In Memory of Richard Holbrooke

Some people in the world are large. They occupy a large space, cast a large shadow, reach for large and lofty goals. And, when they are gone, they leave a large empty place waiting for one or more people to step up, pick up the portfolio and continue the work. Richard Holbrooke was such a person.

It is difficult for anyone interested in peace and in peacemaking to overlook Richard Holbrooke. For years we saw him work on nearly every continent on earth. He died December 13, 2010 from complications of a torn aorta in his heart. One wants to say that he worked his heart to shreds in the cause of peace. His dedication makes us all think about the level of our own commitment to a cause.

When I taught Ethics of Peacemaking, Richard Holbrooke's book, To End A War was on the syllabus. We read him along with authors and activists such as the Nobel Peace Prize Winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire, The Vision of Peace: Faith and Hope in Northern Ireland, and Michele Tooley, Voices of the Voiceless: Women, Justice and Human Rights in Guatemala, and others. I wanted students to understand that peacemaking is not only a top down process but is also, at the same time, a bottom up process.

Sometimes, we make the mistake of thinking that peace is simple. Just stop fighting. Bring the army home and bring in humanitarian aid. It would be good if things were that easy. But, by the time war happens, especially genocidal wars such as the war in Bosnia, there have been centuries upon centuries of conflict both violent and not. Reason and logic have long since disappeared, and one must cope with the irrational passions of humankind.

My classes and I began with the insight that power is everywhere, that there are different kinds of power and that even the most brutalized, tortured, and degraded individual still had some kind of power to bring to bear for the sake of peace in the neighborhood where they live. Holbrooke represented the opposite end of that spectrum, a person working at the behest of the president of the United States, the commander in chief of the United States military. He understood that there are times when military force needs to be met with military force.

If making a fragile albeit negative peace in Bosnia, a peace where the opposites still distrust each other, was difficult, the diplomatic work in Afghanistan and Pakistan was even more so. Here he was trying to negotiate with a corrupt government in Afghanistan and a weak government in Pakistan that also possesses nuclear weapons. And, the Taliban is loyal only to itself, willing and able to destabilize both countries. The stakes are enormously high for the region and for the world.

But Holbrooke could imagine other powerful peacemaking tools -- love, family, faith, and tradition. He wrote about such a moment sitting in a church in Bosnia:

"As we look around, an unforgettable scene takes place, in sharp contrast to the rest of the day. Two nuns appear and sit down at the organ. A young girl starts singing, rehearsing for a wedding. Her beautiful voice fills the little church, echoing off the ancient stones. We stop, transfixed. The horrors of Bosnia are both far away and yet right here. We cannot tear ourselves away. If these moments of love, family, and tradition could last longer, perhaps they could fill the space that war possess in this self-destructive land."

And I say: perhaps the world.

Rest in peace Richard Holbrooke.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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