rotunda, everything is pressed up against its edges. A circular, marble desert spills across the expanse between the walls with nothing in between.
That's because the yawning plot in middle of the room is typically reserved for the rarest of occasions.
In fact, rare, reverent occasions. Such as when one of the nation's heroes lie in "state" or in "honor." Since the founding of the republic, the U.S. has only so recognized 34 citizens as worthy of a Rotunda ceremony. Many are presidents, like Lincoln and Kennedy. But there are others, too, like civil rights hero Rosa Parks.
Most have lain in "state," the highest level of repose one can assume in the Capitol Rotunda. Parks and the two U.S. Capitol Police officers killed during a 1998 shootout lay in "honor," a similar but slightly less formal tribute than lying in "state." When the U.S. lauds someone in the Rotunda, their coffin is positioned in the center of the room. An honor guard is positioned at each of the four corners of the casket to watch over the body around the clock. The doors to the Capitol are opened and the public files by, hour-by-hour, to pay their respects.
As the final American World War I survivor, Buckles' daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, believes her father is worthy of laying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Not so much of for his acts of valor or service (Buckles held a low rank and was not decorated). But because Buckles' death is emblematic of a lost time. The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of World War II are known as the "Greatest Generation," chronicled in books and movies. Korea was "The Forgotten War," but is now memorialized on the National Mall and a continued U.S. military presence on the DMZ. Vietnam was more than just a war. It encompassed an entire era, spanning everything from the culture wars to unrest on college campuses to the draft.
And then there were the doughboys of World War I.
Not many people can tell you much about them. There's no Tom Brokaw, Bob Dole or Oliver Stone to champion their cause. In this case, there's Buckles' 55-year-old daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan.
"If the last American soldier surviving is not suitable to serve as a symbol around which we can rally to honor those who served their country in the Great War, then who can serve that purpose?" asked Flanagan in a statement over the weekend. "There is no one left. If we lose the opportunity to bestow this highest of honors on the person who was the last surviving representative, there can be no making it up later."
But a week after Buckles' death, there's still no resolution to the dispute.
So what's the problem?
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) believe the best place to honor Buckles is not in the Capitol Rotunda, but at Arlington National Cemetery. They are appealing to the Pentagon to conduct a ceremony at the amphitheater there instead.
"Everyone honors Mr. Buckles' service to the United States, and the extraordinary sacrifices made by every member of our Armed Forces who served in World War One," said Boehner spokesman Mike Steel late last week. But there appeared to be no change in the stances of Boehner or Reid after Susannah Flanagan's weekend appeal.
But Flanagan says, it's not just about her dad. It's about all of those who served in World I. And as Buckles approached death, his daughter says he was ready for one final assignment in the Capitol Rotunda.
"Papa consented to this because he understood that, as the last living World War I veteran, he was expected to represent all of the World War I veterans. He looked upon this as his final duty, which he took very seriously," Flanagan said.
To honor Buckles in the Rotunda, both houses of Congress must agree to a resolution to use the space for that purpose. What's interesting is that in Washington, lawmakers and officials often defer to the wishes of families when it comes to honoring the dead. But despite support from many lawmakers, it now seems unlikely that Buckles will receive any accolades in the Rotunda.
"Frank Buckles' daughter Susannah Buckles Flanagan, eloquently explains why HE dedicated the last decades of his life to teaching current generations about the sacrifice of the WWI generation," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), who supports honoring Buckles in the Capitol Rotunda.
President Ford was the last figure to lay in state or honor in the Rotunda in late 2006 and early 2007. Ford had been out of public life for nearly 30 years. But Ford's death and subsequent Rotunda ceremony served as an educational tool for the country about his life, his ascent to the presidency during Watergate, one of the most turbulent periods in American political history. The same was true with civil rights figure Rosa Parks when she laid in honor in 2005. And a generation learned about the legacy of Ronald Reagan when his flag-draped coffin rested in the Capitol Rotunda after his 2004 death.
David DeJonge, who has worked with the Buckles family as its official spokesman, says he was told a few years ago by the Pentagon that when Buckles died, the military would not provide any honor guard if he were to lie in repose in the Rotunda. Plus, DeJonge says that since Buckles death, the family has not heard anything about any plans from military officials who would usually handle such ceremonies at the Capitol or at Arlington.
"This is profoundly baffling and disheartening," DeJonge said.
It's somewhat arbitrary as to who Congress decides is worth an homage in the Rotunda. For starters, all presidents are granted the right to lay in state. But even then, it's a family decision. Abraham Lincoln was the first of 11 presidents to lay in state. But many presidents have not, notably Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.
Nixon's family opted out, believing some in the crowd might not be respectful.
But the list of those who have lain in state is a potpourri of Americana. Some are famous. Some were famous in the day, but time has now passed them by. There's House Speaker Henry Clay. Vice President Henry Wilson. Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the layout of Washington. In fact, L'Enfant's remains were exhumed almost a century after his death. L'Enfant was honored in the Rotunda in 1909 and then reburied at Arlington. There was Navy Adm. George Dewey, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL).
In short, Congress blesses who it wants in the Rotunda and who it doesn't.
One argument against granting permission for Buckles' remains to lie in the Rotunda is that it could set a precedent. Some suggest this would mean that the last remaining soldier from all of America's wars would be afforded a similar tribute. But Buckles' daughter isn't buying it.
"There is no extraordinary precedent being made here. The next similar request will some for the last survivor of World War II in 25 or 30 years' time, and it will be appropriate to honor that person, as well," said Flanagan. "There is widespread public support for allowing Frank Woodruff Buckles to lie in honor in the Rotunda. Let it be so."
So Buckles' future is in limbo. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) says a Rotunda memorial would be a "fitting tribute" and harshly criticized Boehner, calling it "a big disappointment."
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) also went after Boehner, rather than his own Majority Leader, Harry Reid. Manchin called it "a surprising decision by the Speaker."And Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Buckles' Congresswoman in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, said the bickering wasn't doing the late veteran justice.
"We need a time for reflection, and the recognition of the end of an era and the passing of a generation," said Susannah Flanagan Buckles. "My father serves as a symbol for all those who served in World War I."
Buckles may be symbolic of the Great War. But for now, that symbolism won't be acknowledged in the Capitol Rotunda.