An Unknown Soldier in an Unknown War:

Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier #4

Unknown Soldier #4
“Haunted House”
Writer – Joshua Dysart
Art – Alberto Ponticelli
Vertigo/DC Comics
March, 2009

On the 14th of April, 2014, two hundred and thirty-four high school girls were abducted by the Boko Haram, a terrorist group operating in northeastern Nigeria. The ideology behind the abduction, supported by the group’s misogynistic interpretation of the Quran, was that women should not be educated. According to televised broadcasts, the group hoped to profit from the girls by selling them into slavery.

This perversion of innocence is enough to make one’s blood boil. It also serves as a reality check to how powerless our world can be in stopping these intrusions of barbarism. Swiftly, we remember that fringe groups exist, some hiding like guerrillas and some in positions of country-wide power, perverting the lives and liberties of others for their monstrous gain. And it raises many questions. How do we respond to this level of social injustice? Must groups like the Boko Haram be completely eradicated? Is there a nonviolent solution?

Back in 2008, Joshua Dysart was exploring similar inquiries in Unknown Soldier #4, the fourth component of a six-issue origins story for the Unknown Soldier. Unknown Soldier #4 was greatly influenced by the real-life “Aboke Girls Incident,” in which 140 girls were abducted by the LRA from a Catholic private school (Renaud). Similar to the events in #3, nuns from the school were able to peacefully secure the release of over one hundred of the girls within a few days. However, despite worldwide publicity, thirty of the girls had to remain with the LRA for a great deal of time. Many of them were mutilated, sexually violated, even murdered; only a few ever escaped.

In American entertainment, especially film but also comic books, this kind of atrocity might be salvaged by an adrenaline-addicted hero with a penchant for guns and a gritty 5 o’clock shadow. I could count off endless gun-toting jerk-offs, all fictional, who might have protected these girls – John McClane, John Matrix, Snake Plisken, Martin Riggs, Rambo, and that’s not including super heroes.

Naturally, few would believe that an one-man army could protect the girls; these archetypes of masculine heroism act as a metaphor for using violence to, well, end violence. When a grizzly veteran punches through South American juntas, defeats a warlord in hand-to-hand combat, then extracts a vital hostage, he’s really supporting military intervention, or some kind of lethal force, as the superior ideology. Some situations, according to the meta-narrative, cannot be handled through negotiation or with tact – a perspective that ties in rather nicely with the United States’ growing role as an international counter-insurgency force.

At first, Dysart seems to purport this kind of ‘shoot enough bullets until it’s dead’ mentality, as his protagonist appears to succeed where peace talks have failed. Unfortunately, Moses’ noble but nearsighted agenda to rescue kidnapped Ugandan girls falls apart miserably, with the girls recaptured and Moses embroiled in further bloodshed. Just as few action-adventure narratives dwell on the retaliation or bloody aftermath of adrenaline-fueled heroics, Moses must suffer the consequences of his warpath. Ultimately, the hyper-violent masculine hero is revealed to be a power fantasy devoid of real-life complexity.

The issue also severs Moses’ connection to the Biblical prophet that led the Israelites out of Egypt. While a few parallels are made between Moses and the Christian imagery that permeates Acholiland, Moses’ actions deny his ability to be a spiritual savior.

Before I continue, I need to address an interview conducted in 2009 with Joshua Dysart. Here is an excerpt from that interview pertaining to his use of Biblical metaphor:

I really didn’t mean to nail the Moses thing so hard, you know? I was sitting around writing this pitch… and casting about for a name when I realized that Moses is not an uncommon name in Uganda. So it stuck. I tried to change it a couple of times, mostly when things were feeling a little too heavy, but Lwanga Moses is just such a nice sounding name; it rolls right off the tongue and sticks in the mind. I couldn’t bring myself to change it, no matter how obvious it seemed. So with all of that in mind, I don’t have any real intention of consciously paralleling the Biblical Moses and our protagonist. Any similarities you’ll have to chalk up to the Jungian unconscious (Arrant).

At first glance, Dysart’s confession contradicts my impression that there is Biblical subversion embedded in Unknown Soldier. A second glance reveals that Dysart doesn’t fully omit the connection; he admits the “obvious” existence of the “Moses thing.” So then, how do we advance? The situation reminds me of a scene from Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga (2012). Mr. D Oswald Heist, a cheesy romance writer with secret depths, is confronted by Prince Robot IV’s controversial interpretation of his work. “Well, you know what they say,” says Mr. Heist, dismissing the robot’s analysis, “the reader is the final collaborator. Cheers for doing the heavy lifting” (Saga #12).

This is my ‘collaboration,’ or more aptly, my supplement. I won’t presume there is an unconscious process, a coincidence, or a completely reader-based application at work. But I won’t agree that Dysart’s distancing means that the parallels don’t exist, or aren’t worthy of thought. My priority as a scholar is to be intertextual – to explore how distinct texts might impress, mirror, or disagree. Sometimes these texts influence; other times they do not. My academic decision-of-the-day is that the “Haunted House” arc recreates and then overthrows the tropes of the Exodus story. It’s not clever to connect Moses to the prophet of the same name. Nonetheless, it enriches the narrative’s understanding of heroism, both sacred and secular. Therefore, without becoming a full convert of New Criticism, I will venture into the ambiguous realm between writer and reader, intention and interpretation, even if it makes me look foolish.

As we have seen, the first three issues of Unknown Soldier recreate the aesthetic of the Exodus story. Lwanga Moses banishes himself to the wilderness after murdering an abuser of his people. Instead of being contacted by the Hebrew god in the guise of a burning bush, Moses hallucinates a red-skinned doppelganger whom tempts him with violent entreaties. Moses reluctantly accepts his leadership role, compelled by the mass suffering he has witnessed. Later, in the likeness of a priest, Moses confronts the pharaonic Lieutenant Illakut in his camp. When peaceful diplomacy to rescue the children fails, Moses plagues the camp with hidden mines that detonate decisively as if by divine punishment. By the end of Unknown Soldier #3, an exodus has begun, with Moses leading a group of ex-slaves through the wilderness and towards a sacred destination, that of a convent.

The first sign in #4 that the narrative subverts Biblical mythos and rejects warrior culture appears in a subplot revolving around a minor character. Exodus doesn’t include the Egyptians as a people worthy of liberation in spite of the fact that they were also the creation of the Hebrew god (Kirk-Duggan). Likewise, action-heroes are more likely to shoot their enemies than save them. Dysart criticizes these narrative functions by re-examining the battle that concludes #3, in which Moses impressively ambushes the LRA camp, from the perspective of a child soldier. Patrick is shown to be a withdrawn, introverted child contrary to his aggressive peers. His slower, quieter, probably introspective nature lends the character instant sympathy. The slowness works to his advantage, too, as the first wave of soldiers are vaporized by an improvised minefield.

To anyone well-versed in war literature, Patrick’s psychological portrait is homogenous to the historical demoralized soldier (Holmes). It’s disturbing, for example, how closely the character aligns to a profile provided by a young officer in WWI:

“Ailey had been the curse of the battalion for more than a year. Feeble in body, he was feebler in mind still… Too sub-normal to be able to keep up with the man in front, he had quietly lost touch, and such was the blackness of the night that not even his section commander, let alone the rear companies, realized what had happened” (Hanburry-Sparrow).

Patrick is also a prototype of the complexities to come. He’s as controversial as if a stormtrooper in Star Wars had ripped off his helmet and shouted, “please take me with you!” or if Band of Brothers had included an episode from a Nazi soldier’s point of view.

Patrick’s introduction is followed by one of the most powerful scenes in the series. In #3, the Ugandan girls were on the verge of becoming sex slaves. By #6, we discover that they’ve been re-enslaved by the LRA. But in this moment, in this very dark moment, there is a slight repose (interrupted only by the labored breathing of a dying child) as Moses and the girls take shelter in an abandoned market. Then one of the doomed girls asks about the moon landing.

Unknown Soldier can be violent. Ponticelli’s gritty and kinetic compositions masterfully capture the desperation of battle. Then there’s this. Three panels; a somber pair of writing and illustration. Just look at Anna’s descent from optimism to despondency. Just look at Moses’ rise from brooding pathos to desperate appeal; from monster to human. There have been many physical violences enacted on the girls: forced prostitution, sex trafficking, mutilation. There are more violences to come. But the damage done in these three panels is on a different tier. It’s spiritual, invoking destiny and ambition. If Moses hopes to salvage his country, this is where it begins and ends.

In the moment of her disappointment, the male adult fantasy that Moses has been living is dispelled. These girls don’t need more soldiers, even those of the unknown variety. They need astronauts and other wonders to fill this world with magic. But if there is magic in this world, Anna realizes in that final panel, it is not for her or her people.

Painfully, Moses never convinces Anna otherwise. The scene is interrupted by an uniformed soldier concealed in darkness, potentially Illakut. Unfortunately, Moses’ dependency on violence leads to his killing that soldier. This mistake leads to a confusing battle with UPDF forces where otherwise there might have been reconciliation and protection.

Returning to the ambiguous realms between writer and reader, this event corresponds metaphysically to the Bible, specifically the crossing of the Red Sea. If you haven’t read Exodus or seen Prince of Egypt (1998), then I’ll paraphrase. In the story, the newly-escaped Israelites are trapped between the Red Sea and a vexed Egyptian army. Moses lifts his staff, and in literal deus ex machina, the Hebrew god splits the Red Sea to create a parched road in-between. The Israelites cross over and are saved. The Egyptians attempt to follow and are consumed by the collapsing waters. Conclusively, the story becomes a powerful metaphor for the virility of conviction. In the Bible, there is a higher order of morality, and it will be enacted if only one has the patience and the faith.

In the Unknown Soldier, Moses is presented with a final opportunity for non-violent rhetoric over his reliance on instinctive violence. When the uniformed soldier appears in the doorway, Moses is put into a Red Sea scenario – he is trapped in the hut’s confines, with the Lord’s Resistance Army in hot pursuit. Unbeknownst to Moses, the uniformed soldier is a member of a local military force opposed to Josephy Kony. If Moses were to rely on diplomacy, or have a mote of patience, he might be saved.

Unfortunately, Moses fails the test, severing his connection to his Biblical counterpart and confirming that he has put his faith into darker doctrine. The use of violence in the Exodus story is always pre-meditated through prayer and divine commune. But Dysart’s Moses is advised, perhaps ruled, by the split-second decisions of a different sort of being – a killer instinct. Moses shoots the uniformed soldier. When the Red Sea doesn’t part, he has to break through it using the butt of his rifle. It’s as if the Biblical prophet, in lieu of depending on divine intervention, had forced his multitude to swim across the sea and accept any casualties.

The narrative remembers Patrick, the introspective child soldier. Patrick uses the confusion of the firefight to run literally right out of the story. It’s a hopeful moment of liberation; Patrick is perhaps the only character who truly escapes the ravages of the narrative. But where will he escape to? What will be his sanctuary? Perhaps the re-socialization organizations in the South, which will be explored in the next story arc “Easy Kill” (Arrante). He might meet up with Sera or similar role models and be brought to a foster home (historically fraught with racial distrust). He might be recaptured and butchered for treason, at the very least returned to battle. He might wander the jungle, lost, until he dies of starvation or is devoured by wild animal. Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t seem favorable.

But we know the fate of Moses and his broken exodus. By the end of #4, the group returns to Sister Sharon. In the action-hero narrative, this might be a delightful scene of reconciliation, with Sister Sharon hugging the girls and thanking the mysterious stranger. In the Exodus story, this event would be the Hebraic nation entering the Promised Land.

But Dysart does not provide Moses any form of victory in the issue’s final panels. There is no speech from Hrothgar on the great work wrought by Beowulf, newly returned from slaying Grendel. There is no Promised Land, just a compromised convent and a mournful nun. Sister Sharon admonishes Moses for his actions, claiming that “violence wasn’t necessary.” And while this might be an ungrateful response to the childrens’ rescue, the next few issues show how near-sighted both Moses and the reader have been.

In fact, Sister Sharon’s methodology will end up being far more effective. After all, she went into the bush and was able to peacefully rescue a portion of the girls. Back at the convent, she was also able to evacuate the remaining children to town. And before Moses’ interruption, she was developing plans to rescue the remaining children using Acholi negotiation groups – basically, peace talks. All of this in emulation of real events undertaken during the Aboke Incident.

In culmination of the events, God has nothing to say to Moses. The statue of Christ, animated before with the intent to instruct, remains silent. In point of fact, it’s hung its head in shame. Ponticelli’s mastery over facial expression, poignant in the conversation about astronauts, is especially noticeable here. Finally, the reader has proof that the Unknown Soldier does not have a legitimate claim to sacred justice. Moses is no longer on a crusade for God; he has forsaken the right.

Warren Ellis once pointed out that despite comics’ best intentions, it’s “anti-evolutionary ” to wish that Superman were real so he could have prevented such a tragedy as 9/11 (Darius). Similarly, Dysart uses the plot points of the action thriller (and perhaps unintentionally Biblical story) to show how total military intervention can be unsuited for conflict resolution, or at the very least, how intervention might have harrowing consequences far removed from expectation.

Works Cited

Arrant, Chris. “The New Face of War: Joshua Dysart on Unknown Soldier.” Newsarama, 29 Jan. 2009. Web. 22 May 2014.

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana, 1977. Print.

Collins, Randall. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.

Darius, Julian. “The Very Different Worldviews of Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison.” Sequart, 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 May 2014.

Duthiers, Vladimir, Holly Yan, & Chelsea J. Carter. “Nigerian Missing Girls: Families Sleep in the Bushes, Fearing More Attacks.” CNN World, 7 May 2014. Web. 19 May 2014.

Fentiman, Alicia & Molly Warrington. “Gender in East Africa: Women’s Role Models in Uganda.” The Center for Commonwealth Education: Gender Report 3, CCE Report, No. 8. 2011. Print.

Hanburry-Sparrow, Alan. The Land-Locked Lake. London: A Barker, 1932. Print.

Holmes, Richard. Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle. New York: The Free Press, 1985. Print.

Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl. “How Liberating is the Exodus and for Whom?” Exodus and Deuteronomy: Texts & Contexts. Athalya Brenner, ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. Print.

Renaud, Jeffrey. “Dysart Resurrects Unknown Soldier.” CBR, 21 Oct. 2008. Web. 11 Sep. 2013.

Addendum: Joshua Dysart continues his background on the LRA conflict at the end 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. You’re the one I would love to hear from. Using Dysart’s Unknown Soldier in a high school classroom. Why not you? A colleague? It would be perfect. Kadir Nelson and Ta-nehisi Coates haven’t done it. I’m here to help.

  2. I wanted to write also that I am a retired high school English teacher who began his career first in Kampala, UG, and then in Nyeri, KE. So I know this stuff. The historical research that Dysart put in is rare in this medium. The on-going crap in northern UG and South Sudan could use some exposure. Again, I’m here to help.

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