The Human Cost of War

Story by Gilburt Loescher


Gilburt Loescher '67, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford's Centre for International Studies, is an expert on refugee issues and humanitarian crises. On a mission to Baghdad to assess the human cost of the war in Iraq in 2003, Dr. Loescher had just arrived at the offices of Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello when U.N. headquarters were hit by a suicide bombing. Dr. Loescher survived the attack, although he lost both his legs. His research partner, Arthur Helton, Vieira de Mello, and 20 others were killed in the explosion.

A former starting center for the Gael hoops squad, Gil returned to Saint Mary's last spring to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2005 and receive the Alumni Humanitarian Award "in recognition of a lifetime of scholarship and service on behalf of humanity in the spirit of Saint Mary's Catholic, Lasallian and liberal arts traditions." On stage before a packed stadium, Loescher recalled his days on campus, the impact his education has had on his life choices, and the lifelong lesson he learned from the Brothers: Be both bold and humble.

Excerpts from his address follow.


The mid-1960s were heady days politically, socially, and intellectually. We were young men of draft age, very conscious of events in Southeast Asia and in nearby places like Berkeley and across the bay in the city. We were also influenced by the civil rights movement and by what was happening in other cities across the country. At the same time, we were incredibly privileged because while all this political and social tumult was going on, we were immersing ourselves in the great philosophical texts and literatures of our Western tradition. I doubt if any of us knew it at the time, but our ideals and aspirations were being shaped by what we were reading and being taught in the lecture halls and seminar rooms here on campus. I am still grateful to those faculty members who inspired me to think independently and to consider alternatives to the existing order.

Having earned my B.A. here in history, I was pretty sure I would not be a physicist or musician, but I knew I was interested in people. I discovered I wanted to teach but I knew myself well enough to know I could not be an armchair academic. I wanted somehow to contribute to making the world a better and more just place. Immediately after graduation, I spent a year traveling in Europe. I looked for opportunities that would lead me to interesting people and places.

And the concert of my life unfolded: a doctorate in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 25 years teaching at Notre Dame, and periods at Princeton, LSE, and Oxford, a wonderful loving wife and family, a deeply rewarding career that combines teaching, scholarship, and advocacy on refugee and human rights issues.

There have also been trying and extremely difficult times both for me and my family, particularly during the awful hours, days and weeks following the suicide bombing at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. It has been a long recovery for me, but now I have returned to my life of research, writing and advocacy - really a second life for me - this time based at Oxford and focusing on trying to seek solutions to many of today's forgotten refugee problems around the world. Though when I left Saint Mary's I had no idea these things would make up my life, I have no doubt my time here helped prepare me for them.

 Saint Mary's is rightly proud of not only its Catholic and liberal arts character, but also of its Lasallian tradition of commitment to social justice and the disadvantaged. These traditions have very much shaped my personal and professional lives. My goal has always been to be both a good political and social analyst and a strong advocate for refugees and human rights. I believe in going into the field to talk to refugees, humanitarian workers, and local populations and governments. It is their first-hand experiences most of all that inspire me to work towards resolving the most protracted refugee situations around the world.

While studying history and international relations, I became more fully aware of the human consequences of conflict and political instability. The particular problems facing the world's refugees were almost invisible to the general public when I began working in the field 30 years ago. Now refugees are in the news almost daily, but they are still not seen as real people - people like you and me who have been forced from their homes and countries. My friend and colleague Arthur Helton, who was killed in the suicide bombing in Baghdad, once wrote that "refugees matter most fundamentally because, at some level, we all realize that but for the accident of birth and circumstance we could all be refugees ourselves." I would add that refugees also matter because they are a litmus test of how tolerant and just we are as a society and nation.

I have been very fortunate in my work to have met refugees from even the most remote corners of the globe. Their dignity, humanity, and resourcefulness in the face of great odds have been an inspiration to me. Their courage has taught me to be courageous, and their ability to hope in seemingly hopeless situations has given me strength on my own road to recovery.

Since losing my legs I have also met dozens of other amputees at the prosthetics centre in Oxford, where I am learning to walk again. We are of all different ages and backgrounds, but we share a willpower that we use to help each other. All these people - refugees from afar, disabled people from my local community - have a lot to teach us all about being human. They inspire me to do the best I can to be a better person and to continue to work for social justice.

Now you too are about to embark on your own concert of life. You will each have your own personal triumphs and tragedies. I invite you to consider your futures carefully. It is very easy today to simply conform to the status quo, and to be content to simply acquire the credentials that will improve your status or position in today's society. But some of you are disturbed by the world around you, and long to explore alternative possibilities. Those of you who feel this way should be encouraged by the knowledge that history contains repeated examples of hope, of resistance by individuals and organizations who have sought to achieve a more compassionate and just future.

In future years I encourage you to be true to the universal truths and values you have been taught at Saint Mary's. We live in a world swamped with information, in which others are always trying to convince us their ideas are right. There are two questions you should always ask them: How do you know? And: What if you are wrong? If they cannot answer these two questions to your satisfaction, then don't be convinced. Remember that you are a citizen of the world, not just a citizen of this country.

We live in an exciting and challenging world, full of people just like us - only different. Celebrate those differences. We should not be afraid of others, nor think that we are somehow better than they are. We need to understand and to listen to others. We need to be both bold and humble.