Last Words: On Voltaire and Holbrooke

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke

US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, this past August.  Tim Sloan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Sloan/Getty Images

The death of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been well covered on this network, and I'm sure there'll be more to say in coming days.  What I've been thinking about, are his last words — not the content, but the fact of them.  Mr. Holbrooke died after he underwent a 21-hour operation to repair his aorta, and the Washington Post reports:

As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

The subject of last words is fraught with apocryphal attributions — of course we'd all love to believe that Oscar Wilde, caustic to the last, said on his deathbed, "Either that wall paper goes, or I do."  Or that the famous French atheist Voltaire, when asked to renounce Satan, managed, "Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies."  In the case of Holbrooke we can, perhaps, believe the reporting (there were not as many editors and fact checkers around in the Age of Enlightenment).  And so, though there's much to admire about Richard Holbrooke — the full Post obituary is worth your time — I'm struck by the fact that, confronted with mortality, he still felt the weight of his responsibility as a diplomat.  Whatever you think of the message, the fact he chose to deliver it at all is, in and of itself, commendable.

Update:

Speaking of the Age of Enlightenment, remember that bit about "apocryphal attributions?"  Sigh.  The Washington Post has retracted "the tone and contents" of Mr. Holbrooke's last words, emphasizing that, "the comment was made in painful banter, rather than as a serious exhortation about policy."  The New York Times has even more, quoting State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley:

At one point, the medical team said: ‘You’ve got to relax.’ And Richard said: ‘I can’t relax. I’m worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ And then after some additional exchanges, the medical team finally said: ‘Well, tell you what. We’ll try to fix this challenge while you’re undergoing surgery.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war.’

I must admit, I feel a little nostalgic for a time when our wishful thinking was allowed to pass into history — but in the Information Age, we have a better chance of getting things right.

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