Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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 his improvisations 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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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
"Surely the life and death of Sergio Vieira de Mello is a good place to begin a serious debate about the proper way to manage world order in the future."
- Francis Fukuyama, The New York Times Book Review
"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.... An ambitious effort...[that] succeeds brilliantly"
-James Mann, The Washington Post
"Her book [has] the dramatic quality of a leaked memo. . . . Sergio Vieira de Mello, with his flaws and heroism, represents us at our best and at our most helpless."
-Paul Berman, Slate
"[A] detailed and sympathetic biography . . . thoughtful."
"Power presents a fiercely precise, extraordinary dramatic biography. . . . Strongly argued, lacerating, and utterly human, this invaluable history will be the catalyst for soul searching and debate."
"Deeply and impressively reported."
-Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times
"Chasing the Flame is an impressively researched book. Power's notes include references to more than 400 interviews, and she cites everything from interoffice emails to Vieira de Mello's high school term papers. Casting a wide net provides Power with memorable details that capture Vieira de Mello's charisma and complexity: a bottle of Johnny Walker hidden in his desk, a plastic bag full of foreign coins for payphones . . . she nimbly excavates colorful artifacts from Vieira de Mello's life."
- San Francisco Chronicle
"A masterful biography."
"In meticulous, unsentimental prose, Power portrays Vieira de Mello not as a martyr but as a man who knew too much, a tragic emblem of squandered opportunities in Iraq. . . . In eloquently asking who will keep [the flame] alive, Power proves herself a worthy candidate."
"Chasing the Flame is a brilliantly researched biography about an extraordinary man."
-The Times (UK)
"Power, who combines humanitarian passion and a girlish capacity for hero- worship with analytical rigor, a clear prose style and a gift for narrative, has written a remarkable book. It is not only a gripping story, which takes on the awful fascination of a Greek tragedy as it approaches the catastrophic ending. . . . It also forces the reader to think about some of the most uncomfortable issues in contemporary politics, without offering an easy or simple solution."
-The Guardian (UK)
"A compelling work, culminating in a brilliant and moving reconstruction of Vieira de Mello's doomed last mission in Iraq, and the frantic, disorganized rescue efforts to pull survivors from the bombed-out Canal Hotel as his life seeped away in the rubble."
-The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
From a Pulitzer Prize-winning author comes an epic tale--part thriller, part tragedy--of the political career of humanitarian Sergio Vieira de Mello and his tragic death in 2003 in a terrorist attack on UN Headquarters in Iraq.
In this perfect match of author and subject, Pulitzer Prize-winner Samantha Power tackles the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, whose work for the U.N. before his 2003 death in Iraq was emblematic of moral struggle on the global stage. Power has drawn on a staggering breadth of research (including 400 interviews) to show us a heroic figure and the conflicts he waded into, from Cambodia's Khmer Rouge to the slaughter in Bosnia to the war-torn Middle East. The result is a peerless portrait of humanity and pragmatism, as well as a history of our convulsive age.
About 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.