Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World

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From Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power, an epic tale-part thriller, part tragedy-for our age, the political career and tragic death of the incomparable humanitarian Sergio Vieira de Mello

If there is a single individual who can be said to have been at center stage through all of the most significant humanitarian and geopolitical crises of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, it was Sergio Vieira de Mello. Vieira de Mello was born in 1948 just as the post-World ...

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Chasing the flame : Sergio Vieira de Mello and the fight to save the world

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From Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power, an epic tale-part thriller, part tragedy-for our age, the political career and tragic death of the incomparable humanitarian Sergio Vieira de Mello

If there is a single individual who can be said to have been at center stage through all of the most significant humanitarian and geopolitical crises of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, it was Sergio Vieira de Mello. Vieira de Mello was born in 1948 just as the post-World War II order was taking shape. He died in a terrorist attack on UN Headquarters in Iraq in 2003 as the battle lines in the twenty-first-century's first great power struggle were being drawn. In nearly four decades of work for the United Nations, Sergio distinguished himself as the consummate humanitarian, able to negotiate with-and often charm-cold war military dictators, Marxist jungle radicals, reckless warlords, and nationalist and sectarian militia leaders. By taking the measure of this remarkable man's life and career, Power offers a fascinating answer to the question: Who possesses the moral authority, the political sense, and the military and economic heft to protect human life and bring peace to the unruly new world order?

Chasing the Flame brings us deep into the thorniest, least well- understood episodes of recent world history-the conflagration in the Middle East, through Vieira de Mello's troubleshooting in Lebanon in the aftermath of Israel's 1982invasion; the clean-up of the cold war's residue, through Vieira de Mello's taming of the Khmer Rouge and his repatriation of four-hundred-thousand Cambodian refugees in the early nineties; the explosion of sectarian and ethnic militancy, through his efforts to negotiate an end to the slaughter in Bosnia; the struggle to nation-build in war-torn societies, through his quasi-colonial governorships of Kosovo and East Timor; and the engulfing of Iraq in civil war and terror, through his tragic final posting as the UN representative in Baghdad, where he became the victim of the country's first-ever suicide bomb.

Readers of Chasing the Flame will recognize the particular mixture of deep reporting and incisive analysis that Power uses to imbue Sergio's life with significance, and lessons, for our own. In this exquisitely reasoned and imagined book, Samantha Power reveals Sergio Vieira de Mello's powerful legacy of humanity and ideological strength in an age sorely in need of both.

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Editorial Reviews

James Mann
In Chasing the Flame, Samantha Power set out not merely to write a biography of Vieira de Mello, but also to glean from his life some larger lessons. The underlying questions are profound ones: how the international community should cope with ethnic unrest, civil wars and genocide; how much power the world's governments should give to the United Nations; how much difference one person can make. Her book is an ambitious effort, a long, meandering narrative that in the end succeeds brilliantly…The strength of the book lies in Power's use of Vieira de Mello's life (and death) as a well-placed window on the international community's successes and failures. There have been several other good books about the United Nations, but they are told from the perspective of New York. Power looks at the U.N. from the field.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

The death of the charismatic Brazilian chief of the U.N. Mission to Iraq in a 2003 terrorist bombing symbolized both the U.N.'s haplessness-he died because rescuers lacked the training and equipment to free him from the rubble-and its idealism. In this sprawling biography, Vieira de Mello's life symbolizes the tragic contradictions of coping with humanitarian crises. Journalist Power, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, follows Vieira de Mello through a U.N. career spent in hot spots like Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. His tasks were many: implementing peace accords, settling refugees, overseeing elections, running the government of East Timor. In each posting, he confronts a hydra-headed monster of communal violence and poverty, plus difficulties compounded by U.N. red tape, miserly budgets and uncaring Western governments. Agonizing dilemmas abound. Should refugees be fed or sent home? Should U.N. peacekeepers observe or intervene? Should past atrocities be prosecuted or overlooked? Playing by ear, Vieira de Mello charts an erratic course through these conundrums. Sometimes he's a human rights zealot, sometimes he cozies up to the Khmer Rouge; sometimes he negotiates with the Serbs, sometimes he wants to bomb them.

Vieira de Mello comes off as a charming diplomat, a canny politician and an inspiring leader, and the author celebrates his flexibility and pragmatism (while criticizing his failures). Power wants to extract lasting lessons for the international community's efforts to head off humanitarian catastrophes and mend failed states from his experience. Unfortunately, it's hard to discern through hisimprovisations any systematic approach to nation building or to such vexed issues as humanitarian military intervention and regime change. The lack of perspective isn't helped by the biographical format, as the peripatetic Vieira de Mello jets from one conflagration to the next, then on to a romantic getaway with a mistress or to give a murky speech on Kant. We get the impression that U.N. missions are inevitably a hopeless muddle unless Sergio, with his unique talents, parachutes in to fix things; the book may thus inadvertently encourage critics of the U.N.-style interventionism that Power supports. Readers will gain an appreciation of Vieira de Mello's gifts, but not the method to his magic. B&w photos. (Mar. 6)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Sergio Vieira de Mello (1948-2003) was a career UN employee who died in Baghdad doing what he had long done: trying to bring relief to those in situations of international conflict. He had worked in most of the hotspots of the last quarter century, including Cambodia, the Balkans, East Timor, and Rwanda, and his success led to his increasing responsibility within the UN. A practical man of action, happiest doing fieldwork yet also a thinker (he had a doctorate in philosophy), he was keenly aware of the moral ambiguities in refugee situations, where bringing relief to the innocent requires working withthe malefactors rather than pursuing immediate justice againstthem. Power (global leadership & public policy, Kennedy Sch. of Government, Harvard) emphasizes these paradoxes and complexities and the varying adaptations that Vieira de Mello was forced to make to resolve the issues at hand. Her approach is similar to her earlier, award-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Most of her text covers the last six years of her subject's career, in great day-to-day detail, with his earlier years covered only briefly. Powers has brought to life, for both general and specialist readers, a complex figure who dared to take on the greatest challenges, always seeking to reach even higher. Highly recommended for all collections.
—Marcia L. Sprules

Kirkus Reviews
Biography of the handsome Brazilian intellectual who served as the UN's top troubleshooter from East Timor and Bosnia to Iraq, where he died in a terrorist car bombing. Pulitzer Prize-winner Power (Global Leadership/Harvard School of Government; "A Problem From Hell": American and the Age of Genocide, 2002) draws on more than 400 interviews to offer this detailed portrait of charismatic Sergio Vieira de Mello (1948-2003), whom she first met in 1994 while working as a young reporter. A diplomat's son, Sergio (as he was generally known) earned a doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne and took part in the Paris student revolt in May 1968. He joined the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1969 and remained with the organization until his death. Writing with a keen understanding of international affairs, Power traces each step of Sergio's career: early humanitarian postings in Sudan, Mozambique and Peru; his initial encounter with terrorism in 1981 as a UN political advisor in Lebanon; and later work in Hong Kong and Cambodia that made his reputation as a pragmatic negotiator. Power describes a man who was always learning, reaching out to everyone from taxi drivers to thugs in the belief that to resolve problems all must be heard. An elegant charmer in his starched shirts and tailored suits, Sergio was a ladies' man who frequently bedded colleagues and a deeply loyal UN official who neglected his wife and two children. Power shows how his winning ways, knowledge of Kantian philosophy and deep regard for the dignity of both people and nations made him a force for change. Her description of failed attempts to rescue Sergio from the rubble of the UN's quarters in Baghdad, where hewas Secretary General Kofi Annan's special representative, is both riveting and heartbreaking. A well-rendered account of one of the UN's best in pursuit of "the flame of idealism that motivated many to strive to combat injustice and that inspired the vulnerable to believe that help would soon come."
The Barnes & Noble Review
For those of us outside "the family" -- as career United Nations workers call their own ranks -- it is probably impossible to imagine the thoughts and feelings now associated with August 19, 2003. Nor, to tell the truth, do many of us try. On that date, a suicide bomber drove a truck into UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people. By now everyone in the world recognizes the date "9/11," and the subway attacks in London during the summer of 2005 are now often referred to as "7/7." But the UN bombing (carried out, like these other two, by Al Qaeda) faded from the world's memory without so much as the trace of a historical shorthand expression.

Among the dead was Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was overseeing the UN's activities in Iraq: a beloved and rather legendary figure, at least within the family. He had charisma; he was tireless; no one could long doubt his itch to leave the office and go out into troubled areas. His qualities even inspired grudging admiration from within the Bush administration -- no small trick. In Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, Samantha Power quotes an adviser to Paul Bremer, the head of the American occupation. "Sergio is as good as it gets," the adviser said, "not only in the UN, but in international diplomacy. He is the personification of what the UN could be, and should be, but rarely is."

His biographer is not a member of the immediate family, so to speak, but a kind of in-law. Samantha Power's earlier (and Pulitzer-winning) book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, is an argument for the doctrine of humanitarian interventionism; that is, the activist defense of human rights by the international community, which in practice has often meant some confluence of U.S. military power and UN relief efforts. Power first met Vieira de Mello in 1994 -- not that long after the end of the Cold War, when dreams of a humanitarian and cosmopolitan foreign policy were much in the air. But with hindsight, the circumstances of their initial conversation clearly spelled out the limits of that vision. They met in what was fast becoming "the former Yugoslavia." She was covering the conflict as a journalist, while Vieira de Mello was part of the UN peacekeeping effort.

I mention these geopolitical and historical markers because without them it seems impossible to appreciate how many issues are at stake in Chasing the Flame -- and how many of them are left hanging for the perplexed reader. This is not a book of foreign-policy wonkery. It is a detailed portrait of a man whose career was a hellish itinerary of missions served in Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, and finally Iraq. He did not simply work for the United Nations; he was a UN man down to his cells, almost. So the organization's inner culture and structural problems are as important for understanding his personality as any element in his personal background. But few of us have more than a vague idea of what goes on within the UN, other than angry speechifying.

Power wants to bring us into a world of action that is heroic (in which literally life-and-death decisions unfold on the world stage) while at the same time constantly bogged down by bureaucratic infighting and hardball Realpolitik. Vieira de Mello, the son of a Brazilian diplomat who was forced into early retirement following a military coup, did not set out to work for the United Nations. He was a philosophy student in Paris during the seismic "events of May '68," when radical students and factory workers launched a general strike. A statement he published at the time, full of revolutionary fervor, made it likely that he would be detained by the Brazilian authorities if he returned home. The labor market for professional philosophers being what it is, he took employment with the UN in 1969.

He found a mentor within the organization -- a shrewd old functionary who knew how to cover his idealism with a protective, cynical coating. What began as a bureaucratic day job to pay the bills as Vieira de Mello worked toward an advanced degree in philosophy turned into a vehicle for international political activism. "By the 1980s he had come to see himself as a UN man," writes Power, "but since the organization was both a body of self-interested governments and a body of ideals, he did not seem sure yet whether serving the UN meant doing what states wanted or pressing for what refugees needed."

Framed so starkly, one supposes that Vieira de Mello finally had to choose between these options. But what Power describes as his growing pragmatism throughout the 1990s was an effort to reconcile them -- and to go still further when necessary, doing whatever it took to contain the crises he was sent to manage. He was willing to work with Khmer Rouge leaders or to become so amicable toward Slobodan Milosevic that people nicknamed him "Serbio" Vieira de Mello.

"If his ever-evolving approach could be summed up," writes Power, "it would be: Talk to rogues, attempt to understand what makes them tick, extract concessions from them whenever possible, but remain clear about who they are and what they have done, as well as what you stand for. Past sins mattered not just intrinsically but because they were predictive of future behaviors."

Much practical wisdom is condensed in that advice, of course. Yet between the lines of Chasing the Flame there always seems to be a question that remain unanswered because never fully posed: just what legacy did Vieira de Mello leave? His efforts in Asia, Africa, and the Balkans were courageous but doomed; and his role in Iraq, after all, was to mitigate the damage following a war that the UN could not prevent. (Indeed, most of the arguments for humanitarian interventionism were spun, quite successfully, as rationales for Desert Storm.) To be sure, Sergio Vieira de Mello emerges from Power's book as a heroic figure. But there were times, while reading it, when I thought that surely the League of Nations must have had its impressive personnel, too. --Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee writes the weekly column Intellectual Affairs [ ] for Inside Higher Ed. He is a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. In 2004, he won the NBCC's award for excellence in reviewing.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780141020815
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 3/28/2009

Meet the Author

Samantha Power is the Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy Practice at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a foreign policy columnist at Time magazine. In 2003, her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction, the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, and the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Prize for the best book in U.S. foreign policy.


Raised in Ireland, nine-year-old Samantha Power emigrated to the U.S. with her parents in 1979. Although the family moved around a lot, Power developed an early love of—and talent for—American sports. She attended high school in Atlanta, Georgia, where her prowess on the basketball court earned her the nickname "Tower of Power." From high school she went to Yale to study history.

Far more interested in athletics than current affairs, Power dreamed of becoming a sports journalist à la Bob Costas. Her great awakening occurred shortly after her freshman year at Yale. Working in Atlanta for a CBS television affiliate, she was preparing sports highlights for a news broadcast when the live feed picked up footage from Tiananmen Square. In a 2002 interview, Power recalled her reaction: "It was one of the most shocking things I had ever seen…and I thought, 'Oh, my God. What am I doing with my life?' [That] was actually the discrete…moment in time when I decided to revisit my career plans." The sports fan had discovered there was a big, bad world outside.

After graduation, Power worked for a year with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington, D.C., then traveled to Bosnia in 1993 as a war correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, The Economist, and other publications. She took time out to attend Harvard Law School, then "commuted" back and forth to Bosnia from 1995 to 1996. Her experiences there gave rise to the idea for a book about America's (non-)response to 20th-century genocide. Published to universal acclaim, A Problem from Hell won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.

In 2008, Power published Chasing the Flame, the story of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the charismatic Brazilian humanitarian and U.N. diplomat who was killed along with 21 members of his staff in a 2003 hotel bombing in Iraq. More than a biography, the ambitious book views the tragic history of humanitarian crises all over the globe through the prism of de Mello's fascinating life.

Power remains a working journalist committed to bringing world's attention to the ongoing problems of genocide, human rights abuse, and health crises around the world. In addition, she has held various academic posts in colleges and universities and serves as a scholar and advisor on foreign policy.

Good To Know

From "Conversations with History," a lively interview series sponsored by the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, here are some of Samantha Power's thoughts...
On writing: "I definitely have heeded Orwell's maxims about simplicity: always avoid the long sentence when the short sentence will do, always avoid the big word when the short word will do; think of what it is that you're seeing in your mind, and try to find the words that describe it, rather than resorting to clichés or metaphors, just think about what you've seen."

On her mother: "She's completely single-minded. She was the Irish squash champ, and played in Wimbledon for tennis, and meanwhile got a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a medical degree, and is just an extraordinary woman."

On what she's learned from sports: "Everything. Everything. I learned to fail, and I learned to keep getting up."

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    1. Date of Birth:
      September 21, 1970
    2. Place of Birth:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Education:
      Yale University and Harvard Law School

Table of Contents

Chronology     ix
Introduction     1
Part I
Displaced     15
"I Will Never Use the Word 'Unacceptable' Again"     34
Blood Running Blue     55
Hitting the Ground Running     75
"Black Boxing"     97
White Car Syndrome     115
"Sandwiches at the Gates"     134
"Serbio"     159
In Retrospect     180
Damned If You Do     191
Part II
"Giving War a Chance"     225
Independence in Action     249
Viceroy     265
Benevolent Dictator     286
Hoarding Power, Hoarding Blame     303
"A New Sergio"     323
Part III
"Fear Is a Bad Adviser"     347
"Don't Ask Who Started the Fire"     374
"You Can't Help People from a Distance"     396
Rebuffed     421
August 19, 2003     451
Postmortem     496
Epilogue     517
Acknowledgments     536
Notes     542
List of Interviews     592
Index     597
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 30, 2010

    Wrong Title

    This book is something about cotton, not the Samantha Power book called "Chasing the Flame."

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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