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Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World Hardcover – February 14, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 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. (Mar. 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard, met Sergio Vieira de Mello when she was a journalist in Bosnia in 1994. Although he charmed her as he did everyone else, she has written a balanced biography of the flawed but dedicated and likable man. While Power impressed the critics with her research, she failed to convince all of them of her arguments. Several reviewers also noted that Power’s writing, laden with detail and subtle layering, doesn’t rise to the level of her Pulitzer Prizeâ€"winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002) until the very end, when she recounts Vieira de Mello’s last moments. As much a critique of the United Nations and its policies as the story of a man battling injustice, Chasing the Flame, despite being cited as a somewhat slow read, is a significant contribution to our understanding of global affairs and the future of peacekeeping.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (February 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201285
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201288
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #469,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen Balbach on February 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (simply "Sergio" to many) was the personification of what the United Nations could and should be. As Paul Bremer's adviser Ryan Cocker once said, "Sergio is as good as it gets not only for the UN, but for international diplomacy." Sergio was the UN Secretary General's "ultimate go-to guy", a nation builder in the world's toughest spots like East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo. No one who met him - from George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War, to the Khmer Rouge, to Slobodan Milosevic - came away untouched by his intelligence, physical bearing, charisma and integrity. It was a major blow to the world when he and 14 other UN staff were killed on August 19th 2003 by an al-Qeada suicide bomber at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, an event that has become known as the UN's "9/11". He was often spoken of as candidate for the position of UN Secretary General, but his career was cut short before he had a chance to become the world-renowned elder statesman he was destined to be. This biography by Pulitzer Prize winning Samantha Power is a monument to his legacy and should connect with a wide audience. Not only an enthralling story of adventure (Sergio was almost always in the field in dangerous situations and places), but equally a revelation of what was happening behind the headlines in major crisis around the world over the past 30 years - and it is the story of the UN itself, as mirrored in the ups and downs of Sergio's life and character, its faults, weaknesses and strengths.

Power has managed to convey Sergio's persona with utmost sympathy, seductively drawing the reader into Sergio's world.
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Format: Hardcover
Samantha Power has done it again -- just as compelling, just as timely and just as important as The Problem From Hell. The story of Sergio Vieira de Mello would be compelling stuff in its own right. But the way Power sets Vieira de Mello's story against the most immediate and consequential questions about how to best deal with the current challenges in the world is absolutely brilliant. Read it for the story, read it for the questions, read it for the answers, just make sure you read it soon.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book with some flaws. While there are plenty of good quotes that take jabs at the field work done by the UN including by Sergio Vieira de Mello himself none of them are adequately examined, but then you could say that wasn't the point of the book. I have comments on three of the countries de Mello (the name most people called him that I knew) worked.

1. Jarat Chopra resigned over deep disagreements with de Mello about governing East Timor but Ms Power never says what they are. Two essays by Chopra found online provide a view from the other side. In the book one of them is a mere footnote. They are worth reading.

2. While the book makes de Mello look like almost a one man show in Rwanda I recommend Sadako Ogata's book The Turbulent Decade: Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s on her time as the head of UNHCR to get a another perspective of how the upper echelon of the UN works. Her chapter on Rwanda gives a much more detailed and compelling story of this very difficult situation where UNHCR was left on its own. The chapters on Bosnia also provide a wider view.

3. Then there is Iraq and the riveting final chapter in the book. It's an excellent narrative on the declining security situation in Baghdad in June-September 2003 and how institutions like the UN reacted to it.

I was dismayed with the Epilogue. It was so boring I considered not finishing the book after reading more than 500 pages. It read like a UN document, that's how bad it is.

As an observation, no matter how good de Mello was and no matter how good and loyal his staff was at the field level most aid workers are not aware of these efforts or even know who these people are.
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Perhaps the greatest weakness of Power's book is her failure to present a methodical comparison of the disagreements over the role of the local population during the UN's administration of East Timor and during the US occupation of Iraq. Both were tectonic struggles with historical implications affecting state-building efforts generally, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically. Power's treatment of de Mello in East Timor and Iraq is only half the story.

Power's oversight is all the more surprising given the detailed nature of the book, which is replete with microscopic anecdotal information. It is odd, therefore, to have missed out the critical aspects of pivotal world events that the struggle for local participation in both East Timor and Iraq represent. Both instances became public knowledge and considerable material is available in the public domain.

Power describes step-by-step how de Mello tried to influence Paul Bremer when, as `governor' of Iraq, he was excluding a meaningful role for the Iraqis during the occupation. She casts de Mello as a champion of Iraqi participation. What Power does not describe is the eerie parallel of arguments made to de Mello when he was the Transitional Administrator in East Timor by the UN's Head of District Administration and the original inventor of the transitional administration model, Jarat Chopra. Just as Bremer resisted de Mello in Iraq, de Mello had previously resisted Chopra in East Timor--both with disastrous consequences.

Throughout the 1990s, Chopra had pioneered the means of exercising political authority in transitions, also called "peace-maintenance".
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