How to Start a War

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“How to Start a War” is a fictional short story by yours truly.

I’ve never shared fiction on this blog before, and it makes me quake in my boots, but this year will be a year of firsts. The story was originally published in NFT form to learn more about the technology and play footsie with my friend Kevin Rose.

It’s a little tale about mercenaries, modern life, and the games we all play. The prose, handwriting, and concept is by me. The graphic design, which you can see at this link, is by Lisa Quine.

And how much of this is actually fiction?

Well, that’s a damn good question…


“If you want to start a war, call me.”

He handed me his card. It was nondescript: Name, number, AOL email address, stock art of an eagle. He could have passed for a plumber, handyman, or tree remover.

We were parting ways after a long weekend together, and the pieces of the puzzle had only started to coalesce in the last hour. I’d known he was former military from the outset, and I had guessed he was in his early 60’s from the gray hair, weather-beaten face, and close-cropped beard. His language also dated him. But beyond that, I knew little, as he was quiet and sullen.

The gathering was roughly 15 male guests, all self-made in some industry, and all pretending to be Jason Bourne. Perhaps Jason Bourne with a drinking problem. I, on the other hand, was a jack of all trades, master of some, but it had never added up to dynastic wealth. Nonetheless, here I was, invited by a back-slapping half-acquaintance who got my email years before. Once I’d signed the NDA like everyone else, folks seemed happy to forget I was there.

The stated purpose of the weekend was to learn evasive driving, hence we had some ex-Marines signed up to teach. I spent my days listening to the attendees peacock about finance, old sports injuries, and third homes. I spent my nights sipping whisky around a campfire with the instructors. Perhaps it was because I shaved my head, perhaps it was the shared silence, but one by one, they began to ask me questions. That’s how “Stan,” as we’ll call him, eventually opened up. We bonded over hunting and Hunter S. Thompson.

And now, at the very tail end of our time together, Stan was filling me in on his next gig. It turned out that he was a tree remover of sorts, or at least an obstacle remover. This all came to light because I asked him where he was headed after our make-believe excursion in nowhere Arizona. I’d been wondering how he paid the bills the rest of the year.

“I’m headed to Burma. I’m a God-fearing Christian, and there are some Christians who need protecting.”

He went on to explain that a large and pension-friendly non-profit had reached out to him through friends of friends. The non-profit was decidedly Christian but no longer advertised itself as such. It had pivoted to a broader donor base in the 1980s. Still, their roots remained intact, and they’d asked Stan if he’d be willing to “support” several small enclaves of Christians in northern Myanmar, whose rural villages were being attacked and, in some cases, burned by one particular paramilitary group. While most of the West thinks of Buddhism as a doctrine of peace, it turns out that no faith is immune to extremism.The violence was being inflicted by self-avowed Buddhists, who were also ruthlessly effective at cutting off supply lines of food and water to these encampments. They viewed any belief system outside of Buddhism as a betrayal of the truth, and that was justification enough for forced removal of both Muslims and Christians, often to Internal Displacement Camps (IDC). The attacks routinely included murders, and the murders were rarely investigated. The entire situation was mostly ignored by the Myanmar national army and local law enforcement, if not condoned. The whole thing was a spectacular mess.

I asked Stan what he could possibly do to protect these groups.

After all, he’d mentioned that it was just him and two other silver-haired vets who’d been hired, all well past their primes.

“Well, that’s pretty easy. These Christian villages can only be reached by helicopter. We have intel on the six or so primary pilots. They all live in one hub, a small city. So, the plan is to kill two or three of the pilots in their homes in a single night, in front of their families, and leave letters as written warnings. That should slow things down. If they don’t stop, then we kill the rest at longer range. It’s important to realize that these pilots aren’t trained to deal with this type of thing.”

The conversation went on for some time, each new revelation dwarfing the one preceding it.

Flying home that evening, the encounter prompted dozens of questions I didn’t have answers for, like:

How many times per year did Stan do something like this? And who hired him?

How many mass conflicts have been started, or prevented, by similar low-tech strikes?

And… how on earth did the U.S. 501(c)(3) in question categorize this expense?

To Stan’s credit, he never mentioned their name, but I could easily imagine an annual fundraising gala in a fancy Manhattan ballroom, replete with high-price auction items (a weekend at a board member’s Lake Como estate?), celebrity guests (wouldn’t the red carpet photos look great on Page Six?), and Fortune 500 execs sitting at $50,000 tables (their comms teams picked the perfect non-profit for great coverage!). In my mind’s eye, there is a well-dressed society woman on stage — white teeth, white dress, white pearl necklace — announcing the auction item: “Support for local partners helping at-risk minority groups in Southeast Asia.” Starting bid: $25,000 USD.

How did Stan and his team get paid? Did the non-profit donate to a recognized NGO on the ground, who then paid Stan in cash? Who knows.

All I knew was that he was being paid for two weeks of services. Put another way, in fewer than 14 days, a number of helicopter pilots — currently having ice cream with their daughters, maybe watching TV with their wives — would meet Stan but never see his face. Those men, no doubt believing themselves on the right side of history, would find themselves unexpectedly at the end of their own timelines and the flash of a muzzle. Perhaps that very same evening, a CEO on the Upper East Side would be bragging to dinner guests about his latest philanthropic work in Southeast Asia.

So, is Stan a valiant hero, a psychopath murderer, or simply (simply!) a guy with ends to meet and skills that don’t translate to civilian life? Is he good, bad, or neutral? Or are these all bullshit questions? After all, he can be these three things at the same time. It depends on your perspective, the stories you believe, and whether or not he’s on your side.

I have to imagine that we’ve all backed killers. Whether through paying taxes or chasing tax havens, whether by buying shoes of unknown origin or snorting a line of coke at a bachelor party, we’ve all been complicit in immense suffering. A Stan five steps removed is still a Stan, isn’t it?

Sitting in my aisle seat, these and other thoughts floated through my mind. The orange juice I’d been drinking tasted metallic. I pulled out Stan’s card to replay the day’s events, and as I turned it over in my hands, I noticed a quote on the back:

Vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes omnia vanitas.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.

How incredibly freeing it would be to believe it. I tried to commit the Latin to memory and failed completely, which only seemed to reinforce the point. I wondered why Stan put this on his card. As a warning to others? As a reminder to himself? A nihilistic justification?

There was a tap on my shoulder, snapping me out of my reverie, and an attractive middle-aged woman seated behind me held up my wallet. “I think you dropped this, sir.”

“Thank you very much. That’s really kind of you.”

My own voice echoed back like someone else’s, and I wondered: was it kind to return my wallet? I’d paid for the fantasy weekend, after all, which in turn partially supported Stan. Maybe it paid for part of his plane ticket to Myanmar. But how much of me was legitimately disgusted, and how much of me was glad to be involved or even proud? I couldn’t tell.

The absurdity was dizzying, and a smile involuntarily spread across my face. It wasn’t a smile of amusement. It made me think of chimpanzees, who sometimes break into maniacal laughter in the canopy if a troupe member is torn apart by a leopard on the jungle floor. I mean, what the fuck else are you going to do?

By this time, I needed a stiffer drink. I hailed the flight attendant and ordered two gin tonics, both doubles. She paused, considered objecting, then folded and walked away.

Three minutes later, I had my drinks on my tray, and I turned back to the woman behind me:

“Thanks again for the wallet. Do you mind if I ask you one quick question?”

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for “Best of Apple Podcasts” three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it’s been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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