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Samantha And Fern

My old friend Samantha Power, a member of the president’s National Security Council staff, came to dinner last Sunday night after a showing of the movie Sergio, drawn from her book of the same title and directed by Greg Barton. The film is an HBO production which will air on May 6.

Sergio was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian head of the United Nations mission to Iraq who was killed in a terrorist explosion at the U.N.’s headquarters in August 2003, months after the American invasion and months before Saddam Hussein was snared in his cave of hiding. De Mello was a charismatic man with beautiful teeth, as we were told many times during the movie. He was actually very handsome, and one cannot help feeling that the tragedy of his death was somehow enhanced by his beauty. The death of a more common looking person wouldn’t have generated so intense a feeling of tragedy.

In Samantha’s eyes, Sergio was an incarnation of the U.N. at its best. Alas, the film—as opposed to the book—did not make clear what that best actually was, even as personified by Sergio, except in a short but telling fragment of his role in somehow safeguarding the independence of East Timor from Indonesia. He clearly broke many of the rules of the organization, which brought a sense of  frisson—a good thing—to the staff. There’s another exception in his negotiations with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He clearly saved many lives.

Both Samantha and Barton explained that the film was driven by character and not by issues. Understandable. After all, this was HBO, not public television, which would have made its own more subtle and sordid compromises—compromises driven by ideology. The character theme of the movie was self-fulfilling. He was married but a philanderer, a philanderer with many women. He had not paid attention to his sons left in Rio (or was it Sao Paolo?), not at all. As the feature began, he was already enmeshed with a gloriously sensual women, Carolina, maybe 20 years his junior, also on the human rights career route. Carolina is there at the end when Sergio’s dead body is extracted from the carnage. But his wife, now widow, takes control of his life-in-death.

There is, of course, a great drama in the extraction of the dead body, which was begun when Sergio was still alive. He and a comrade were trapped in a subterranean hole, their bottom halves covered with concrete, their upper halves also encumbered by the ruins of the blast. But they could talk, and the people they were talking with were two American soldiers, rescue workers, whose names I forget, which is a shame because, in a way, these men are the heroes of the drama. Their tale was not only driven by character. It was also driven by narrative.

And the narrative was driven almost like a nail in the heart. One of the rescuers was a pious Christian who promised Sergio’s companion in their dungeon that he would bring him out alive. Please pray, the soldier beseeched him. But he could not. In the end, without pain killer or opiate, the trapped man had his legs sawed off, his upper half pulled up literally from the dead. The other soldier did not pray to his God or anyone else’s. He was a can-do person. He tried to keep Sergio alive by speaking with him, trying to keep Sergio also speaking to  him. It did not work. When he rose, he did not rise from the dead. He was one among 21 killed. 

The rescue and the non-rescue were re-enacted—these were the only scenes re-enacted in the film—by the two idiosyncratic American servicemen. Heroes, big heroes. As Cass Sunstein, Samantha’s husband—who, I learned during dinner, is the first son of the first son of the first son of the first son ... of the first son of the Gaon of Vilna, which means that Samantha’s son is also in this learned line—observed that this is really “an American story.”

But, to be sure, it is also essentially a story from Iraq. The U.S. wanted the U.N. presence as a legitimating hereness. The motives of the U.N. were actually the motives of Kofi Annan, the secretary general, and he wanted the organization’s presence to be a distancing mechanism, an outside force. That seems to have been de Mello’s attitude as well. An ironic footnote, a tragic footnote: The American military had placed an enormous armored vehicle in the road leading to U.N. headquarters and put it there to block a terrorist truck from heading for the compound. Any terrorist truck. Sergio had the vehicle peremptorily removed. This was a moment of vainglory. This was also the reason why a truck full of munitions was able to reach and explode right below his office, the murderers’ chosen target.

I do not know whether Samantha has shed her hostility to the American invasion. (Lots of folk at TNR haven’t, and my son, for that matter, hasn’t either.) She has a petulant moment in the film when commenting on the utter lack of rescue equipment available at the devastated site. Something like: “This is the U.S. army, for God’s sake.” Maybe it depends on what you think of the United Nations.

Which reminds me that Danny Goldhagen was sitting next to Samantha at dinner. The author of the majestic study of the holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen has now published another book on the question of genocide in general, Worse Than Warand is featured in a dazzlingly somber documentary of the same title. (A digest of the book was published in TNR.) Maybe I sat the two authors (and film principals) together to provoke an argument. You see, Danny shares my view that the U.N. is mostly responsible for the world’s genocides because its very structure absolutely prevents the international organization from moving against the perpetrators. The argument did not come off as I expected. Samantha observed—correctly, I believe—that, if powerful states like America and obvious others were willing to act against genocide in places like Darfur or Rwanda, it wouldn’t matter what the Security Council voted or did not vote. I hope I am characterizing her views accurately.

I am now reading Samantha’s book about Sergio. It has much more texture than the movie. But that is as it is. The book is not really character-driven, although Sergio’s teeth and body are featured in it. It is a book about history and issues—serious, even taxing.

Another guest, Charles Nesson of the Harvard Law School, has written an elegant blog post about the evening. And Charlie’s wife, Fern—a scholar in her own right, and on diverse topics—has just published an extraordinary little volume which takes you out of the world of Iraq and genocide. It is truly a lively book from its title, I Am Awake, on to the art works, delicate art works by Fern and others. These are faced by germane citations to short writings, mostly by Asian sages. There is, in fact, deep dialogue between text and illumination, between text and text, between illumination and illumination. No, you definitely haven’t seen this book before, much as my characterization may suggest you have. It is reviewed on Jeff Kornbluth’s blog Head Butler.