An Unknown Soldier in an Unknown War:

Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier Issue #1

Unknown Soldier #1
Writer – Joshua Dysart
Art – Alberto Ponticelli
Vertigo/DC Comics
December, 2008

Although the principal backdrop is Acholiland, a subregion of Northern Uganda, the Unknown Soldier is not an African story. Instead, Joshua Dysart uses Ugandan cultural and mythological aspects, combined with familiar tropes to a United States readership, to flavor an investigation on how exactly we can end systematic and global violence. On one side of the ‘dialogue’ is an advocacy for peace, a non-violent and vulnerable agenda. On the other side is the call for redemptive violence against manufacturers of human cruelty, using the ‘eye for an eye’ model to justify annihilating evil. Both sides attempt to break free from history’s eternal cycle of violence. Both sides seem a futile crusade.

To clarify, the idea behind redemptive violence is that some forms of violence are necessary, justifiable, and in many cases healing and beneficial. A hero is often justified to be violent by his ideals, by the desperation of his situation, and by the imminent threat of his enemies (Wink). The concept is easy to digest when applied to film. The general viewer doesn’t question John McClane mowing down international criminals in Die Hard because they ‘deserve’ this retribution. After all, Hans Gruber started the whole ordeal when he seized the Nakatomi Plaza and killed the innocent Mr. Takagi (Noll). In V for Vendetta, the titular character’s vigilante actions (including bombing populated buildings) are sympathetic on screen because they’re enacted against a monstrous dictatorship with truly evil ministers. The worlds of McClane and of V are designed to not have a peaceful means in which to end hostility. Only after a climactic amount of carnage can order be restored.

But is that how hostility should be handled? As we will see, the Unknown Soldier himself will be divided internally between notions of peace and war. On one side, we will see the character as Dr. Moses Lwanga, a pacifist medical doctor who has traveled to Uganda with the intention of administering medical assistance to refugees. His character possesses the noble qualities persistent in the best of heroes, that of moral strength, courage, a talent for leadership, and the willingness to sacrifice his needs for the betterment of others. Etymologically, the forename Moses refers to a Biblical character who freed the Hebrew people from their Egyptian conquerors and then led them through a forty-year trek to a sacred homeland. The surname Lwanga refers to St. Charles Lwanga, an Ugandan martyr executed not only for his fidelity to his religion but for protecting children from the sexual advances of violent King Mwanga.

We will also see the character as a militarized avatar of vengeance. His ‘Soldier’ side will be similar to most heroes’ origins stories. A horrible trauma (like the cruel murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents) leads to a dedication to a higher purpose (like Batman’s zeal for fighting crime). In this case, that purpose is to cleanse Uganda from all foreign and external enemies — leading the nation to a self-claimed utopia. However, the nature of the Unknown Soldier’s heroism will not emulate super peers such as Batman or Captain America. But then again, his conflicts will not emulate their’s either.

The result is an integration of the two extremes into a highly-trained and mentally disturbed warrior. At times the Unknown Soldier will be a pacifist plagued by a fetishized desire to kill, much like a vegan who can’t stop eating meat. At others, he will be an unstoppable killer with the tormented heart of a poet. In his hands, like molding clay, will be the nation of Uganda.

The cover spread of Unknown Soldier #1 offers insight into these characteristics. The spread is mostly filled by an intimate portrait of the Unknown Soldier, whose proximity is only broken by a confetti-like scatter of newspaper clippings. Complementing the color and texture of the face wraps, the clippings deal with local Ugandan politics especially that of the Lord Resistance’s Army. There’s even a small, stupefied Joseph Kony portraiture in the bottom right-hand corner. You’d think the villain of the comic would have been given a grander and more foreboding presence. Or perhaps he has? Note how the Unknown Soldier’s eyes burn internally like some fearsome devil. This cover seems to suggest that Ugandan politics aren’t the exhibition here. Instead, Uganda will be the superficial wrappings that conceal the comic’s true concern.

Unknown Soldier #1 wastes little time in getting to the action. In the opening panel, a brutal and muscular youth with a spiteful visage fires an AK-47. His target is obliterated by the gunfire. The dramatic action is a nice hook but it also serves to introduce an archetypal character prominent in the 2008 mini-series. Note the child’s extreme savagery, his lack of remorse, and his efficiency with the assault rifle. This child has been shaped into a tool of war. Reflecting our own reality, he is a soldier for the rebellion group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. Without delving too much into politics, understand that the insurgency’s purpose is to usurp the Ugandan government and establish their own savage and mystical leader, a warlord named Joseph Kony. The child depicted in this scene, however, is not really a character so much as an archetype for all child soldiers, the young initiates to history’s cycle of violence.

Dysart inserts two more images of children in Moses’ backstory. Narratively they’re hinted as being symbolic representations for the adults that will populate the comic’s present narrative. In fact, the ‘Westernized’ child is actually Moses in the 1980s.

As a representative of Western culture, Moses stands before a developed cityscape populated by advertisements. He is well-dressed for an American child of his age and has a baseball bat resting on his shoulder. Here, the bat isn’t a weapon of violence so much as a civilized physical outlet.

Set beside Moses is a young Ugandan standing afore a hut. This child is barely-clothed with an AK-47 resting on his bare shoulder. The machine gun is not being used as a weapon of violence like in the opening hook although the potential is evident. Its correspondence with the baseball bat normalizes the weapon into its setting. There is also a defensive aspect in the gun due to the inclusion of a despondent sister figure nearby.

Dysart makes a salient point. While the children of the U.S. have been sheltered from the world’s atrocities, the children of Uganda have been born in a land where war is an intimate status quo. Despite the difference, an egalitarian similarity unites the boys in their naive facial expressions. They are blank slates susceptible to the legacies of nations.

The comic transitions to Moses, now a medical doctor, delivering a speech at a humanitarian gala. This speech, as well as his later interview with a Daily Monitor reporter, function as expository devices to introduce the fundamental ideas of non-violence. Moses argues that if beneficial and radical change is to occur, then it must start within the people. They must rebuild their nation without foreign intrusions i.e. the United States or United Nations, or their work will not have lasting impact. This includes immediate care for refugees and diplomatic dialogue with the LRA. Moses is, however, dependent on the room’s well-groomed philanthropists. He is only as effective as the sympathy he evokes.

Jumping ahead, Moses speaks to Oli-Otiyano Sebo, a reporter for a big Ugandan newspaper. Again, an alternative to the comic’s overriding focus on retribution is preserved for the reader as a sort of foundational thesis. The reporter wonders if there can be reconciliation in the exploited but decolonized tribal mutation that is Uganda, calling the “nation of Uganda” a myth. Moses’ rebuttal is to put academia aside, that “we, as a people, must teach our children that peace is their mother” (Unknown Soldier #1). Moses’ rhetorical strategy is to depict Uganda as a maternal avatar of peace.

Moses completes his speech at the gala with the declaration that he himself “is Uganda.” This might not be hyperbole. Only a few pages later we are given a dream sequence of a struggling fetus. Instead of an amniotic lining, the fetus is contained within carnage associated with Uganda, including images of starving children, child soldiers, the UPDF army, machetes and skulls and AK-47s. We’re also treated to an early image of the Unknown Soldier (wearing a cowboy hat he will never actually wear).

The Unknown Soldier is depicted as being the fetal creation of Uganda’s atrocious civil wars. He is born from violence. The host’s heartbeat is described as a continuous “boom” akin to gunshots and explosions — the sounds of war. The heart is also “taxing itself,” signifying both the process of strenuous labor, i.e. childbirth, and the Ugandan people’s demanding and self-destructive struggle (Unknown Soldier #1). The Unknown Soldier’s birth appears to destroy the host, i.e. the bursting heart, signifying the end of that violence. However, in literary tradition, both the womb and the earth are feminine objects. If the womb is the violence of Uganda, than it’s the ground as well. Therefore, his birth is not only a symbolic end to the staggering violence, but national matricide.

Immediately after Moses’ embryological vision we catch imprints of the Unknown Soldier within Moses’ subconscious. Upon spying his wife praying to the cross, Moses aggressively murders her. This is only a glimpse, however, as its revealed the murder was another layer of the dream. The detail I find most salient in regarding this encounter is not Moses’ overwhelming impulses revealed-through-dream, which is an old and trusty trope when following a nice guy’s transformation into a psychopath. Instead, Moses’ uxoricide (which means wife-slaying, so don’t tell me you haven’t learned anything) occurs in response to symbols of the Christian tradition (i.e. praying, the cross). Christianity is a touchy subject to African scholars studying the effects of post-colonialism. Christ’s theology is centered on beneficial ideas such as compassion and loving sacrifice, but Christianity was also a tool used by the British as a method of establishing hierarchical power structures in the African colonies. In effect, a form of mass enslavement. Moses’ actions, then, can be seen as purging religion from Uganda. Interestingly, this leads to the murder of another female figure — this time his wife. Perhaps he means well, but his methods are too destructive?

Which brings me to an interesting, perhaps tangential, conclusion. Dysart seems to be subtly forging a connection between Sera and a metaphysical but desirable Africa. At one point Sera is literally called “his Africa.” Not long afterwards, Moses wonders “just how far [he is] willing to go to keep it from destroying everything [he] love[s]” (Unknown Soldier #1). The “it” in question might refer to the brutality of the LRA but possibly refers to the spirit of destruction that’s begun to possess him. ‘Everything he loves’ is either Sera, but could also be the nation of Uganda. In the same panel, Sera is shown afore the foliage of the Acholi jungle.

In my interpretation, Sera represents a healthy, powerful, and attractive Africa that the Unknown Soldier wishes to preserve while purging all other elements; on a moral scale, she is his conscience. If that’s the case, then we’ll need to keep our eye on her in upcoming issues.

Dysart complements the child soldier in the opening hook with another product of the cycle of violence — this time, the victim. While providing medical assistance to an IDP camp in Acholiland, Moses is discouraged by a legless girl who’s been mutilated by the LRA. If children are the future, then this is the Ugandan future. One one side are children brainwashed into committing senseless bloodshed. On the other are children whom have been horribly butchered, without practical utility, without education, living in squalor and disease.

In a scene that parallels a Biblical story, Moses impulsively hurries into the forest to save another innocent girl entangled with rebels. In the Bible, the Hebrew named Moses had been raised amongst Egyptian royalty. However, he still came to feel pity for his own people whom had been enslaved by the Egyptians. In a moment of urgency, Moses killed a slaver in the throes of whipping a Hebrew to death, before exiling himself into the wilderness. Only through his remorseful wanderings did Moses finally gain the insight and maturity he needed to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land (although he did have a little assistance from the Hebrew god). By mimicking the Biblical story, Dysart emphasizes the role that our Moses must play. The Ugandan people have been ‘enthralled’ by a bloodthirsty regime called the Lord’s Resistance Army. Instead of Pharaoh, it’s the mysic warrior Joseph Kony. The Ugandan people need a leader, perhaps a martyr. But mostly they need a savior.

But does the Unknown Soldier’s Moses qualify to be that savior figure, or is his name a dire irony? “Rebels, corrupt leaders, arms dealers, corporate CEO’s… anyone who profits from misery… You could kill them all, ” tempts a mysterious voice in white text in a black box, outlined by a thin line of red (Unknown Soldier #1). The unknown entity that advises him seems far more destructive, more ambitious, and with the potential for greater damage than even Joseph Kony. Its initial appearance combined with the weight of Moses’ deeds nearly makes the good doctor try to kill himself, connecting his advocacy to the legalist nature exhibited by characters such as Javert from Les Miserables. The extremes within Moses cannot be reconciled; either one or the other must be destroyed.

Failing to kill himself, Moses instead engages in a symbolic form of self-annihilation, or a ‘baptism of blood.’ Moses attempts to curtail his demonic inner monologue by bashing in his face with a rock. The religious imagery is evident. His actions are an attempt to “cleanse the filth and sin from my Goddamned soul” (Unknown Soldier #1). After all, baptism traditionally involves the dipping of one’s head in a cleansing fluid to then be reborn. In this case, the fluid is his own blood. And what follows is a rebirth, a transformation. But who is Moses becoming?

Moses’ transformation has another level of symbolic imagery. By disfiguring himself, he is symbolically re-enacting Uganda’s own self-targeted atrocities. His visage becomes the war-scarred face of post-colonial Africa. He becomes a symbol that unites both Uganda’s disfigured and soldiering populace. Suddenly, he is Uganda — with all of its blood and carnage and pestilence.

By the end of #1, Moses has become the titular Unknown Soldier. Although yes, he has become a vehicle for the action-adventure that will follow, understand that the moral weight of his actions have not been completely inverted. He is both a warrior shamed and a pacifist seduced. When he collapses between the UPDF and child soldier, we are not seeing two soldiers and a civilian. Instead, we’re seeing three soldiers fallen on a battlefield. In an ironic and somewhat subtle twist, their corpses make the impression of a peace sign.

As Dysart himself writes in a little editorial near the back, “what follows is a war book written by an on-again, off-again pacifist — who’ll be looking for answers himself in between the beautiful explosions” (Unknown Soldier #1).

Works Cited

Dysart, Josh, & Alberto Ponticelli. “Unknown Soldier #1.” New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2008. Print.

Gorsevski, Ellen W. Peaceful Persuasion: The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. Print.

Law, Jane & Vanessa Sasson. Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture. England: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Marshall, Monty. “Measuring Systematic Peace.” Center for Systematic Peace, 14 October 2013. Web. 20 November 2013.

Noll, Douglas. “Live Free or Die Hard – The Myth of Redemptive Violence is Alive and Well.” Ataraxis, 30 July 2007. Web. 18 November 2013.

Rosenberg, Robin. “The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013. Web. 19 November 2013.

Wink, Walter. “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Ekklesia, 21 May 2012. Web. 19 November 2013.

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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1 Comment

  1. Although his visual is one I have found interesting since the first time I saw it, the extent of my knowledge of The Unknown Soldier is limited to seeing house ads, probably for this series, and his current incarnation in Suicide Squad.

    Suffice it to say that I am now very interested in checking out this story first-hand which I suppose is a way of saying “job well done”. The New 52 Suicide Squad version, thus far, does not seem to have any substance to him so it is quite amazing to me to read about the stories from whence he came and see how much…more…the character could be under the right handler.

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