One Man’s War: A Review of Vertigo’s Unknown Soldier

When I read last week at Comics Alliance that DC/Vertigo’s Unknown Soldier, a modern remake of a Silver Age character, was going to end with issue #25, I finally decided to give the book a look.  I didn’t really need to add to my already-too-long list of ongoing titles that I’m reading, so knowing it would be over soon due to low sales (despite great critical acclaim) made picking up the trades seem a much better idea.

I was originally going to give a little background on the character of the Unknown Soldier, but, since the version created by Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli has little to do with previous versions of the character, I decided to skip over that step and get right to my take on the first two trades. (If you want some background on the old character, look here.)

*****SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!************

When I first read Art Spiegelman’s Maus (just Book One so far; I have Book Two but I’m waiting until my best friend can read with), I was pretty well shocked at the conditions that Jews in WWII Poland faced on a daily basis.  Starvation, few resources, Nazi occupation, being killed for little or no reason at all, hiding in attics or basements and living in constant fear of discovery by Nazis or betrayal by one of their own. . .it was incredible, to me.  Even 60 years later, it was hard to swallow, and served as a poignant reminder of why, after WWII, most of the world (and especially Jewish people) said “Never again.”

Well, the Holocaust hasn’t happened again yet, to my knowledge.

But Dysart and Ponticelli, in a move that perhaps explains their low sales, remind readers that horrors still happen in the world.

Unlike the Silver Age Soldier (and the 80s and 90s remakes), the Soldier of this Vertigo series isn’t a World War II spy.  He’s not even a soldier.  Instead, he’s just a doctor, Ugandan-born Dr. Lwanga Moses, whose family fled the country for America in 1978, shortly before rebels overthrew Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada Oumee.  The book takes place in 2002, as Harvard-educated Dr. Lwanga (surnames are given first there, as in Japan and other Asian countries), now a prominent activist, has returned to Uganda in order to provide medical aid to refugees from the war between the government forces of corrupt President Museveni and rebel leader Joseph Kony, a Christian extremist who calls his forces Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  In-country, Moses begins having violent nightmares, but in them he is the one committing the violence, something both unlikely of and horrifying to the peaceful doctor, who preaches that violence is not the answer to Africa’s problems.

When a young boy, injured from being stabbed in the head, wanders into the camp and tells the doctors that he was attacked in the bush by rebels and that they have taken his sister, Moses can no longer sit on the sidelines.  Knowing what happens to girls when they are taken by rebels (more on that later), Moses runs into the bush, intent on rescuing her, taking a government soldier with him for protection.  Instead, two rebels surprise them, kill the government soldier, and are about to kill Moses when a voice in his head tells him how to take the rifle away and kill the rebel, which he does, and orders the other to take the unconscious girl to the camp.  Alone, horrified that he has killed a child (though the child was aiming a rifle at him at the time), and haunted by the unfamiliar voice in his head, he takes a rock and tries to carve the voice out of his head, hideously scarring his face and eventually passing out in the wilderness, surrounded by the bodies of the government soldier and the rebel he killed.

And that’s the end of the first issue.

In the second, which I’ll just kind of sum up here, Moses is found and his head wrapped in bandages, which is the signature look of the Unknown Soldier, and his conflict with both the rebels and the Ugandan government  has only begun.  He turns his back on the camp, his past life, even his wife, and sets out to fix Uganda’s problem by the violent means he shunned in his former life. . .aided, instructed, and driven by the strange voice in his head.  We the readers are tagging along and seeing the stories from many viewpoints:  Lwanga Sera, the wife that refuses to give up hope that her husband is still alive; Margaret Wells, the American actress who seems to truly believe that she can use her fame to make a difference in Uganda; Jack Howl, a former CIA agent who wants to be left alone but is dragged back into manipulating events, and Dr. Lwanga, by various factions; and the soldiers, rebels, and people of the various Ugandan tribes.

As you might have guessed, this is not a pretty book, even though the art is pretty good.  Dysart’s writing is tight, rarely wasting words or images, to the point, and captivating.  (I have to admit that I am very impressed with Dysart, who traveled to Uganda, drove through a minefield, and spoke with the tribe that he mostly portrays in this book before he started writing it.) It’s unflinchingly violent, and yet doesn’t glorify the violence; any joy that even the most twisted reader could have taken in seeing the “hero” kill many of the “bad guy” rebels is taken away by both the protagonist’s own self-hatred for his actions and the fact that the rebel “soldiers” are mostly children.

There, I think, lies the crux of this book:  by and large, the horrors being committed in this war are committed upon women and children.  They are also being committed by women and children:  most of Kony’s rebels are young boys taken from their homes and forced to fight, rape, kill and torture for him, and the mastermind of a plot to kill Wells in the second TP is a woman.  The horrors of this war are not merely what is inflicted upon the innocent, but what the innocent are forced to do.

A child soldier freed from Kony’s army by Moses tells the story of being taken from his home, forced to march miles to the rebel camp, and along the way taking other children and often killing family members that tried to stop them. He tells of being beaten for not liking the violence, of boys being killed by other kidnapped boys for being sick on the march, of torture and bullying and brainwashing, and finally, once liberated of all that, the survivors of his family fear him “tainted” by his unwilling time with the rebels and don’t want him back.

As for girls, well, girl children are kidnapped and either raped and killed on the spot or forced to serve as “wives” for the rebel soldiers.  They are taken from their homes, kidnapped at gunpoint from orphanages, abducted from the bush; in this world, nowhere is safe for them.  Even refugee camps can be attacked and raided.

This isn’t the 1940s.  It’s not the colonial struggles of the late 19th century, or the tribal wars of the 16th and 15th centuries that supplied slaves for the British an their colonies.  This is eight fucking years ago, right here on earth.   While we were busy fighting a war in one country that protected terrorists and being duped into a war with one that couldn’t attack us on their best day, these unprecedented horrors were being perpetrated on the continent that was largely the birthplace of the human race, and went mostly ignored by the world.

It’s still going on now.

The LRA (which, along with its leader Joseph Kony and its batshit-insane religious extremism, is real) has now gone multinational, being active in the Congo, the Central African Republic, and the Sudan.  They continue to abduct children, often forcing them to kill their parents, and force them to serve as soldiers or “wives”.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to pour into displaced persons camps, their homes burned, their families disfigured, killed, or kidnapped, and relief efforts cannot keep up with the constant flow of wounded, sick people.

And on the economic side. . .as Dr. Lwanga points out, it’s extremely easy for American and European businesses to obtain permission to operate in African countries, but it’s nearly impossible for African businesses to obtain the same permissions to do business in the US and Europe.  Western governments allow the corrupt Ugandan President Museveni to do pretty much as he wishes with their support, because, as much as he marginalized and obstructed peace processes, stole resources from the Congo, and taken the property of refugees, he’s still better than Kony. . .but the lesser of two evils is still, as the world should remember, evil.

So yes, because of the trade inequalities, lack of investments, and manipulation and interference by intelligence agencies, America and other Western countries are complicit in prolonging the poverty and miserable conditions that engender these horrible civil wars and lead people to follow religious extremists.   There is blood on Uncle Sam’s  hands.

It’s unpleasant to face the fact that things like this happen in the modern world.  It’s hard to swallow that the “greatest country on earth” has any hand in the unbelievable suffering happening in Africa, directly or indirectly.  And even though they’re true, I do not think many people like to be reminded of either of those facts.

That’s why I think this book, this lightless journey into a foreign culture with heavy doses of wartime philosophy and human costs of political decisions, this dark tale of a distant war, this book which illustrates that there is no glory in war but instead only the commission of small tragedies to prevent larger ones, this book which shows the people whose blood stains the hands of the whole world and proves that the only differences between them and us are matters of scale and opportunity, this violent, engrossing, fascinating voyage into the dark hearts of humanity, did not sell well and has been canceled.

Another tragedy.

Unknown Soldier Volume One:  Haunted House and Volume Two:  Easy Kill are available in bookstores now.

VS  – 6.7.1o

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2 Responses to “One Man’s War: A Review of Vertigo’s Unknown Soldier”

  1. For an indepth look at Joseph Kony and the LRA, see the book, First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

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