Thousand Faced: The Unknown Soldier #21: Kalishnakov

The Unknown Soldier #21: Kalishnakov
Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artist: Rick Veitch
Published by: DC/Vertigo

I just love it when comics teach me actual life-sized stuff. History is one of my favorites because that’s where all the stuff happened. When I was a wee tot down by Fort Leonard Wood living in and around the world of soldiers during the Vietnam years I also devoured war comics. Sometimes you just want to escape caped escapism.

One of the war comics DC started putting out in the early 70s was The Unknown Soldier. Two words. Joe Kubert. I followed his work faithfully and was never disappointed. He drew Hawkman, Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, Tarzan and just about everything else. He’s still one of the legends in my personal comics pantheon.

The Unknown Soldier came into being around the time the American public had learned about My Lai. American soldiers had massacred mostly women, children and old men. Other soldiers risked their own lives to save what few they could from their rampaging comrades. It was ready to come out after four students were gunned down by National Guard soldiers on a college campus during anti-war protests at Kent State. The people at the top of the Military-Industrial complex were throwing lives away by the thousands every day if you count loss of Vietnamese lives and basic humanity compels me to. You’ll have to ask Donald Rumsfeld about “acceptable collateral damage” and “omelettes and eggs.” This was a title that told stark tales of war that had all the violence and a grander sense of the tragedy of war.

During the fall of The Philippines in early 1942 an American GI is gravely wounded by a grenade blast in the face. Months later he is recovered but for the horrific scarring and is given a mask to wear. The soldier with bandaged face whose name was lost is given a job with the OSS as a special agent who uses these masks to infiltrate the enemy and collect intel and cause havoc behind enemy lines both physically and mentally. It was a cool title and it taught you just a bit about the grotesque sadness of warfare along with history as he went from battle to battle throughout WWII seeing events with a very human perspective.

So just the other day I see there is a new Unknown Soldier series out there. The cover is striking. Cripes is that Idi Amin as the top part of the continent? This is so cool but his image never bodes well. Pull me in cleverness.

Kalishnakov. The name of a Russian man who invented the automatic rifle fired at my son in Iraq. He designed this weapon because the Germans with their Mausers were chopping Soviet soldiers to meat in 1941. A guy moving on a motorcycle at medium range is literally impossible to hit with a long range rifle. See, I said we’d learn cool stuff. As Kalishnakov recovers from his wounds after a battle he designs a new kind of automatic rifle and submits the design. By 1947 the Kalishnakov Automat is being issued to troops and a demonstration by the designer shows the weapon is made to fire reliably in almost any conditions. In combat, dependability saves your life. It doesn’t take long though before the inventor realizes his tool of liberation is mass produced and exported as a weapon of death.

1976 and after fifty million AK-47s have been distributed throughout the world the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. fight their proxy wars using third world countries as pieces on a board of global chess. It’s bad everywhere but particularly virulent on the African continent. Now the story viewpoint is a Kalishnakov rifles. It starts with a conflict in Ethiopia where Cubans protect Ethiopians from Somali Separatists. Both sides are armed with Kalishnakovs. Guns are equal opportunity killers. When that conflict ends another begins and the same rifle is used until that person is felled in combat. Each time the weapon is received in reverence and as a passage to manhood and inevitably leads to sad death for some young man. Even an old man who only uses it for home protection is hunted down by an armored car with a bigger gun. Then the old mans’ killers take the precious gun from “his cold dead fingers.” His NRA membership is up too. There is a panel showing a group of children going through the brush with Kalishnakovs as big as they are as soldiers carrying out the orders of madmen on the level of viciousness most of you cannot begin to comprehend. I can’t and it’s my craft to think up terrible acts of human conflict.
You can also use Kalishnakov rifle to handily butcher elephants from the back of a jeep. That was a page of heartbreak right there.

Finally, The Unknown Soldier appears; 2003 in Sudan. He’s facing a boy armed with a Kalishnakov as he holds an M-18. “Today I will kill a man,” says the gun. The guns fire. End of story. The child-soldier will be toast. The professional killer’s experience almost always win out. This is a one shot; one real hard shot to the gut. The last panel delivers the coup de grâce. It forced me to write about it. As Burroughes would say, it got me to “look at what is on the end of the fork” of what goes on across the world. If you liked the movie Lord of War, you will love this.

It’s a pity this series discontinues after issue 25. Dysart’s writing is terse and emotional as it delivers damning fact after fact. This is as powerful a one-shot as The Batman Hour of the Gun issue that eventually aided in getting Virginia’s gun laws tightened so it wouldn’t be a national distribution center for firearms to criminals anymore. Rick Veitch has been around awhile and I’ve seen him shine on good titles and hold up bad ones to at least be visually interesting. On this he’s giving us images that frighten with their grim accuracy. This is a series that will bear my collecting when it comes out in hard cover collections. Of course The Unknown Soldier would have another run right now. We’re in the longest war we’ve ever fought in Afghanistan and handled Iraq like a drunken sailor in an underage whore house. My son got wounded and rats still crawl on GIs in hospitals. The rape camps of Sudan go on because they do not have anything worth committing more troops for. Millions upon millions of guns and bullets but scarce drinking water exists for Africans. Somali terrorists just blew up people for watching The World Cup. There’s going to be another round or two of The Unknown Soldier in the future before all this awfulness is over.

by Bill Hilburn

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