An Unknown Soldier in an Unknown War:

Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier Issue #3

Unknown Soldier #3
Writer – Joshua Dysart
Art – Alberto Ponticelli
Cover – Igor Kordey
Vertigo/DC Comics
February, 2009

Here’s the deal Dysart presents in Unknown Soldier #3. If the Lord’s Resistance Army can successfully make legitimate claim in waging their war, and can be justified morally by their actions within, then they are not the producers of evil as depicted by media and world leaders. However, if there is a breakdown of civility within the interior of the combatant group, if their actions do not align with the Christian faith tradition from which they claim to be founded, if they are found morally unacceptable as future leaders of Uganda, then their war is counterproductive to the welfare of the Ugandan people. There’s is not a just cause.

The idea behind ‘just war theory’ is that nations seek to justify war by creating a legitimate claim to conflict (Saunders). In other words, a just war is a nation’s discourse to convince itself and others that their side of the war is morally-sound and reasonable.

The theory was greatly developed by theologians within the Catholic Church. St. Augustine wrote peaceful rhetoric in the 5th Century, and his writings were expanded by St. Thomas Aquinas in his comprehensive Summa Theologica in the 13th Century. Despite Jesus’ teachings which expounded on man’s moral obligation to love his neighbor, including his enemies, both theologians understood that there was still probable cause for conflict, especially if a nation was being seized unjustly or if the subjects of a government were being afflicted (St. Thomas). They developed criteria in determining a nation’s right to war. First, a legitimate authority must declare the war on the behalf of its people. The reason for war must actually be the objective (without any kind of ulterior motive), must confront a dangerous entity, and should be the last option. The good that will be achieved must be proportionally greater than the damage caused. However, after war is initiated, the warring nation must ensure that they preserve a moral system i.e. making sure to protect non-combatants (Saunders). These rules of warfare have had many incarnations throughout mankind’s rich and bloodthirsty history.

In physical history, the just Christian war has been used to disguise political or economic investment. A popular example would be the Crusades of the High Middle Ages. Never mind the varied imperial, economic, and ethnic reasons to expand into Muslim territory; the public rationale for the crusades was to re-take and re-Christianize the ‘Holy Lands.’ And it’s not like there weren’t plenty of Biblical passages for the crusaders to draw from to support a war effort. After all, war-making against foreign ‘heathen’ tribes is deeply-rooted in doctrine. In several instances in the Old Testament, the Hebrew deity initiates or supports Hebrew military campaigns. The Hebrew deity even demands genocide to keep his Chosen from being affected by alien beliefs (Guthridge). At one point the Israelites must “not leave anything that breathes… completely destroy them…” (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18). In the New Testament, the Christian character is described symbolically using the articles of a solider. The concept of spiritual warfare is entrenched in Gospel.

While looking at the Lord’s Resistance Army, the ‘Christian’ grassroots military organization that antagonizes Dysart’s Unknown Soldier, we must understand that they originally offered some explanation for their actions. From 1987 until the mid-2000s, the LRA hoped to overthrow Uganda’s ‘corrupt’ governing body and replace it with a Christian theocracy. Through rebellion, the LRA served the northern Acholi’s best interests against President Museveni, himself having come to power through guerrilla warfare. Politically, the process in which Museveni developed his governing body involved British ethnic meddling, bizarre electoral behavior, military junta, and mass slaughter. Therefore, the LRA felt justified in challenging a system which had created a major identity crisis in Uganda between the north, forced into manual labor and military service, and the south, chosen as tribal elite by British colonialists.

The LRA also had religious justification for their cause, as Uganda had a deeply Christian tradition that many felt was being threatened by Museveni’s secular capitalism. One of the early goals of Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, was to replace Museveni with a theocratic government and install the Ten Commandments into legislature (Leonard). In the early days of rebellion, the LRA had semi-legitimate authority, represented the Acholi people, had reasonable objectives, and had exhausted peaceful alternatives. Their clamor for justice, however, was soon spoiled by their own excessive use of sadism and savagery.

Since this is a study of an art medium, how the LRA does not legitimize their claim to conflict isn’t as important as how it is presented in the sequential art context. Dysart does an excellent job showing how the LRA’s methods contradict their message. His work is a rare insight into the interior of the rebel camps, as well as their psychological framework. The story might be fictional, but it’s an honest re-enactment.

Parallel to the nightly commuters of the previous issue, the LRA rebels and their hostages are taken on a long trek through the wilderness. They too are attempting to perpetuate their own survival, in this case by hiding from UPDF helicopters, planting mines, and zigzagging to throw off pursuers. These survival tactics are typical for a guerrilla faction, although the unmarked mines do not bode well for a peaceful future. Neither is their ambition in making this excursion. By capturing young girls to be ‘wives’ for the soldiers, they’re preparing to breed a new generation of warriors for future conquest. Judgment, however, should be reserved for what comes next.

In a brutal mockery of a judicial court, the child soldiers beat one of their own to death as a form of capital punishment. Lieutenant Illakut, a young stand-in for the policies of Joseph Kony, acts as interlocutor between Moses, the reader, and the society of the LRA. Moses is called on to witness in a military trial. A child soldier has accidentally killed a nun, thereby damaging the LRA’s claim to religious justice by harming a non-combatant (and worst, a member of their religion). The “difference between right and wrong can be very complicated,” admits Illakut, before sentencing the child to death (Unknown Soldier #3). The other child soldiers act as executioners — beating the child with rocks and rifle butts in dark parody of the Pericope Adulterae, a Biblical story where-in punishment is suspended by a merciful Messiah. In the New Testament story, an adulteress is nearly stoned to death in a public spectacle. Jesus makes a merciful defense when he says to the bloodthirsty crowd, “let him who is without sin, cast the first stone” (John 7:53-8:11).

The lieutenant connects the child’s punishment to religious imagery, calling the child a sinner and his crime a “transgression.” He mentions the need to protect “God’s people” if their war campaign is to be successful (Unknown Soldier #3). This is soon understood to be superficial and misinterpreted. Ironically, this warrior caste is trying to install the Ten Commandments into government, while breaking every single Commandment in the “most brutal way possible” (Leonard). The mercy of Jesus Christ, noted by Illakut, is lost in this violent encounter. The strategies of just war are replaced by strategies of atrocity and fear-mongering.

The only Christian figure in the narrative who could validate the LRA instead denies their status. Sister Sharon shows up at camp to demand the return of the captive orphaned girls. Ironically, she is a nun — one of ‘God’s people’ whom Illakut believes their rebel group needs to protect from harm. She wants to take the girls not to a school or village but to a convent, where they can be raised peacefully in-doctrine.

Her inability to convince Illakut to return the girls shows how their military ethic has displaced their Christian compassion. Sharon is allowed only a third of the girls. The rest will be sexually-violated to boost morale and to provide future soldiers. By rejecting Sharon, Illakut reveals how the LRA has ceased to represent the will of his people. By raping the orphans of Uganda, the LRA becomes the dangerous entity that will qualify others (like Moses) to wage war against them.

We can question Moses using the same criteria. Is his a just war? In the opening pages of Unknown Soldier #3, Moses is connected with a prayer to an “angel of God” sent to protect the orphan girls. Later, he is confused for a priest. But his status is immediately suspect by the lieutenant, as Moses’ actions and dialogue don’t match that of a man of God. By the end of the issue, Moses is engaged in a bloody one-man skirmish with the LRA. He loses count of how many children he’s murdered. Is Moses a legitimate authority for Uganda? After all, the majority of his life was spent in the United States. Are his actions beneficial to the country? Or are they another steppe in the eternal cycle of violence?

There might be hope for Moses. As the warrior engages in battle, he is whisked away to flashbacks of his plane landing in Uganda. These visions act as a mirror opposite to the former Dr. Moses Lwanga plagued by violent images. Now, Moses is a soldier plagued by visions of peace. These images hint that there might be hope for Moses. Until then, Moses must be careful not to become a “gun-drunk egomaniac useless to the whole Goddamn human race” (Unknown Soldier #3). He must be careful not to become the madman whom he hunts.

Works Cited

Atkins, Margaret. “A Just War Theory or a Theory of Peace?”Jericho Tree,  30 October 2013. Web. 20 December 2013.

English Standard Version. Bible Gateway. Web. 10 December 2013.

Langan, John. “The Elements of St. Augustine’s Just War Theory.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, v. 12, n. 1. Wiley Publishing, 1984.  Print.

Leonard, Emma. “Lord’s Resistance Army: An African Terrorist Group,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 34,  Issue 6. Terrorism Research Initiative. December 2010. Web. 10 December 2013.

Saunders, Rev. William. “The Church’s Just War Theory.” Catholic Education Resource Center. 2003. Web. 8 December 2013.

St. Thomas. “The Summa Theologica.” New Advent Site, 2008. Web. 21 December 2013.

Yoder, John Howard. “Just War Tradition: Is it Credible?” Christian Century. The Christian Century Foundation: Chicago, 1991. Print.

Addendum: Joshua Dysart includes a short history of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the back of the issue:

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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. I remember this being such a criminally underrated series when it came out. I’m also ashamed to say that this is the book that made me aware of Kony and the LRA.

    I’m really enjoying your discussion of the series, so please keep it up!

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