Three Hundred & One Red

After reading about the agoge system of education, the old man decided to watch the movie, 300, last night. The agoge system was practised in ancient times in Greece, by ancient the old man meant a few hundred years before Christ. At age seven, Spartan boys were sent away from the bosom of their mothers to learn about the art of war and to prepare their bodies for the harshness of war. They would only return home as fighting men if they survived living in the wild on their own after their training, usually by 30 years of age. In the movie, a young Leonidas, the future king of Sparta, triumphed over a giant black wolf, its black darker than the blackest night and its eyes redder than the colour of blood. A spartan had to be tough, a Spartan had to be strong. They were trained to withstand pain and the harshest conditions. Freedom wasn’t free at all, it came at great costs. For a Spartan, there was no surrender. There was no retreat. Three virtues were often repeated. Honour. Duty. Glory. Every Spartan soldier was expected to stand and fight. And die. Their only request in return was not a monument. Not a statue in their honour. Not a street named after them. No, they only wished that we remember them. That’s the least we can do, for they died for the promise of freedom. Molon labe pronounced as moˈlon laˈve – come and take them. This was Leonidas’ reply to the Persian King, the wannabe god, Xerxes, who demanded that the Spartans lay down their weapons and kneel to him. Molon labe, give them nothing but take from them, everything. To victory!

Molon labe

King Leonidas on the eve of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)

Men are not born equal. Not all lands are equal. Spartan believed they were far superior, in bravery, strength, resilience and the willingness to die for their people. That three hundred of them could be enough to repel and defeat the King of Kings, Xerxes the Persian emperor of “the world”, who invaded Greece with a massive army in the hundreds of thousands supported by a navy. Why send only three hundred men to defend his country against such a powerful foe? Even back in those days, no man was above the law, not even King Leonidas. So, when he went to consult the Delphic Oracle about going to war against Xerxes during the Carneia, their Christmas season, the Pythia forbade Leonidas to go to war. So, Leonidas could only “go for a walk” with three hundred of his bodyguards to protect him. The Pythia, a priestess, was revered as the mouthpiece of their god of prophecy. In the movie 300, the inner sanctum of Apollo’s temple had been bribed by a faction that was anti-war and ordered the Pythia to say that their glorious city would be decimated by the Persians if they went to war.

Not all lands are equal in value and importance. The old man suddenly thought of Ukraine today. He paused for those who have lost loved ones and for those who have lost everything. War is never good. War is never the answer. Yet, has there ever been peace on earth in the history of mankind? Urghhlings, to the old man, will never learn for it is in their genetic code to be the superior animal, a terrible consequence of evolution. Ukraine, unfortunately, sits at the border of Russia and that makes the land strategically important. To Russia, Ukraine is their redline that it does not become part of the EU or more precisely, that they are not part of NATO, a military alliance that requires the whole alliance to defend a member country that is at war. To the US, Ukraine is their chess piece to keep Russia in check and prevent their Cold War foe from advancing towards the west. Somehow, the US does not seem to accept that the Cold War ended once the Soviet Union self-destructed and blew itself into many separate states without a gunshot being fired. That was 30 years ago. Talk about slow learners! Despite the initial reservations by many EU countries, the US got their way and inserted in paragraph 23 of the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration, that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. Four months later, many Georgian villages were bombed to smithereens by Russia, for they too share a common border with Russia. The war lasted twelve days. It was made very very clear to the world then that Russia will not allow NATO to be at their doorsteps.

Men are not born equal. Some are downright foolish. The old man said, “Why would the Ukrainian President insist on joining NATO?” Given the lessons from Georgia, why would any Ukrainian leader aspire to become a NATO member? Despite repeated warnings from Russia that they will not accept US and European encampments and military bases at the border? The West may trumpet the fact that Ukraine is a true democracy and therefore every democracy should be strongly defended but why have we forgotten that their previously elected President was ousted in a coup and the overthrow of Yanukovych’s government in 2014 following the Maidan Revolution was welcomed by the West simply because he was pro-Russia? There is a certain Marvelisation by western media to make Zelensky into a superhero. He is definitely a hero in social media and already has a street named after him in America. His portrayal of a leader defending his country against all odds is a throw-back to the Spartan folklore about the three hundred heroes who defended their land against the Persian invaders. Appropriately, Zelensky appears in his regular video posts unshaven, rugged like Rambo, and in military-green defiance against a superpower. He is on the streets, digging in, rallying his troops, asking to join NATO, asking NATO to join in the fight, fighting. He is not in some gilded palace enjoying the finest wines and grapes. He is wearing a green t-shirt, no silk or satin robes. A self-sacrificial hero in the mould of a Spartan, Leonidas, no less. A former comedian, he reminds the old man he may still be one. Fancy asking NATO for fighter jets and no-fly zones – still showing a naivety that the US and the rest of Europe will join him in his fight. A no-fly zone, although necessary to prevent Russian MIGs from entering Ukraine’s airspace, will entail the shooting down of Russian planes. That is akin to asking for WW3 but a war that the world has never seen before, a nuclear one. Some in the West are already saying Zelensky will go down in history as a legendary hero, a profoundly inspirational leader who did not blink. The old man said, “Alexander the Great is buried on the same grounds as his mule handler.” What good is greatness once we are dead?

But, we know freedom isn’t free at all. Too many lives have been lost, many more will be sacrificed. Zelensky will be martyred in a country in total ruin. Will they be free? His story to the old man echoes that of Leonidas’. Tricked by his ‘Delphi Oracle’, Zelensky’s Pythia isn’t a priestess, but the one paragraph in a summit declaration some years back in which his country was promised membership to NATO. To the old man, Zelensky isn’t a hero. He is a fool to sacrifice his people, and his country for some fanciful notion that freedom is a price worth paying for in blood and misery. Ukraine was already a free and independent country; the only price for that freedom was not to join the NATO. “A good enough deal,” the old man said.

Only the dead is truly free. Free from the ugliness of this world.

Wu Yonggang

A few nights earlier, the old man watched Red. It was a random choice, well….not really, the old man has a predisposition for movies by Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. The former, because his movies are often action-packed and the latter, because of her great acting. It is a story about retired people, a subject matter at the top of the old man’s mind as he contemplates retirement himself as more and more of his schoolmates show what freedom looks like upon retirement. More importantly, what it feels like. For the Spartan, freedom wasn’t free at all. For his fellow schoolmates, freedom reads like paradise to the old man. Wake up at whatever time, eat wherever or cook whatever you fancy or don’t cook at all. For someone who still works 8.30 – 4.30, this kind of freedom that awaits the old man feels exciting. The thought was enough to make his hands turn cold and hasten his heartbeats. In the movie Red, the retired folks were all ex-black ops agents. Their forte was just like the Spartans, standing and fighting for the state. No questions asked, they did as they were told, killed whoever, wherever and whenever. But having retired, they knew too much and it was their turn to be “disposed of”. So, the old team members reunited to repel the assassin sent to kill them. That was also a good example of retirement! So much to look forward to for the old man, right? Except he knows that in reality, retirement won’t be as testosterone-charged and exciting as in the movie Red.

The old man discovered that Red stood for Retired, Extremely Dangerous. At age 63, the old man often winced from the ‘knife-cut’ pain on his back whenever he woke up with the doona on the floor. That’s the problem with the not-hot-and-not-cold nights in late summer / early autumn. The doona is too heavy for such nights, so he is prone to simply kick it off the bed. But, the temperature would be quite cold just before daybreak, cold enough to inflict piercing pain around the scapula region of his back. “How dangerous can you be when you can’t withstand a night without your doona?” I asked him. He was silent as he raked his rather unkempt hair with his crooked fingers that are riddled with arthritis. His Mrs nagged him. “That shocking matted hair of yours is well overdue for a visit to the Japanese hair-dresser in Trinity Gardens,” she said in a tone filled with acidity. He seemed embarrassed and dipped his head, lost for words that normally flash in his mind like lightning. A fluff of goose down jettisoned itself from his receding hairline and floated onto his right foot, highlighting the grey yellow patch on his big toenail – a tell-tale sign of a fungal infection at best or a hint of kidney disease at worst. A closer look revealed two sets of toenails that were screaming for a proper pedicure. His Mrs had nagged him plenty of times the week earlier about personal hygiene but somehow to the old man, first impressions and looks mattered little. “What will become of you when you really retire?” I questioned him with a voice of authority. “Mope around all day in your pyjamas, unshaven, ungroomed with a shock of entangled hair and smelling of unbrushed teeth?” A confident executive in his younger days, he was regularly seen in his pinstriped suit, prancing along Pirie Street with his lanky boss with thick round glasses, a strong nasal twang and a clownish grin. After he was head-hunted to work in Sydney, the young executive started walking with a swagger, as would anyone whose commands were unquestioned and his sentences as final as the dicta of High Court judges. A couple of years after those heady days, he discarded his suits and became his own boss, an entrepreneur. He knew what freedom was. Yes, that’s right – a boss who answered to no one, and was never a yes-man appreciated what total freedom was. He was not beholden to the bank manager, the business was cashflow positive from day one. Freedom wasn’t free, it came with great costs – but he learned that lesson too late. The arrival of major international retail chains saw the leasing executives of shopping centres abandoning their support for his shops, and instead they rushed to kowtow to their new retail gods who had limitless cash to splash. He realised it was all a ruse to soften him up with rent-free terms and the occasional subsidised shop fit-out. Suppliers threw money at him by “buying” his business with monetary incentives such as free consignment stock, volume rebates and shelf-talker and shelf-display rebates. Fully-paid overseas holidays were annual events, sometimes so frequent that he even gave a long-serving manager one of the free trips to L.A. During those heydays, he felt like a tiger. His suppliers said, “moˈlon laˈve – come and take them,” and so he did. He took from them, everything. Discounts, volume rebates, advertising rebates, sponsorships, free holidays and so on. Sure, they were win-win deals. But, for the old man, those days are long gone. Today, he is fast approaching retirement, and although he still feels like a tiger, he is becoming a toothless one. The day he lets go the reins to his business is the day he becomes truly dispensable. That, after all, is the true sign of a good manager, right? To make everyone in his business dispensable.

Red. Retired and extremely dull. “Will it come to that?” the old man asked me. I did not have the heart to tell him, dispensable also means expendable. No one would care.

Art by the old man’s son at age 8. Hold on to those precious to us and don’t let go. Stay safe. Stay alive.

One thought on “Three Hundred & One Red

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