Book Review: Chasing the Flame

Chasing the Flame
by Samantha Power
After many months, yes, months, of reading this book, I have finally finished. Even though it took me a very long time, it was well worth it. I mentioned that this book shouldn't have made it through my 50-page reading rule, but that was incorrect. The 50-page reading rule did not apply here and I'll explain why later. The book was very dense with information, jammed with a multitude of references and notes, and a biography that was worthy of this great man.

Sergio Vieira de Mello was a humanitarian, peacemaker and state builder with the United Nations. He was a lifelong UN guy and went to all kinds of godforsaken places on all kinds of brutal missions: Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor and, finally, Iraq, where he died in an Al-Qaeda attack. That's quite the resume o' misery.

Each of these missions had its own goals and every one came with unforeseen problems. A lot of this book was about Vieira de Mello learning on the job. That could easily have been part of the reason why this title was so frustrating to read. Everything seems so much more obvious in hindsight, but he was living through these tragedies and working with limited resources. Although I think he did a ton in his lifetime, it was difficult to look beyond the dysfunctions of the UN, with its red tape, bureaucracy, lame leadership and lack of international support from member states. This man proved he had some patience, cause anyone else would've gone mad.

I have quite the mixed feeling on the UN now. It's not completely their own fault, but I will fault the leadership, namely Kofi Annan, for the disastrous results of the Iraq mission. The other serious flaw with the UN is that the most powerful member states are jerks. They want to have an international group, but won't supply it with personnel, supplies, money, etc. In a sense, I understand that the UN is in theory a great idea, yet in practice destined to fail always.

I was at a street festival in Ypsilanti, MI a couple weeks back and saw this sign hanging to the right of the stage. Although I don't agree, this book made me understand why this idea persists. I also feel that Americans should look to their own leadership before casting stones at the United Nations.

Initially, I felt that Vieira de Mello was, well, kind of a piece o' crap. He was a charismatic guy, a top-notch schmoozer. He was a womanizer, regularly cheating on his wife, who he would eventually divorce much later in life. Yet, as the book went on, I realized that I was being quite unfair. Although he was not Mr. Committed to Wife, he was Mr. Committed to Work. He gave everything to his work. In the end, he sacrificed his very life.

Vieira de Mello's philosophy and diplomatic techniques were incredibly insightful. He was known for always trying be diplomatic with the bad guys to learn about them, though some faulted him for overlooking various atrocities. He learned to create solutions with minimal resources and was very vocal. Later in his life, he developed an intense philosophy on human rights, which would have served the United States very well in Iraq. He was the first one to tell Paul Bremer, a joker and large reason Iraq is what it is, that the US was poised to have some serious abuse problems. A year after Vieira de Mello's warning, the Abu Ghraib story broke.

Struggling through Vieiro de Mello's first missions seemed very counterproductive at first, but it really provided a very important foundation of understanding about the man. The last 120 pages of the book are very, very intense and that's why the 50-page reading rule does not apply to this book. As a reader, you know it's coming. You can hear the clock ticking on Vieiro de Mello's life and the author makes that ticking louder by describing that day, August 19, 2003, minute-by-minute when possible.

In the end, it is more tragic than one can imagine. I was reading the last parts of the book in a vehicle on the way back home from a trip. I worried by boyfriend because he heard me sniffling in the back seat. Vieira de Mello, even trapped under the rubble that would slowly kill him, only asked about the rest of the people in the building. He asked that the UN not pull out of Iraq. The last passage in the book is probably one of the most striking:

"When he realized he had miraculously survived the blast, he must have expected
that the professional soldiers from the most sophisticated military in history would find a way to extract him from the debris. But as his life seeped slowly out of him, there must have been a moment - hopefully not a long one - when he was every bit as helpless as millions of victims had been before him. He died under the Canal Hotel's rubble - buried beneath the weight of the United Nations itself." (p. 537)

In the end, he was just as much of a human as anyone was. The difference was that he did things that most of us never would. He was selfless, even though it always didn't seem that way, but he was.

Here are my notes from the rest of the book, with page numbers first:
  • 17 - "Audacity is the winner's gift," his dad Arnoldo Vieira de Mello said.
  • 48 - Vieira de Mello found some gaps in philisophical tools. "Things are much complicated in practice...Philosophical ideas must be applicable on the ground, and the field should be their only judge, their only criteria."
  • 59 - "Living is a prelude to death." ~Alexander "Sacha" Casella.
  • 73 - Vieiro de Mello was very into philosophy and defended his 600 page thesis. He was really into Kant, who felt that other countries should not interfere w/ others' internal affairs unless the unrest in a country begins to interfere w/ neighboring countries as was the case in 1990's.
  • 99 - at this stage in his career (90s and in Cambodia), mulling the roots of evil was more stimulating than managing the logistics of easing the suffering that resulted from that evil.
  • 100 Sergio a man who refused to make enemies
  • 199 - by this point in the book, he's gone to Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia and new Rwanda. All this time the picture I see developing before me is one of external ignorance. The UN, though a good idea, doesn't seem to pan out in real life. So far they just watch situations deteriorate and then kind of play it by ear, but these are enormous catastrophes. I suppose there really is no easy way to deal with tragedy, despair, emergencies, famine, etc.
  • 206 generally all the world's countries turning their backs on each other.
  • 213 - "we have to choose the least bad option here." Sounds like every UN mission.
  • 358 - it seems like he won many small battles, which from the tone of the book sounds impossible. He gets some kind of 2nd wind in 2001, divorced his wife, marries some 20-something he worked with at the UN. Got much more spiritual, very different from his atheist attitude of before.
  • 361 - I never realized how much Bin Laden hated the UN. He said "under no circumstance should any Muslim or sane person resort to the United Nations. The United Nations is nothing but a tool of crime."
  • 471 - as he lay under rubble, thirsty, with only one arm free, he asks about "the others." He just received his tickets to go to Brazil to visit his mom a day or two before.
  • 526 - Vieira de Mello had said, "Think of how hard it is for any of us to change. Why do we expect it to be easier for a war criminal?"

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