A young Obama asks his Indonesian step-father, Lolo, about war:

“What are those?” “Leech marks,” he said. “From when I was in New Guinea. They crawl inside your army boots while you’re hiking through the swamps. At night, when you take off your socks, they’re stuck there, fat with blood. You sprinkle salt on them and they die, but you still have to dig them out with a hot knife.”

I ran my finger over one of the oval grooves. It was smooth and hairless where the skin had been singed. I asked Lolo if it had hurt.

“Of course it hurt,” he said, taking a sip from the jug. “Sometimes you can’t worry about hurt. Sometimes you worry only about getting where you have to go.”

We fell silent, and I watched him out of the corner of my eye. I realized that I had never heard him talk about what he was feeling. I had never seen him really angry or sad. He seemed to inhabit a world of hard surfaces and well-defined thoughts. A queer notion suddenly sprang into my head.

“Have you ever seen a man killed?” I asked him.He glanced down, surprised by the question. “Have you?” I asked again. “Yes,” he said. “Was it bloody?”

“Yes.” I thought for a moment. “Why was the man killed? The one you saw?” “Because he was weak.” “That’s all?” Lolo shrugged and rolled his pant leg back down. “That’s usually enough. Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They’re just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her.” He paused to take another sip of water, then asked, “Which would you rather be?”

I didn’t answer, and Lolo squinted up at the sky. “Better to be strong,” he said finally, rising to his feet. “If you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who’s strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.”