The Foreign Service Journal, September 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | SEPTEMBER 2021 89 ond. Mining is common in the Andes, and so is dynamite; Sendero made improvised bombs its weapon of choice. Usually Sen- dero sought not just to kill, but to obliter- ate. For this attack, a Sendero member had packed metal objects into the bomb to produce shrapnel to kill even more people. Placed at random into the train’s overhead luggage rack, it was low-tech but cruelly effective. The policeman finished entering the victim’s information, a black-and-white explanation that said everything about the moment of death and nothing about why. A solitary fly buzzed in the thin air. The policeman finally asked me to look through the American’s personal effects bundled in a shredded and bloodied sleeping bag, and to decide what to keep and what to discard. I set aside the Ameri- can’s passport and items of possible value, and then anything not soaked in blood. Eventually I came to some books, and I spotted 501 Spanish Verbs . It was a staple of young American travelers in Latin America. Shrapnel had lacerated the front cover, and blood had soaked into the paper; in a cruel irony, it now spoke to what Clausewitz termed “the grammar of war.” I picked the book up and began to turn the pages. We identify blood with life. Blood, like life, can transform itself, and it has a variety of visages and colors. This blood was dull and dark, with hints of carmine where drops not fully coagulated had broken open. Soon enough I would learn more about blood’s range of color, and the disjointed smells and sounds of its shedding. This blood had its own color; distant now from the furor, confusion and distorted sensory systems of war, it was a fellow American’s tragic death embedded in furrows traced by shrapnel. As I turned the pages, the shrapnel indentations that stabbed the book changed. They were initially sharp and probably still deadly, but became fewer and finer: destruction’s undeciphered cuneiform. There was gradually less blood. I kept turning the pages, the signs of violence receding. Eventually I arrived at a page where there was only a faint puncture and a pinprick of blood. Then, a page with only a faint indentation—and then I turned that page, and the subse- quent pages had no sign of blood nor shrapnel. s A turn of a page separated death from life. An image of hope, perhaps, but also of safety’s ephemeral nature. I held close that insight (or was it a prayer?) during subse- quent years in the insurgencies in Peru, El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan and Colom- bia, as I sought to balance my duties with safety, fatalistic acceptance with free will. During periods of gunfire and mortar fire, or the quiet times when someone may be targeting you, sometimes the memory of that page suggested that all periods of violence come to an end—that even after (Above) In April 1987 the author visits a bridge blown up by the guerrillas in central Peru. (Right) In Colombia in 2016 as a USAID justice project head, the author rides a mule to visit communities in areas with large guerrilla and narcotics trafficker presence. a tragedy, when colleagues and contacts are killed, we can keep going. When I authorized deadly force— thankfully unused—or I traveled to or sent people out to dangerous areas, it reminded me of my own responsibility, since the separation between life and death is paper thin and depends partially on a dice roll. The self-reflection that my handling of that American’s belong- ings engendered was, in retrospect, an essential tool to stay focused and to lead in subsequent assignments. I put the book in the discard pile, and back at the hotel I scrubbed the blood off my hands. I took the death certificate to the embassy, and the American’s body returned home. I ramped up my report- ing on the war. After many years, I still recall vividly sorting through that American victim’s personal effects and turning the pages of that blood-soaked book. If that experi- ence has a lesson, I believe it is that after you enter the “right of boom” world, you can’t go back—but sometimes you get to turn the page forward. n COURTESYOFSTEPHENMCFARLAND COURTESYOFSTEPHENMCFARLAND