Trying to make sense of the politics of the past in the terms of the preconceptions of the present is an inevitably pernicious business. For the political correctnessess of today seem to provide their adherents, knowing or otherwise, with an ideological ockam's razor that can immediately and virtuously divide the world up into good and bad, them and us, right and wrong. And so comforting and self-perpetuating are these processes of self-satisfying condemnations that the complexity and uniqueness of the past inevitably becomes collapsed into an eternal now, throughout which the often already simple-minded prejudices of the contemporary world are presumed to apply. And it is an insidious business, this assuming, without even realising that it's happening, that today's sensibilities tell us anything about yesterday at all. It's a disturbing fact that I was reminded of when misreading DC Comic's "Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier", a collection of war comics published in the five years from the June of 1970 to that of 1975. Because, to my own considerable disconcertment, and within just three pages of beginning Joe Kubert's "They Came From Shangri-La!", I'd found that I'd convinced myself that I was reading a quite different story to the one that was actually on the pages before me. There I was, thinking that Mr Kubert had been nailing to the mast a dove-white flag, a dogmatically anti-war thesis that the idealistically pacifistic counter-cultures of then and now might march self-contentedly under, and yet, what I was reading was no such thing at all.
"They Came From Shangri-La!", the first of three Unknown Soldier tales both written and drawn by Joe Kubert, begins with a single page of four panels (151:1:1-4) briefly describing several of America's wars, and I confess that I obviously wasn't paying enough attention to the images and text before my eyes when I processed the beginning of this story. Indeed, all I registered at first glance was that none of the panels contained any jingoistic representations of the supposed glories of war, with not a trace of cheering and victorious soldiers on show, or of sub-human opponents menacing innocent women and children while the onrushing American troops race in to save the day. And in particular, I noted in passing how all of those representations of previous American wars appeared to accentuate the brutality and miseries of combat. That meaning certainly appeared to be there in the second panel, for example, where a string of silhouetted cannons hammer away at the distant lines of the unseen American enemy. Similarly, it was surely the purpose of the final panel, where-in the American experience of World War One was reduced to a piteous shot of the bodies of dead Doughboys caught on barbed wire while cumbersome fighter planes plummet from the sky above, to denigrate the very business of warfare itself. After all, that doleful image surely existed in the tradition of "Journey's End" and "All Quiet On The Western Front", of "Good-Bye To All That" and "Paths To Glory", which meant that this was surely to be no conventional war comic at all.
And if the first panel, concerning the Revolutionary War, didn't appear to be so specifically tapping into that anti-war iconography, then it was certainly conspicuous in avoiding anything that might appear to equate combat with manliness and a virtuous heroism. Nor could the charging American soldier in the third panel running hunched and with his face sunk into a skull's shadows be easily read as an advert for martial valour either, especially when associated with the Spanish-American War, a conflict which even the most single-mindedly American-first of contemporary historians find difficult to present as a straight-forward example of national ethicality.
And then, to turn to the double-page-length shot of a lonesome shadowed figure standing before the endless mournful rows of white gravestones at what seems to be Arlington National Cemetery (151:2:2-3) , is to surely, surely, rightfully conclude that this tale of Mr Kubert's was designed to show how the nameless mass of ordinary soldiers in America's history have been crushed beneath the brutalities and meaninglessness of war. Certainly, the harrowing and epic portrayal of ill-prepared, wounded, shocked and helpless sailors at Pearl Harbour below only reinforced such a reading, or so I was sure. (151:2-3)
But turn the page onwards again, as I did, and the stupidity of my thinking, and the inappropriateness of my preconceptions, immediately became obvious. For what I'd so completely failed to consider was that Mr Kubert could be quite utterly appalled by the horrors of war while simultaneously being intent on exalting the heroism of the men involved and the necessary purpose of their task. His ideology, if any term so cold and counter-productively precise can be applied to Mr Kubert and his work here, was one which incorporated two concepts which are so often today held to stand in contradiction to each. After all, those who hold to the idea that war with all its bloodyhanded slaughter is a gruesome business tend often to oppose the very fact of it, and the possibility of good arriving from it, while those who believe with greater passion in the value of war as a social process as well as a tool of politics by other means tend to avoid dwelling on the awful truth of the battlefield.
But Mr Kubert was neither turning away from the cost of war nor from what he believed was the fact of its historical necessity. This in itself, to say the very least, is an uncommon stance in the popular culture of 2010, and one which could quite easily be mistaken for something far more reactionary than the fact of its original purpose.
Or, rather, it could be so, for a moment or two, by a muttonhead like me, reading "They Came From Shangri-La!" in those last woozy minutes between crawling in beside the Splendid Wife and surrendering to sleep.
Hands raised in the air in supplication, I own up to the fact that I was rather shocked by my first encounter with Mr Kubert's Unknown Soldier following what seemed so misguidedly to me to be the apparently anti-war images discussed above. But when first encountered, and contrary to my ill-formed expectations, the Unknown Soldier was no isolated and alienated figure, as might be expected if this were a story of ordinary men whose lives have been destroyed by the wars between nations. In fact, the nameless, and faceless, Soldier is from the off a character completely incorporated into the state and aligned with unquestioningly executing the business of war. He's no outsider at all, living as he does in "a small, secluded estate, just outside
of Washington D.C.". (That word "small" hardly modifies the scent of tradition and power which the statement and the drawing evoking a rustic but privileged living evokes at 151:4:3.) He's pleased to receive his orders, he's happy to be involved in a "grand-stand play" (151:4:5), and he's absolutely comfortable being waited upon by an incredibly polite and subservient Black American sergeant (151:3-4). And when the Pentagon is shown, whereto he's gone to receive his orders, it's presented with none of the iconography of state corruption, of military incompetence, of illicit power and even occult malignancy which it is so often portrayed in the light of in today's media. (151:4:4) Instead, this is the Pentagon of unquestioning patriotic myth, the seat of incomparable military wisdom and moral incorruptibility, and that sense of a world in which everything is in its rightful moral place is in its turn reinforced with the shot of the Capitol Dome in the next panel. (151:4:5)
And it's at that point that I realised, shamefully and belatedly, that I'd read all of the preceding pages wrongly. The meaning of the story's beginning wasn't to evoke a sense of a passionate opposition to war, but to emphasis rather the selfless sacrifice of those engaged upon their ennobling and necessary patriotic duties. It's a reading that I'd've picked up earlier if I'd not been so entranced by the typically gorgeous Kubert art, the panel-to-panel continuity of which carries the eye from frame to frame as if words are a fifth wheel and an extra-seat of brakes on a racing car with a Grand Prix circuit before it. Yet those narrative captions that I'd partially skipped carried an unquestioning respect for the typical "rag-taggle soldiers" (151:1:1) persevering through battles "that scarred (them) body and soul" (151:1:2) in their struggles to "fight for freedom at home" (151:1:4), and those images of war's horror which were in my mind so inescapably associated with a culture of resistance to state military power were instead being pressed into service with all the force of their original and patriotic meanings. In that sense, Mr Kubert's battlefields were not intended as representations of horrors alone. Instead, and this is in many ways quite alien to much of the modern mindset, they were in part a reflection of that of which Lincoln spoke in the Gettysburg Address;
"We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
And so it dawned on me that this Unknown Solider was to be no more an anti-hero standing with the abused and exploited individual against the uncaring military might of the USA in these stories than he was to don a long-underweared costume and join the Justice Society Of America. Instead, the Unknown Soldier is there to bolster those who can't find a way to serve their state against the apparently overwhelming might of democracies enemies, to inspire those who've faith in their Nation if not themselves, and to serve the mythical America of "The City That Is Set On The Hill That Cannot Be Hidden." And that's a narrative purpose for the strip that's emphasised with the Unknown Soldier's first internal monologue:
"I've answered their call -- just as my forefathers have -- for generations! Even as far back as the revolutionary war! Every man in our family knew the responsibility he had to assume ... if conditions demanded ... and he was called!" (151:5:5-6)
In the terms of the political correctness of today's left, therefore, Mr Kubert might easily be read to be occupying the position of the political reactionary in "They Came From Shangri-La" and his two tales which followed. For beyond the unquestioning acceptance of the necessity of war and service to it, and in addition to the worrying fact that the battlefield military heroes herein are all unquestionably white, the officers competent and inspiring, and the only men of colour in the story either servant-class Black Americans delivering letters or savage Chinese beasts, the fact that the reader is expected to cheer on a bombing raid on Japanese cities executed as much to generate positive propaganda as to achieve specific military ends is somewhat hard
to swallow (151:4:5). "We -- don't kill -- unless -- we have to!", declares the Unknown Soldier to a half-naked and barbarous Chinese guerrilla, who's been defeated in a grand old punch-up by our much less-muscular boy in order to show, as his enemy had challenged him to, "what sort of a man" an American is. (151:12:3). Yet just a few pages before, American bombers had been engaged on what would be by the fact of their lack of numbers a token raid on the Japanese mainland, a Doolittle Raid for the DCU, if you like, and for all that the American public might be cheered by such an enterprise, the question of whether the airman had to undertake the raid hangs over the Unknown Soldier's declaration of American ethics.
America is good, America is strong, and these half-naked foreigners need to be shown America's skill at unarmed wrestling so that American manliness might inspire peace and correct behaviour all across the world.
All of which, from the modern left-liberal perspective, sounds rather repellent, does it not?
Yet there's absolutely no doubt that "They Came From Shangri-La" is a far more complicated text than either knee-jerk left-correct thought or old-school "my-country-right-or-wrong" patriotic bigotry might reveal. In truth, Mr Kubert's work falls into neither camp, as well as into both, which is confusing to anybody who imagines that the values of the past mirrored those of today's popular media-led debates. His Unknown Soldier tales certainly serve as a useful slap across the face to the likes of all of us who've fallen into the unfortunate habit of picking up on fragments of old texts, considering them quite separately from their original context, and then passing facile judgement on whether they're acceptable or not in the light of today's commonsense wisdom.
After all, it's easy to be naively shocked by Mr Kubert's assumption that his audience would be thrilled to watch the Unknown Soldier and his colleagues bomb a Japanese city (151:8:1), just as the pleasure the tale's characters take in the success of their mission (151:11:2) seems inappropriately cruel. And yet to feel in anyway disconcerted by these things is to be engaged in the business of rewriting, or attempting to rewrite, the attitudes of those in the past to conform with today's fleeting takes on what constitutes acceptable behaviour. If nothing else, Mr Kubert's representation of how many American bomber crews regarded their value of their missions, or indeed of the lives of those they were bombing, is absolutely accurate. He is expressing exactly what those folks in that time were most likely to themselves.
A shallow-minded modern analysis of this might involve decrying Mr Kubert as an unreconstructed xenophobe, and jump from that to assume that what we have on show in this story is a glorification of arms if not the man. Yet Mr Kubert's depiction of the realities of war in the story is in places quite distinct from the gung-ho school of action-adventure stories. Only two of the bomber's crew beyond the Unknown Soldier survive their mission, for example, and there's a keen sense shown by one of those that his life had been saved not by his bravery or his mission, but by the skill of the mysterious "Captain Schales". This is, therefore, a traditional war comic without the traditional glorification of the business of being a soldier. The ends of a soldier's business are virtuous, but the process of fulfilling them is hard and fearsome and very likely impossible to live through. Survival itself is often determined by chance and the kind of unthinking bravery that leads to personal extinction, such as is shown occurring when the emaciated Jewish prisoner turns on the SS Captain in "Instant Glory"(153.9.4), or when the Unknown Soldier's brother Harry throws himself onto an exploding grenade and is blown into a thousand and more pieces. (154:5)
This isn't a depiction of war as a glorious enterprise in any way whatsoever. Rather, Mr Kubert's version of World War Two is of an unquestionably necessary war, but the business of fighting it is rarely portrayed as anything other than a grubby and unpleasant reality. And if some acknowledgement of the suffering of the Japanese caught on the ground by the Unknown Soldier's bombing of Nippon would have undoubtedly increased the common humanity on display in the story, the lack of such a nod to modern sensibilities doesn't mean that the text is callous. "They Came From Shangri-La" isn't as inclusive and caring as many a modern tale would be created to be, but stories can't often be classified into either "utterly morally acceptable" or "utterly morally unacceptable". Today, we would expect such a tale to be about humanity undergoing a mutually-degrading and dangerous experience, but in 1970, Mr Kubert was telling his story from the point of view of American fliers engaged in the dangerous business of killing their enemies.
His story doesn't lie about that, but neither is it a machismo-enhancing and thrill-a-minute business for the characters involved.
But a faith in America and the apparent necessity of unflinchingly serving her through the most appalling of circumstances doesn't necessarily sit well with much of what's so commonly believed today. We exist in a time where one ideological wing seems to expect that any engagement in the business of war by the American state should be seen as a patriotic business to be unsullied by scrutiny and oversight, let alone by any kind of negative representation, while the most determined of opponents seem hysterically bent on establishing the "fact" that war itself is never a necessary or productive business. To stand between the two camps and argue that (a) the American state can be right in declaring war, while (b) portraying the business as a vale of barbed wire, cruelty and death is to scramble much of simplistic sandcastle-building and mud-slinging of the present day. Indeed, were these three Unknown Soldier tales of Mr Kubert's to be released into the market for the first time today, it's easy to believe that they'd either cause such cognitive dissonance among their audience that they'd pass by unnoticed, or that they'd be attacked by both right and left, and especially the left, for their presumed "message".
But in truth, the few pages that Mr Kubert wrote and drew to launch the Unknown Soldier's series are neither liberal nor conservative, not reactionary nor radical, or at least, they're not anything of the sort as we read those terms today. His stories say nothing about social policy or social justice, except to state that the soldiers of a nation at war tend not to regret attempts to strike back at their enemies, as is surely a fact of life which will forever be true, and that innocents shouldn't be victims of those in power. There's no wider manifesto to be deduced from the facts here, no easy target to raise the ire of one interest or another. And even if there's a sense that the Unknown Soldier himself comes from the kind of old WASP farming stock which is even now supposedly associated with a monopoly of political power in a great deal of the Union, there's also the fact that his life is utterly dedicated to preserving the typical and often helpless man at arms. There's no snobbery, for example, in Mr Kubert's depiction of the ordinary soldiers in "Instant Glory" (152). They're simply likable if fallible human beings, shown, for example, as being glad to rest during a patrol to down a few "liberated" pints, and they're portrayed as being
understandably if unheroically terrified when faced by the SS. (152:2-3) And if it feels somewhat politically uncomfortable to note that the welfare of so many should rely upon the son of one of old families who's good enough to be looking out for them, as if this is a text which is patronisingly conservative, there's no sense that their lives are less important than his. Quite the contrary, in fact, for the Unknown Soldier is shown as having a mission not to establish the hegemony, the worthiness, of any truer American stock, but rather to stand as "one man in a pivotal position ... (to) exert an influence on hundreds -- even thousands -- of others." (152.4.6) His purpose, in Mr Kubert's take on the character, seems to be to lend a hand at whatever cost to himself wherever the unavoidable miseries of the battlefield threaten to overwhelm the men trapped within them. It's a complicated mix of messages, in that it portrays the typical American as worthy of support and capable of great things, but only if they get the appropriate leadership. Still, it's not disdainful of the common man, and the origin tale of "I'll Never Die"(154) shows that the Soldier himself had to be saved and inspired in his turn by the strength and the self-sacrifice of his brother. The business of being a better soldier is something which arises not from being one type of American or another, not from being born as a somebody who's a member of one "real" USA or another, but from the inspiration of other citizen-soldiers who have no doubt been inspired through other's examples in their turn.
It's a difficult myth to process, that of the elite who serve at their own cost to inspire others, whether they're composed of the most able or the kindest or the oldest folks in the land, and it's a myth which often masks a series of social groups claiming to act in the nation's interest while avidly pursuing little but their own. But for all that, it can be an affecting and moving myth too, and regardless of it's political value, the desire to create a character who'll stand by others when they most desperately need help is not to be high-handedly sniffed at. And if democracy is going to function and even prosper, then it will inevitably rely upon folks standing up and showing a willingness to take a lead and make sacrifices. If the Unknown Soldier might have chimed with modern sensibilities rather more if it had starred a Black American lead, for example, or had the Soldier been backed up by a squad of competent outsiders from a rainbow nation of the American dispossessed, as would surely have been true, it's still in itself at worst only somewhat patronising, and, at best, it's often an inspiring story of men trying to do their unselfish best under impossible circumstances.
Yet if there's one factor in Mr Kubert's take on the Unknown Soldier which undermines the writer's democratic and compassionate intentions, it's the fact that the Soldier is himself something of a superhero. An unlikely mixture of "The Scarlet Pimpernel", "Justice Inc" and "Dial "H" For Hero", there's no-one that the Soldier can't become, no skill that he can't immediately master, and every time he looks completely different to his appearance in his previous adventures. In fact, so apparently superheroic is he that Mr Kubert describes him in terms which could be applied to the likes of the World War Two-era Captain America;
"His knowledge of military history and strategy is absolutely uncanny! There's no five G.I.'s who can take that cookie in hand-to-hand combat! He's tough!" (151:9:6:1)
He can crash-land B-25's with "not a bent bone in the crew" occurring (151:9:5). He can outfight seven foot tall Chinese warriors. (151:12-13) He has some kind of American mystic instinct which means that he'll find the one place where his presence can win the day (152.5.5). By his own willingness to ignore the pain and social consequences of his total facial disfigurement, he has become a man more competent and, yes, more lucky than any other. "I don't know who that GI is ... But -- I'd follow him through the gates of Hades!" declares a G.I. on the cover of Star Spangled War Stories number 152, and the problem is that in every issue the American soldier seems to need a great deal of inspiring, among some other fundamental qualities of soldiering such as basic survival skills and battlefield judgment. Indeed, Mr Kubert's G.I. as a species seems to lack so much specialised knowledge and even a measure of gumption, which means that the noble suffering so emphasised in the introduction to Mr Kubert's first story seems to have been caused at least in part by each individual soldier's own incompetence. If only they were all as dedicated and able as the Unknown Soldier, the stories seem to say, if only they were to a man so devoted to the cause that they too would abandon their own identities and the offer of "the Congressional Medal Of Honour" (154:8:4) in order to serve their fellow soldiers, why, no-one would be suffering at all. As the Soldier himself pronounces when describing his own mission and the sacrifices that he knows he must make;
"(My) own identity must be erased! (I) must have no past -- and (my) future will be in a state of constant, imminent danger!" (154:9:2)
By giving up the very fact of his own identity, and by dedicating the raw materials of his own existence entirely to the American war-effort, the Unknown Soldier becomes capable of any task he's assigned to achieve. But it's the strangest thing, to be arguing that the American way of life, based in so many ways on the very idea of individuality, should be best served by abandoning all vestiges of that very quality, and it leaves all the soldiers who haven't done so seeming inadequate, appearing too selfish to make the commitment that would save America, and themselves while doing so.
Politically, it is something of a worrying message, though it's not one which many of our dominant public if not intellectual discourses today would easily identify. For on the one level, Mr Kubert's tales seem to speak of patronage, of the great man who from his enlightenment helps the common mass to achieve their selfishly-obscured potential. But there's also something profoundly disturbing and of the political extremes about it all, a sense of the Communist as well as the Fascist ideal, of the Stakhanovich model of the man who lives only to serve the state and defines his value by the degree to which he achieves that, and of the myth of the "martyr" Horst Wessel, who Goebells declared had existed as a necessary extension of the will of the Volk and was a noble martyr of the same.
And though there seems no doubt that Mr Kubert saw the Unknown Soldier as a comforting figure who would stride out of the shadows to protect the everyday American at those moments of war when they couldn't protect themselves, the very fact of his superheroic competency and willingness to sacrifice combined with, the inability of those he rescues to protect themselves seems to a greater or lesser degree to under-value the contributions of the typical soldier who never could be superheroic, and who yet, together with their colleagues from so many backgrounds and indeed nations, did in the end succeed in bringing the Second World War to a close.
For though on the one hand this Unknown Soldier is a sentimentally pleasing idea, he was never needed in the "real world", and his presence as written seems rather insulting to the soldiers of the imaginary one he's been created to inhabit, just as he at the very same time seems to be powerfully touching symbol of the soldier's desire for a friend and comrade at the very moment when all will be lost without such.
And yet one reading doesn't trump the other. The view of the Unknown Soldier as an insult to the common man can't of itself eliminate the value of the sweet and uncommon empathy for the ordinary human being caught up in the wars between nations that is constantly expressed within Mr Kubert's pages. Right doesn't stand above left, the reactionary reading doesn't eliminate the radical one. The pair of them sit there in the same text, and the truth is that both of them are true, and neither of them on their own tells the complete truth of what Mr Kubert's stories seem to be saying.
In the end, Joe Kubert's Unknown Soldier is an incredibly confused example of the politics of war comics. He's a character who in Mr Kubert's few stories seems reactionary, but who is also quietly if conservatively liberal in many ways too. His adventures are unquestioning of the state's virtue and competence, but never less than absolutely compassionate when it comes to the lot of the common American man-at-arms amidst the horrors of war which governments by apparent necessity consign their citizens to. If the attitude to those who aren't American is at times less sympathetic, there's nothing here that strays anywhere near xenophobia; a touch more empathy where Japanese citizens if not soldiers, and Chinese guerrillas, are concerned would seal off that moral leakage entirely.
Indeed, in the end, the main problem with the text's politics is simply that Mr Kubert's Unknown Soldier is so incredibly able where his colleagues are merely human, a fact which somewhat diminishes their own efforts and achievements. By wanting to portray a character who'd fight beside the ordinary man in the most terrible of circumstances, Mr Kubert presented, in the train of Robert Kanigher's first story of the character, a superhero of sorts without which the typical American soldier would be lost. It was a problem that would quickly threaten to swamp the strip as other writers and artists took the reigns from Mr Kubert, but in itself it shouldn't detract from the fact that this was a comic book war hero designed to stand beside his fellows at the darkest of times, an example of wish-fulfilment which in itself is far more justifiable and touching, and considerably less dubious, than much of the wish-fulfilment offered up elsewhere wherever the likes of the fully-costumed superhero appeared.
But what Mr Kubert's "Unknown Soldier" certainly isn't is politically correct, or, indeed, politically incorrect either. Those assumptions, I'm very much afraid, are the illusions of a present day far more obsessed with confirming untestable and yet comforting moral hypothesis than in recognising the individual character of the objects before their gaze, and the corrupting influence of these ideologies extends far beyond those who consider themselves to be part of some moral elect. The "Unknown Soldier", for all that it's a long-discontinued character from the 1970s, is worth a greater measure of attention than any of those sweeping judgements that the cultural partisans might produce, as, of course, is the estimable work of Mr Kubert, wherever it may be encountered.