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

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

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by Samantha Power
     
 

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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

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Overview

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."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780141020815
Publisher:
Viking Penguin
Publication date:
03/28/2009

What People are saying about this

Samantha Power has mined the tragic 2003 death of UN High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello in Iraq to tell an even bigger story. For three decades Vieira de Mello courageously embodied the oft-maligned and seemingly hopeless UN mission to bring kindness, sanity, and peace to a cruel and war-torn world. He ultimately was martyred to it, struggling to salvage order out of the mess the US invasion had made in Iraq. In this captivating life story, the charming Brazilian internationalist emerges as a wry, Scotch-loving, womanizing philosopher, a kind of secular saint who wedded his considerable personal ambition to the best hopes of mankind. It is a stirring portrait of courage and tenaciously pragmatic idealism. --Mark Bowden, author of Guests of the Ayatollah and national correspondent for The Atlantic

The best way to understand today's messy world is to appreciate the inspiring life and diplomatic genius of Vieira de Mello. Samantha Powers has done a brilliant job. This is a compelling biography of a fascinating man but also more: through his life and tragic death we get a better feel for how to deal with the challenges of religious extremism, refugees, terrorism, and ethnic struggle. If only he were still alive! Read this book and weep, read it and understand, read it and cheer. --Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and author of Einstein: His Life and Universe

This book fascinates, both because of its subject, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the urbane U.N. troubleshooter who was regarded by many as the Secretary-general-in-waiting, and because of the infinite complexity of the issues Vieira de Mello faced in places like Lebanon, Kosovo and Iraq, where he ultimately met his death. Samantha Power has engaged in a work of vivid reportage that also contemplates with subtlety and depth the pivotal question that preoccupied Vieira de Mello: how the international community could intervene effectively in the many places that threaten to engulf the world in flames. --Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent

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