My only meeting with Richard Holbrooke was a grim handshake during the saddest day I ever had in uniform. Our brief encounter took place at Arlington National Cemetery following military funerals for two close friends killed the week before on a treacherous road outside Sarajevo; another, General Wes Clark, had barely escaped the same fate. All three had been part of a diplomatic mission led by Holbrooke during the run-up to the Dayton Accords, which eventually halted the worst killing in Europe since the Second World War. It still seems ironic that a peacekeeping mission required an overland trek by armored personnel carriers into a besieged city through a sector regularly shelled by both sides. When a road-bank suddenly collapsed, their vehicle rolled down the mountainside, killing everyone inside.
Although the mission was led by Holbrooke, my friends worked for Defense Secretary William Perry. He now accepted the tri-cornered flags from the burial detail and presented them to the grieving families, an ancient ritual that silently assumes responsibility for the sacrifice of a loved one. Together, Perry and Holbrooke provided an enduring lesson in leadership: coping with their own sense of loss, comforting the families but continuing a vital mission. Those efforts finally resulted in Dayton’s enduring but cold peace, the latest demonstration that ethnic and religious strife is terribly easy to stir up but leaves permanent emotional scars on peoples and nations.
A year later as an American peacekeeper, I saw those scars for myself. Bosnia looked like the Sound of Music but trashed with trenches, land-mines and a relentless, mindless destruction underlining the enduring power of human savagery. Even worse were the thin, haunted faces of children who had witnessed parents rising against friends and neighbors who had lived together for centuries. Worst of all were the unmarked, hastily camouflaged Dachaus bearing silent witness to ethnic cleansing: here a pair of eyeglasses, over there a blood-stained clothing fragment lying next to a once-beloved rag doll. From the relative safety of an armed helicopter, I could easily pick out the road where my friends had been killed. What was far more difficult was distinguishing one ethnic enclave from another, much less imagining how Serbs, Croats and Muslims would ever learn to live together again in peace.
You can argue endlessly about peacekeeping, nation-building or the merits of American interventions in countries with limited strategic value, either in resources or geopolitical significance. A fixture of American statecraft for a generation, Richard Holbrooke was intimately familiar with those arguments. But in bringing a halt to the conflict in Bosnia, he simply saw a war that needed to be stopped, and put his reputation and considerable talents on the line to make it so. Richard Holbrooke’s service to his country — as a mover, shaker and shaper of events from Vietnam to Afghanistan — will be studied by future generations of historians. But his life, leadership and legacy should remind us of the far deeper truth that we really are our brothers’ keepers.
Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia (which seemed like a huge deal at the time). His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as a military analyst with NBC News and MSNBC, where he and Tucker Carlson were conservatives-in-residence.