THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER is a favourite comic character of ours, especially in the way that his adventures encompass both war and horror, with a little bit of pseudoscience thrown in. We never learn The Unknown Soldiers name, we never see what he originally looks like, we are only ever party to the tattered, featureless physiognomy hard earned in war.
His origin is fairly straightforward: while fighting in the Pacific with his brother, a grenade landed in their foxhole. His brother smothered the blast and was killed; the Unknown Soldier survived, but had his face torn from his head. Just before his death, his brother had talked about how ‘one guy, in the right place at the right time’ could alter the tide of war. After recovering, The Unknown Soldier volunteers to be that ‘one guy’, and the US Army accept his offer, sending him on perilous, vitally important missions where his survival is doubtful, but his potential impact enormous.
With no face of his own anymore, The Unknown Soldier is a master of disguise, able to wear a variety of high-tech masks to aid his undercover work. His ravaged features, normally covered with bandages, bother him under the latex, so he is forever scratching a persistent itch, so, even wearing somebody else’s face, he is constantly reminded of the terrible state of his own, a constant physical discomfort to add to the mental stress of his high pressure do or die missions.
But The Unknown Soldier prevails: he wins; he survives; he overcomes. He blows up the weird prototype weapons, he assassinates the enemy General, he saves the civilians, he rescues the hostages. He kills hundreds of people, perhaps thousands. There are no medals for The Unknown Soldier, however, no parades. He doesn’t exist, so how can there be?
A thread of awful melancholy runs through the stories, especially as it's clear that The Unknown Soldier doesn’t care if he lives or dies, but, while he is around, he just wants to keep hitting the enemy as hard as he can. The stories sometimes fall foul of the American tendency to overplay their involvement in parts of the war (inventing invasions of Britain so that The Unknown Soldier can save us, for instance), but then these are American comics, for American audiences, so that can be forgiven. They are also fantasies, dark, strange fantasies of a clandestine war fought by seemingly indestructible men with no purpose other than to fight, to kill: what else can they do with faces like that?
In the final issue of the original story arc, The Unknown Soldier discovers that the Nazis have developed a vampire octopus codenamed Nosferatu that they intend to unleash upon the allied forces approaching Berlin*. He impersonates Hitler to countermand the order, then meets the Fuhrer face to face. They fight, and our hero shoots Hitler in the head and kills him. The Unknown Soldier then arranges it to look like suicide, thereby ending the War in Europe.
On the way home, he saves a little girl’s life by throwing himself on a grenade, just as his brother had done four years previously, and dies. Or does he? Well, no, as he crops up again and again in the DC Universe in years to come, although never explicitly so.
The character has latterly been ‘reimagined’ as an immortal being, an eternal warrior, and, most recently, as a battle scarred Ugandan freedom fighter. The Unknown Soldier we knew and loved and felt sorry for is no longer that ‘one guy’, merely one aspect of a universal concept.
* This is only marginally weirder than some of the Nazi's actual last ditch schemes to stave off defeat.