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Chasing the Flame
Cover of Chasing the Flame
Chasing the Flame
One Man's Fight to Save the World
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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.

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.

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  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 24, 2007
    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.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from January 15, 2008
    Sergio Vieira de Mello (19482003) 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 "with" the malefactors rather than pursuing immediate justice "against" them. 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, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., New York

    Copyright 2008 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Reviews for Chasing the Flame and Samantha Power: 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

    "Pulitzer Prize-winner Power draws on more than 400 interviews to offer this detailed portrait of charismatic Sergio Vieira de Mello...riveting and heart-breaking. A well-rendered account of one of the UN's best." —Kirkus Reviews

    "This majestic, profoundly important book should reach the widest possible audience. As a biography of an endlessly fascinating man, it is beautifully written, enthralling from start to finish. As a study of leadership, it ranks with the very best. As an analysis of how to respond to the struggles of the new era in which we find ourselves, it is the defining work for our generation."—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals

    "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." —Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent

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