On the last Monday of every May, Americans celebrate Memorial Day – a traditional opportunity to remember those who fought for our country and who sacrificed in so many ways for our freedoms. I’ve written about Memorial Day before, but this year is a bit different for me.
With the death in the last year of my mother and my wife’s mother, a significant link to the past has been permanently altered. I find myself on this Memorial Day thinking beyond those who have fought in wars and remembering more generally all of the mothers and fathers that brought us into the world and raised us to be the next generation of adults.
U.S. Navy Lieutenant J.G. Robert James Bach (my father) who served from 1944-1946 pictured center at his wedding.
When I consider the meaningful events that happened in my parents’ lifetime, it reminds me how easy it is to forget the sacrifices they made. How do I ensure that my children and their children understand what came before them?
1. The Great Depression
My parents and in-laws grew up in this challenging time and it imprinted a certain sense of frugality and perseverance that drove them for their entire lives. With all of the sadness today around homelessness, income inequality, and economic destitution – and with memories of the 2008 recession – nothing compares to the dust bowl days of the 1930s.
2. World War II
My in-laws both lost their fathers because of the Nazi occupation, and my mother had to wait two long years to know if her fiancé would be coming home. The pain and suffering on the battlefield and for those that lost loved ones seemed overwhelming – and then there was the Holocaust.
Locations throughout the Pacific Ocean where my father served in the U.S. Navy from 1944-1946.
3. The Atomic Bomb
President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima reminds us of the incredible responsibility we have to use technology and power wisely. My father walked the streets of Hiroshima two months after the bomb was dropped there, and I’m convinced that experience changed him forever.
4. The Cold War
The name implies some distant struggle with no fighting – and yet we fought in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and many other places – and now that fight seems to have returned. I spent many hours talking about the evils of communism and the Soviet Union with my mom. She would be scowling at Putin now and asking whether we learned anything from the past.
5. The Civil Rights Movement
My parents were neither bigots nor activists, but I remember curfews and riots growing up in Milwaukee in the late 60s…and court-ordered busing when we moved to North Carolina in the mid-70s. In almost all respects this continues to be the most overdue cultural transformation in our country’s history – a social war still marked by pain, suffering, injustice, and sacrifice.
6. The Middle East
Unlike other wars, this conflict spanned the lives of my parent’s generation as if passed on from age to age. It is difficult to keep track of the number of “wars”, who is on which side, and where the lines are drawn. The suffering that the region continues to endure is difficult to imagine. Have we learned any lessons?
I will never forget the relief in my mother’s voice (to say nothing of my wife’s) when they learned that I was safe in New York City that morning. My sojourn across the country for the next 3 days with three others is well chronicled in my book Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal. While this attack is more visceral and easier for all of us to remember, have we really internalized how much it has changed our world?
Even this dramatic list leaves off a number of very important battles, some of the military variety and others around social issues such as women’s rights, violent crime, immigration and more. In one way, shape, or form, all of these challenges and issues are still with us today. And when I see the anger and division in our country today, I really wonder if we have forgotten all that my parents and others endured over the last 100 years.
They taught me some very simple concepts: Sometimes you have to fight; intolerance fails; frugality and effort change lives; tools can be weapons or plowshares; leadership matters.
Memorial Day is about remembering all of the sacrifices and lessons from our history. As I remember Margaret and Bob (my parents) and Frans and Margriet (my wife’s parents), I just want to say thank you for the memories and the lessons. For the sacrifices and the giving.
And to my children, Never Forget.