Our Man is one of the most fascinating dissections of US power – its strengths and serious weaknesses – I’ve read. Holbrooke represented muscular liberal interventionism in human form – a person and an argument whose power peaked in the 1990s and disintegrated in the first decade of the 21st century, as the world changed around him.
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Our Man is a fine, adventurous and vastly entertaining book. The subject of it was no saint, but he did the state, and the world, some service. “What was he like?” Packer asks, and yet again answers his own question: “He didn’t want to miss a minute of his life.”
It had worked in the Balkans. It had worked with me. Given time, it might have worked in Afghanistan. But in the end Dick Holbrooke’s ineffable dickishness angered the people who matter most if you want to be secretary of state: the presidents. I am not sure if his life is a metaphor for the rise and fall of American power. As a study in unfiltered ambition, and how self-defeating it can be, Our Man is unputdownable.
I must admit I began this tome with some scepticism that the world needed a Tolstoian backstop of 500-plus pages of exhaustive detail on an “almost great” second-level character in the annals of American diplomacy... Mercifully, George Packer, formerly of the New Yorker and now a staff writer at the Atlantic, is such a c narrator – and Holbrooke such a vexing subject to portray – that this story is both gripping and surprisingly pacey, its wheels greased by revealing excerpts from Holbrooke’s personal letters and the private reflections he recorded to tape. Added to this is Packer’s arresting thesis: that his brash but erudite and driven subject symbolises something about America’s engagement with the world following the Second World War that will never be recovered after Trump.
Packer begins by explaining that he’s telling Holbrooke’s story not for its own sake, but “to see and feel what happened to America during Holbrooke’s life”. In fact, the man himself often proves too compelling for Packer to stick assiduously to this plan. Nonetheless, the overall result is an exploration of American decline that’s heartfelt, virtuosic and quietly thoughtful at the same time...Packer marshals a huge amount of material with great aplomb and an often chatty style (“Do you mind if we hurry through the early years?” he writes in the brief chapter on Holbrooke’s childhood.) His prose fizzes with almost Holbrookian levels of energy for well over 500 pages. And while he’s exasperated by the man’s egotism, he’s also wise enough to see it as indispensable to his achievements.
Our Man is not just a portrait of a fascinating historical figure, it is a contemplation of a half century of US foreign and security policy and its most intractable challenges: counterinsurgency, humanitarian intervention and nation-building. Holbrooke’s appetites, aspirations and flaws were echoes of the nation’s. “The best about us was inseparable from the worst,” Packer argues. “Our feeling that we could do anything gave us the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the peace at Dayton and the endless Afghan war. Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness – they were not so different from Holbrooke’s.”
Nearly all biographies have long, boring stretches you want to skip. This one has none. The access to Richard Holbrooke’s papers and to the uncensored memories of his wives and mistresses, as well as George Packer’s own racy writing, makes this a fascinating and compulsive read. Even Packer’s constant personal intrusions into the story to express his opinion, New Journalism-style, work brilliantly. The author was told he should write a novel about Holbrooke rather than a biography and it often feels as though he has.
In Our Man, George Packer has delivered a deeply affecting and ultimately tragic biography of a distinguished diplomat, a man whose career arc matched some of America’s most important chapters in the post-1945 era, from the tragedy of Vietnam, through the horrors of the Balkan war, to the longest conflict in US history still raging in Afghanistan.
Our Man is a surprisingly ample biography by George Packer, a prize-winning writer for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. The fascination of the book is in the subtitle, “Richard Holbrooke, and the end of the American century”. Often without intention, one suspects, the author gives us an intriguing essay in American declinism... The book is massively detailed, too much so, on domestic gossip, Holbrooke’s three marriages, various liaisons, spats with rivals in government and sojourns in the banking business. By contrast, the accounts of crucial events on the ground — the war in Bosnia, particularly — are surprisingly thin, even distorted.
Packer’s biography [...] provides an extraordinarily full portrait of an accomplished but flawed individual who never got the top position he wanted so badly... Packer’s portrait is so full because he has had access to all of Holbrooke’s papers and interviewed those who knew him well. He is also a first-rate reporter and writer who understands the history of the big conflicts at the centre of his story: Vietnam, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Because Holbrooke’s performance was so bound up with his personality, Packer explores all aspects of his life, including his three marriages and many affairs, often in intimate detail... Throughout, Packer adopts a conversational tone, imploring the reader to stay with him as he explores one aspect or another of this complex personality and explaining why he has devoted so much time to a man whom it is hard to like, even if he’s easy to admire... [Holbrooke] did his best to understand the local political currents at work in the conflicts with which he was engaged; when Packer quotes his assessments they are usually sharp, unsentimental and analytical. Holbrooke looked for the points where direct action as well as diplomacy might make a difference.