a film by Greg Barker (Chasing the Flame, USA, 2009)
There is a moment in Sergio, the documentary about the late diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello that premiered May 6 on HBO (and to be rebroadcast May 9), when the film’s political message and the story it tells come into conflict. It occurs in the middle of the film when de Mello, then leading the United Nations mission in postwar Iraq, scolds a reporter at an August 9, 2003, press conference in Cairo for having asked him if the UN’s presence in the country is “just a cover to the American invasion.” De Mello responds indignantly that, “the UN, its Secretary-General and SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] are no tool, and no cover for anyone.” Al-Qaeda didn’t get the message, for 10 days later, de Mello and 21 of his colleagues were killed in a truck bomb orchestrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist mastermind.
Throughout the film, based on the book Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World by author-activist Samantha Power (an erstwhile foreign-policy adviser to candidate Barack Obama who had to resign from the campaign after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” and who now serves on his National Security Council), we are repeatedly reminded that de Mello was nothing like the big, bad Bush people who initiated the Iraq war. For one, de Mello was suave, cosmopolitan and handsome. He was, as Power says early in the film, “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.”Richard Holbrooke, who served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, assures us that de Mello “was not an accomplice to the terrible mistakes of the Bush administration.” Power, who essentially serves as the film’s narrator, brings us back to de Mello’s heyday as a student radical at the Sorbonne in the late 1960s, his “virulent anti-Americanism” inspiring him to throw stones at police officers in protest of the Vietnam War.
Like many 68ers, de Mello grew up and graduated into the field of international do-gooderism. He shed some of his youthful radicalism but not his idealism. There can be no doubt that his was a life committed to the betterment of others. His career spanned from the Killing Fields of Cambodia to refugee camps in Lebanon and Mozambique. There are many such figures in the human-rights bureaucracy about whom such a film could be made, but few of them are as physically enchanting as de Mello, who was universally acknowledged (even by George W. Bush, to whom de Mello made one last anti-war pitch on behalf of the UN) as uncommonly charismatic. Sergio is an idolization of the UN bureaucrat and, in a larger sense, an idolization of the UN itself. Power lauds de Mello for “always put[ting] his country first, and his country was the United Nations.”
As a film about the life of a dashing diplomat, and a recounting of a search-and-rescue mission in the aftermath of a horrible act of violence, Sergio is alternatively dramatic and gripping. While de Mello is generally presented as a laudable figure, it is made clear that he was a philanderer, leaving his wife and children for long spells overseas during which he would inevitably take up with other women (usually his subordinates).
But when Sergio does slide into politics, it unfortunately cannot resist the temptation of anti-American polemics. In the film, Power blames the “political planners of this war” for not adequately preparing for the post-invasion chaos that engulfed Iraq. She specifically faults the Coalition Provisional Authority’s response to the bombing, stating that it took too long for disaster-response teams to arrive at the scene, and chides them for a lack of adequate equipment. In a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film Monday evening in New York, these gripes led to a gentle rebuke from Army reservist William von Zehle, one of the two men tasked with trying to extricate de Mello from the rubble. He noted that the necessary medical equipment was located on the other side of Baghdad and had to travel across roads booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices in order to get to the bomb site. “It’s not like we didn’t try,” he said matter-of-factly. (In a tragically ironic twist that the film does mention, de Mello actually ordered a Bradley armored truck — offered to the UN by the American military to guard the driveway leading to its headquarters — off the premises of the UN compound because he found it too imposing and reminiscent of the heavily fortified Green Zone.) The only words of condemnation for the actual perpetrators of the heinous act that took the lives of de Mello and his colleagues come from de Mello’s French bodyguard, who says that he will never be able to forgive the people who killed his boss.
It is briefly alluded to in the film, but Iraq was not the place where de Mello initially garnered the wrath of the religious fascists who later took his life. De Mello earned the bulk of his sterling reputation as an international problem solver during his tenure as the UN’s Transitional Administrator for East Timor, a position he held from 1999 to 2002. During that time, essentially serving as proconsul, he expertly guided the province to independence from Indonesia after a bloody war that killed more than 200,000 people. The effort to help the East Timorese achieve self-determination was considered a great crime in the minds of Islamists, Indonesia being the world’s largest Islamic state, and the excision of any part of it, no matter how small, considered an act of war against the Muslim ummah. It’s worth recalling the statement bin Laden issued on the occasion of the bombing of the UN headquarters, in which he gloated over the death of “the personal representative of America’s criminal slave, Kofi Annan, the diseased Sergio de Mello, criminal Bush’s friend.” No amount of distancing from Bush, the dread neocons, or their allegedly sloppy handling of the Iraq war’s aftermath could protect de Mello or his idealistic colleagues from the Islamist wrath.
The attack on the United Nations compound in Baghdad was a cataclysmic event, not just for the people of Iraq but also for the UN especially; August 19, 2003, has since been termed “the UN’s 9/11.” But it was also a clarifying one. No longer could anyone reasonably claim — which is not to say that they could prior to the massacre — that the insurgency in Iraq was an “anti-imperialist” cause fought by latter-day “Minutemen,” asMichael Moore termed the perpetrators of wanton violence against coalition troops and Iraqi civilians. For here was an atrocity committed against that most beneficent of organizations, the United Nations, just one of countless attacks Islamists have carried out against defenseless humanitarian-aid workers over the past decade. It was, as Power pointed out on Monday, “the first major suicide attack on a civilian target” in Iraq, the inauguration of a catastrophic years-long series of murders and bombings against non-combatants. This mini civil war might have been “unleashed” by the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but it is a fundamental obligation of the ethical imagination to maintain a certain basic level of moral clarity, able to distinguish between the forces that committed these crimes and those who tried to stop them. The protestations of de Mello’s transnational progressive admirers to the contrary, he was inextricably bound with the international effort to rebuild Iraq (not to mention the just cause of wrestling East Timor free from Indonesian-backed militias), and for these reasons was an obvious target for the Islamists, who don’t bother with distinctions between soldier and civilian, Shia and Sunni, Muslim and non-Muslim. If only the preachers of the Gospel of Sergio could understand this simple fact.