Dedicated to Jacques and The Colonel, a son and a father, a boy and a man who lived, loved, cared and then died before their time. In their memory, a man often listens to Mickey Rourke’s brilliant monologue from the first Expendables movie and marvels that an actor who had probably never been to war could find within himself such a powerful way to describe what effect the darkness of less than spectacular failures has on numbed souls who nevertheless care.
I understand the need to make heroes of those who performed incredible feats, or make threats such as the Huns and Europeans were to appear as elements of the supernatural in movies depicting Chinese and Japanese historical events. “For there are monsters, and they walk among us”, as the saying goes…
Still, there are stories which need to be told, mostly bereft of supernatural events, yet driven by humanity once the unexplained is done playing its part, because... It was there, drew attention to certain things and then left it up to humanity to carry on, which it did to a far less satisfying end- and so the tale begins…
The characters above the beginning of this article are the Japanese kanji for “ronin”-- a master-less samurai-- one of the lowest and simultaneously, most dangerous elements of Japanese history.
As is the nature of the duality of man, these guys either became bandits or ultra-fanatical samurai in the service of those who deigned to become their masters. Yet it wasn’t fanaticism which drove them, but a combination of human and socially driven compulsion to either serve for the benefit of society or towards its downfall.
The ronin, lost men bred and trained for war yet bereft of direction after their first master died, give us tales of what was and could have been. They were the sub-standard, mean and above average warriors of whom so much is said. They were some of the guys who inspired the Japanese worship of glorious failures. They were men of contempt, indifference and reverence. They were men in the old tradition, who would pick a direction and follow it until collapse no matter what the consequences.
Ah, consequences… There are the 47 Ronin, of whom a much-maligned Hollywood movie was made. Guys who saw injustice being perpetrated and who bid their time until it was safe to right the scales of justice, then pay the price for going against the law. They were the men who died so a shogun could save face. They were men almost without peer, and then there was a loner who tried to be a hero...
He was a South African ronin- a warrior driven by the betrayals he experienced, darkness and despair, to seek life outside that of those who chose to be mastered. More than a warrior, he was WAR. He was a man who stared into the depths of Hell, but as a woman would tell him sixteen years later, also had Hell within him.
He was desirous of peace and capable of mass murder. He was a superb empath and callously unsympathetic at the same time. He was that which those in the know unleashed when they had to, a man who lived by both simple and complex extremes which gave shrinks and Zen masters headaches. He was a cold, calculating, relentless and relentlessly inhumane human being, a man meant to go through concrete walls who never got to go through the wooden front door- he was The Unexpended.
On top of all that he was, this man was also a link to the supernatural. He could see strange things which were often misunderstood, until there was one thing he saw that changed his life. Next to it, seeing his own death and meeting Death dwarfed what came, for there was a beautiful early South African evening which changed things for him. That was when he saw Light cloaked in Darkness, a beautiful butterfly with the speed of a cheetah being brought to a halt by someone and something less than him…
It was a beautiful evening of the sort he’d seen many times before, when the last flames of the sun reddened the last blue of the day, when he polished his shoes as he’d been trained a few months before. It was an evening when he saw a graceful rugby player just before his prime stand behind him, and as he looked at a youngster in shorts, he saw a brilliantly lit soul enclosed by the black cloak of Death- and all because a young man sought guidance from a greatly flawed older man.
It could’ve been avoided, all that came afterwards, but it wasn’t meant to be, because the man upon whom it depended had a soul that was too broken to stand up and call to the arms of hope those who believed in things other than hope. The fracture was too deep, you see, the faith he used to have in himself too far gone to be of any use. So he turned from polishing his shoes to look at an overwhelming picture of shining light that radiated from tortured eyes and heart. He looked behind him and saw bright beauty covered by a mantle of darkness from throat to ankles, something he understood to be unstoppable death and Death. He was sad behind cold and seemingly indifferent green eyes, with peepers, heart and soul open and gazing upon the visage of sad beauty.
He looked that boy straight in the eyes and gave a weak answer because he lacked the strength to give the proper one, much less do what eventually became necessary. In later analysis, it was during those seconds that he not only became a lost and broken ronin who lacked the mastery of others above him, but also lacked the commanding strength to expose his concerns to the one man besides himself who might have stopped what came.
Years later, he would find out on his best friend’s bachelor night that the boy who once ran with the speed of a cheetah and grace of a butterfly died by his own hand a few months after that beautiful evening. Drunk and focused on the upcoming events of the next day, he took the news as coldly and calmly as he was known to do, but the knowledge didn’t leave him.
He made a deep and roundly applauded speech next day, then looked into the eyes of the father and brother he’d let down to lead them into a time-honored custom of letting fall to the ground a few drops of hard liquor for the dead.
It should’ve ended there, but it didn’t. Instead of honoring the guy who’d passed into the shadow realm and then moving on, he dragged the ghost and pain with him for years, until no amount of tears, booze and self-pity could quieten the guilt. So, the day came when he made a phone call to borrow money in order to seek out the father whom he had let down all those years before, and write the words meant to explain his guilt as well as ask for forgiveness.
He went there looking for forgiveness knowing how hard it was going to be and was neither surprised nor deterred by the obstacles that lay between. It was an epic time filled with four straight days of drinking, culminated by an evening that was as alcoholic as it was revealing and devastating, for at the end of it there was no forgiveness or redemption, only a desire for the biggest firefight possible and a burst of lead to the chest followed by another journey to that place beyond the darkness between the stars.
It was a memory which haunted him, of a beautiful day upon which a thoroughly jaded man watched a teenage boy glide above a rugby field as if he really was a gentle and graceful butterfly. He could see the afternoon sun, taste the first sandwich of the day which by then was a late afternoon, smell the fresh air tinged by gasoline and diesel exhaust fumes from the cars on the road to his left rear, and feel the tempered pride and guarded enthusiasm of the highest ranking officer who ever gave a damn about him by his side. He could recall perfectly how the spectators sat, where the talent scouts were and what everybody was doing. He could and did experience it all for sixteen years, especially whenever there was a rugby game on TV, because that’s how cruel 20/20 hindsight and history are. Above all, he tried to feel everything associated with that brief period of time because bereft of feeling, this was the kind of self-abuse he could carry out and live with in order to pretend he was still human, if not very humane.
It is a memory which tells him all of these years later that he was eyewitness to innocent greatness and that he let it down in a moment of fearful weakness after he’d taken on odds that would’ve been loved by the best of SOG. It’s the knowledge of how the best Springbok that could have ever been was allowed to fall to carbon monoxide a few months later that spurs him to be the stubbornly determined civilian on the path to the most desperate battle of an utterly desperate war which he hopes will come his way, for he doesn’t have to gaze into Hell, he already carries Hell within…
The Japanese worship spectacular failures, but this man ain’t Japanese. He mourns his failure to protect the unspoken hope of a man who gave him shelter when others wouldn’t, that he let down a beautiful sunset and the refreshingly tangy smell of grass cut a few hours earlier, along with the dream of a young man who only had that one last hope left. For him there’s no spectacle, only an unforgiving specter- and thus a lonely ronin looks toward the possibility of a red dawn and the bloody fight that should precede it, because he is The Unexpended while eminently expendable.