There is but one verified veteran of WWI left alive out of the millions who served in the Great War. She is Florence Green, 110 years old, who in 1918 was an officer's mess steward in the Women's Royal Air Corps. She was recently "rediscovered" as a veteran of the Great War in January, 2010. She is also one of an estimated 300-400 supercentenarians worldwide who are >110 years old. 81 of these have been verified.
Extreme longevity is a rare curiosity. From what I can tell, those who achieve it and are able to articulate their thoughts on the subject tend to be quite astonished that they alone of their generation have survived. The last combat veterans of the War to End all Wars also routinely expressed their frustration that war is still a core human activity. In twenty years when the soldiers of "The Greatest Generation" are winnowed down to the last individuals, I wonder if it will be the same for them.
It is not only the experience of past wars that recedes when there are none that live who remember it. How we remember and understand those times becomes a matter of historiography and storytelling. Our memorials have more to say as artifacts of the society that created them than the events and individuals they commemorate. Whether carved in stone as Je me souviens or repeated by millions at Passover seders, the injunction "never forget" reinforces values and attitudes in the present time . It may or may not reflect the experience,and motivations of those we remember who were social actors in earlier times.
Memories are revisited and revised over a lifetime of reflection. What an eyewitness feels in the moment, the emotions it generates, and how that person responds to these stimuli is highly significant both to social historians as well as to psychologists trying to interpret individual and collective behaviors. I understand the emotion "fear" but not in the way that those in combat may experience it. Those who fight in modern wars with modern sensibilities may respond quite differently from those combatants with the world views of other times and societies. If there is no one left to tell us how it felt at the time, we are left trying to interpret whatever remains in the surviving historical record of what they chose to record.
As a genealogist, I often confront the regret that comes from no longer being able to ask a living relative about details from the past that I must now try to glean from other sources. As a society, there is now only one tangible living link to the Great War, and it is too great an expectation to place on her to be Virgil to our Dante. Our responsibility to the past is both to remember and to revisit those memories, to test our assumptions and gain a deeper understanding about ourselves as well as those who have gone before. Ultimately, for good or ill, the past is what we make of it. So too our destinies.