"Patty Hearst Heard the Burst": Joshua Dysart's Unknown Soldier
It’s impossible, while reading Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli’s superlative Unknown Soldier, to not think of the late, great Warren Zevon’s ballad of Roland, the so-called “headless Thompson gunner”, and his seemingly endless battle. Perhaps there's a reason for that.
It’s impossible, while reading Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli’s superlative Unknown Soldier, to not think of the late, great Warren Zevon’s ballad of Roland, the so-called “headless Thompson gunner”, and his seemingly endless battle. Like “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, Unknown Soldier, both are highly literate, well-researched stories that focus not just on a nearly-spectral warrior of an almost mythic standing in an identifiable period of history, but the needless evils of war, the repetitious cycle of violence that such conflicts create, the involvement of the CIA in foreign conflicts and more. Dysart has even chosen, like Zevon with Roland, to embroil his hero, the self-wounding Dr. Moses Lwanga, in real-world conflicts.
But there are two key differences between Roland and Moses: Roland is a white European who becomes some sort of undead lifeform (or is possibly suffering from a bizarre form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder wherein he has become afflicted with Cotard’s syndrome). Moses is a Ugandan through and through who most of the world believes to be dead, a fact he uses to his advantage in his intense personal mission to save Uganda from itself. In the long run, those differences show that, at least for Zevon and Dysart, that Thomas Hobbes was right, and that all men reach equilibrium only in war, wherein the philosopher once stated that “the weakest has strength even to kill the strongest.” Whether it’s “that son of a bitch van Owen”, whom Roland takes down in Zevon’s song in a vengeance killing, or Moses’s various dispatching of guerillas and his attempted assassination of Angelina Jolie analogue Margaret Wells, the weak battling the strong is a prevalent theme in both works.
Both works are calls for international peace. Roland is a life-long mercenary “fighting to be done”, or presumably working towards retirement. On the other hand, before his sudden and violent transformation brought on by the stress of seeing the hellhole his country had become, Moses was a respected doctor, orator and a pillar of human goodness who would have made John Locke proud, thus firmly planting a Locke/Hobbes dialect at the center of Dsyart’s historical fiction. However, after his mental breakdown and the attack that leads to his self-mutilation, Lwanga becomes Roland, “the eternal Thompson gunner, still wandering through the night,” Hobbes’ postulation made flesh and wrapped in bandages. Despite being confined to the nation of Uganda, he has become as much a legend as Roland, the Chupacabra, Bloody Mary, World War II’s infamous “foo fighter” UFOs or the disappearance of the Roanoke colony. Though both works hint at the futility of the protagonist’s struggles (Roland’s apparently righteous assassinations only breed murder and terrorism, and everyone eventually gets their say to Moses about how he’s just one man, and any good X-Files fan will tell you that “one man alone cannot fight the future”, let alone human nature and all its inevitabilities), that doesn’t stop them from trying, even when faced with the most difficult of challenges.
Enter Zevon’s CIA, and, of course, Dysart’s. In the song, van Owen, Roland’s apparent killer, can be assumed to be a CIA assassin, or a hired Blackwater-style thug, who effectively separates Roland’s head from his body. This, of course, does not stop Roland from seeking revenge on van Owen and continuing his international war. The CIA in Dysart’s Unknown Soldier is a touch harder to pin down, or, more specifically, its particular agents are. While the body of the CIA itself seems to view the anonymous warrior as a threat to their regional operations, operative Jack Lee Howl, a sort of hybrid character with the appearance of 100 Bullets’ Lono, the drive of the aforementioned X-Files’ Fox Mulder and a darker version of the personality of Burn Notice’s Sam Axe. A part-time ally of Moses’ and one of the few people who knows that he is not dead and is, in fact, the mysterious guerilla warrior of the title, Jack is a man who is almost entirely defined by his opportunism, appetites and personal whims -- much like Zevon’s CIA, who called for Roland’s execution. Though he claims to be a friend, there should be no doubt Jack Lee Howl (who, like van Owen, enjoys his gin and other visceral pleasures) would destroy Moses Lwanga if it served him to do so.
Another major disconnect between “Roland” and Unknown Soldier is Dysart’s character of Sera Lwanga, Moses’ wife and, essentially, his conscience and connection to his human side. It can be postulated that Zevon’s seeming inability to mention Roland’s existing personal life indicates that there is none, and his desire to “be done” indicates he wishes to follow the typical hired gun’s dream of retiring to a desert island with beautiful women at his beck and call. If Moses ever does desire to be done -- and all indications in Dysart’s work are that his quest to save Uganda’s soul doubles, like Neil Gaiman’s Dream or Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin, as an epic suicide attempt -- he can return to his wife and the life he left behind. Roland, presumably, entered the mercenary business because of an empty life.
In emulating the mounting tension of Brian K. Vaughan’s greatest epics, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, which creates a rising level of stress in the storylines, characters and the readership synchronously, Dysart has locked into a whole separate level of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”. In the final lines of Zevon’s song, the cacophony of the instruments pounds and pounds away before suddenly just…stopping, leaving the listener to digest everything they’ve just heard about the Congo, reanimated corpses and Patty Hearst. Similarly, each arc of Unknown Soldier thus far has acted like a chorus of a song; when read one after another, they flow together like a Marquez novel, eventually building to, one hopes, a satisfying catharsis that will eventually resolve in a manner befitting the story being told. Though the series is being cut short with the upcoming issue #25, one imagines this shouldn’t be too hard for Dysart given his achievements with the series thus far.
While the similarities between “Roland” and Unknown Soldier are quite abundant, one must keep in mind that, while both political parables about the birth of ghost-like legends in warzones, “Roland” operates in a world akin to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Stephen King’s The Green Mile or even the current Vertigo series Daytripper, where those magical occurrences are noticed but not thought of as too out of the ordinary. They happen, and are reacted to accordingly. With Unknown Soldier, the only thing that connects the story to anything fantastic is a vague, undefined connection to DC’s established Unknown Soldier legacy, and the suggestion that the voice in Moses’ head may not be the result of mental illness.
At most, these are brief flirtatious moments designed to soften the blow of the work itself and ease the reader into a greater understanding of the series’ intent. Dysart, unlike many writers, left the safe confines of the library and the computer screen and actually went to Uganda to research his tale. No doubt witnessing first hand events that made their way into the book, one sees instantly the greatest difference between “Roland the Headless the Thompson Gunner” and Dysart’s Unknown Soldier: while “Roland” is full of supernatural occurrences that make it more of a ghost story than a war story, Unknown Soldier is a real war story that happens to have tenuous connections to a world just out of synch with ours; it is a world that, for want of a nail, could very easily have been ours, and maybe still is.
And before we know it, it’ll be time, time, time, for another peaceful war, and Uganada will still need our help.
Maybe someone, then, will care enough to reach out.
“You know, I never really liked this place anyway. The air conditioning doesn’t work in the summer, the heater doesn’t work in the winter, the rent’s a crime. After the attack, I never…never pined over any of my old crap, never missed it. Stupid view of the parking lot, broken toilet in the bathroom. You know, everyone I know is fighting to get back what they had. I’m fighting because I don’t know how to do anything else.”
--Lt. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, Battlestar Galactica episode 2x02, “Valley of Darkness”