The Foreign Service Journal, September 2021

88 SEPTEMBER 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Stephen G. McFarland (@AmbMcFarland; was ambassador to Guatemala from 2008 to 2011. A career Foreign Service officer (1976-2014), he served in wartime Peru, El Salvador, Iraq (in a Marine regiment) and Afghanistan. He first heard bombs go off as a Foreign Service child during the 1964 attack against Embassy Nicosia. He earned a master’s degree in security studies at Georgetown University in 2020. I n U.S. military jargon, “right of boom” is the period that immediately follows— i.e., “to the right of”—an explosion or an attack. Pithy and colorful, it conveys sensory overload and rupture: the dilation of time, narrowed vision, dialed-down hearing, and the rebooting of the brain. “Right of boom” moments, in both natural disasters and acts of violence, shape the lives of people in that subset of the Foreign Service and foreign affairs agencies who work in the gritty borderlands of foreign policy and national security. To work in this area requires resil- ience. It starts with mental and emotional agility: One moment you check an area for threats; the next, you’re trying to empathize with someone on the humani- tarian to war criminal continuum. One day you drive into an exchange of fire with the gods of war rolling dice; that evening, you’re home with your family. Asleep that night, your mind becomes a gonzo film director and replays the ordeal for the first time. Camaraderie, family and a sense of purpose help you learn to navigate this uncertain terrain. Our security train- ing is tactical and practical: the ins and outs of avoiding, mitigating or defeating threats. But even if you dodge a bullet and enjoy that fleeting rush, you must think through who else got shot and why. Right of Boom: A Bomb and a Book BY STEPHEN G . MCFARLAND That’s how I came to value self-reflection and perspective as much as varying my routes or going to the range. Ironically, a book I never read shaped my search for meaning in wartime: 501 Spanish Verbs . Seeing a copy of it in 2019 at a hostel lobby in Lima inspired me to write this piece. I was there as a George- town graduate student to meet with former combatants and to seek lessons from the war against Sendero Luminoso, the “Shining Path,” the fundamentalist Maoist insurgency that I had reported on from Peru as a younger Foreign Service political officer. This sighting took me back to an early lesson on working in the world of political violence and “right of boom.” s It was afternoon in Cuzco, some 11,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, in the summer of 1986. At the time, the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas were seeking to over- throw the state through terrorist bombings and assassinations. As the political officer who covered the growing insurgency, and the plummeting state of human rights, I traveled widely in the conflict zones—not just to report on the attacks, but also to examine why seemingly normal people would join the guerrillas to kill soldiers, police officers and fellow villagers, and why the security forces would use sum- mary executions and torture against civilians as well as rebels. At night we often heard the bombs and gunfire; Sendero Luminoso’s targets made clear that Americans were enemies. When we learned Sendero had just bombed the tourist train in Cuzco, killing seven per- sons including an American tourist, I rushed off to learn more. As I left, the embassy gave me an additional task. Like many Foreign Service officers, I had been a consular officer dur- ing my first tour. This day in Cuzco I found myself back in the heart of consular work, assisting American citizens overseas. In this particular case, I needed to obtain the police report on the American whom Sendero had just killed. It was sunny, but the warmest part of the day had passed, and the increas- ing chill and the high altitude produced a melancholy effect. I had on a coat and tie—officials in the Andes appreciate for- mality—but I also wore a mountaineering jacket on top, both for the cold and to bet- ter conceal my weapon. The police station was a rundown building with dilapidated furniture and mismatched file cabinets. I identified myself and met the policeman assigned to the case. He sat in front of a manual typewriter, using his forefingers to produce the documentation of the American’s death that would allow the transfer of his body from the morgue to the capital, and then onward to his home. Poke-poke-poke, place of death. Poke-poke-poke, time of death. Poke-poke-poke, cause of death. The explosive velocity of dynamite exceeds several thousand meters per sec- REFLECTIONS