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How GI Joe, Barbie, and Darth Vader Taught Children About War

Adult warmaking from Vietnam to the present day plays itself out in the business of children's culture

| Tue Aug. 13, 2013 5:19 PM EDT

2. Empty Space

On the evening of May 25, 1977, a dazed 32-year-old movie director, with one success to his name, was finishing a Herculean two weeks "mixing" his latest film for European audiences. Breaking for dinner, he and his wife headed for Hamburger Hamlet, a restaurant across the street from Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, only to run into heavy traffic and sizable crowds. Coming around a corner, he spied the title of his new film in giant letters on the theater marquee. It was opening day. "I said, ‘I don't believe this,'" he recalled. "So we sat in Hamburger Hamlet and watched the giant crowd out there, and then I went back and mixed all night… I felt it was some kind of aberration."

Director George Lucas had already celebrated his teenage years in American Graffiti ("Where were you in ‘62?"), the surprise hit of 1973, which sparked a wave of nostalgia for the years before Vietnam and inspired the TV series Happy Days (1974). As a moviemaker, however, he had had a desire to reach even deeper into his California boyhood, to return to those moments when he had acted out World War II scenarios with toy soldiers, or watched old Flash Gordon serials, cowboy and war films on television.

Like movie audiences (as box office receipts of the time indicated), he wanted to reverse the cinematic cannibalism of the 1960s. In this, he stood apart from directors as disparate as Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Mel Brooks, and his own mentor Francis Ford Coppola, who for years had been dismantling space and horse operas, war and detective films; in fact, all familiar on-screen space.

"There's a whole generation," he would later say, "growing up without any kind of fairy tales." Although he undoubtedly identified with the countercultural politics of the time, his was a conservative vision. Instinctively, he wanted to still the mocking voices and return the movie audience not just to his own childhood but to a childlike viewing state.

Throughout the early 1970s, he struggled to construct a script that would rebuild the missing war story in outer space. The heavens had been empty since, at the end of the 1960s, Stanley Kubrick blasted an American astronaut into a fetal state in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Planet of the Apes took its astronauts on a mocking journey to a post-nuclear Earth where humans were not the dominant species; and the USS Enterprise of TV's Star Trek left the "final frontier" to be mothballed.

In 1975, Lucas signed on with Twentieth Century Fox to produce a space film that (he reassured his wife) "ten-year-old boys would love." To make it, he had his costume designer study books on World War II uniforms and Japanese armor, while he turned to films ranging from Frank Capra's Battle of Britain (1943) to The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) to construct dogfights in space. In casting, he avoided white ethnics like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, who had played on-screen rebels for years, in favor of unknown WASP-y actors who might bring to mind the one-dimensional whiteness of his movie past.

Summoning up enemies from his screen childhood, he patterned his evil emperor on Ming, ruler of Mongo in Flash Gordon (as well as on Richard Nixon), and cloaked his dark Jedi, Darth Vader, in gleaming black visor and body suit. Although there would be no blacks on screen, he hired the black actor James Earl Jones to play Vader's hissing techno-voice. In Chewbacca, the "Wookie" with the Mexican cartridge belts strung across his hairy chest, the Others of the previous decade from ascendant ape to Native American would be returned to their rightful place. This nonwhite would not even be capable of Hollywood-style broken English; only of King Kong-ish howls of frustration or rage (made by mixing bear, walrus, seal, and badger calls).

In early 1977, the almost finished film seemed an unlikely candidate for success. Fox's research showed that the word war in a title would turn off women, that robots would turn off everyone, and that science fiction was a dead category. Fox's board of directors had only reluctantly financed the film; and at a special screening, those directors who did not go to sleep were outraged. As movie theater owners showed little enthusiasm, the film opened in only 32 theaters nationwide.

Not in his wildest flights of fancy did Lucas imagine that his cinematic vision would sweep all before it, that his reconquest of a child audience and of "the kids in all of us" would be crucial to the reconstruction of a narrative of triumph, that he would help give a new look of entertainment to the design of war and reintroduce the spectacle of slaughter to the many screens of America.

The Look of Star Wars Enters the World of War

About two years before Star Wars opened, a 20-year-old MIT student, Peter Hagelstein, applied for a fellowship to the Hertz Foundation. Among its board members was Edward Teller, "father" of the H-bomb and a founder of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a government nuclear weapons research facility in Northern California. Although John D. Hertz (of rental car fame) had set up the fellowships to "foster the technological strength of America" vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and some recipients were recruited into Livermore's weapons research by those interviewing them, the foundation advertised only that "[t]he proposed field of graduate study must be concerned with applications of the physical sciences to human problems, broadly construed."

Hagelstein was offered a fellowship and a summer job at Livermore by Lowell Wood, his interviewer and head of Livermore's O Group. Its young scientists were working on designing a "third generation" of nuclear weapons (the first two being the A and H bombs). According to Hagelstein, Wood told him only that they were working on "lasers and laser fusion, which I had never heard of before, and he said there were computer codes out there that were like playing a Wurlitzer organ. It all sounded kind of dreamy… The lab made quite an impression, especially the guards and barbed wire. When I got to the personnel department it dawned on me that they worked on weapons here, and that's about the first I knew about it."

In the summer of 1976, he went there full time, while continuing Ph.D. work at MIT. He was a young man who "hated bombs" and "didn't want to be associated with anything nuclear." He was even romantically involved with an antinuclear activist who picketed the lab. But he was held by a dream of creating a laboratory x-ray laser that would allow scientists to "see" various biological processes, and by the appealing young men of O Group, with their jeans and long hair, all-night work habits, countercultural élan, and perverse humor. (Once, they even "took up a collection" to buy Lowell Wood a Darth Vader costume.)

The year that Star Wars soared into box office heaven, a senior O Group scientist came up with a new concept for using a nuclear explosion to "pump" enough focused energy into a laser to turn it into a weapon. In the summer of 1979, Hagelstein appeared at a meeting where the use of an underground nuclear explosion to test out the idea was being discussed. Dazed from 20 straight hours of work, he made a suggestion—"The mouth just said it"—that was to lead to a laser device dubbed Excalibur and successfully tested in November 1980. While Hagelstein's dream of a laboratory x-ray laser faded, "his" weapon became the centerpiece of a different sort of fantasy.

In February 1981, the trade journal Aviation Week and Space Technology reported the x-ray laser's heavily classified existence, saying that, "mounted in a laser battle station" in space, it had "the potential to blunt a Soviet nuclear weapons attack." The magazine's account was accompanied by a hyper-realistic, futuristic "artist's drawing" showing a snazzy battle station that "bristled with long laser rods," an image the mainstream media picked up, thus marrying the look of war to the look of Star Wars.

By 1982, Teller had taken news of Peter Hagelstein's laser directly to Ronald Reagan. Space lasers and other third-generation weapons, he assured the president, "by converting hydrogen bombs into hitherto unprecedented forms and by directing these in highly effective fashions against enemy targets would end the MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] era and commence a period of assured survival on terms favorable to the Western alliance." Even a young weapons researcher whose doctoral thesis ("Physics of Short Wavelength Laser Design") mentioned three science fiction novels featuring beam weapons could hardly have imagined that one spaced-out suggestion would become a crucial part of a multibillion-dollar national fantasy to create a "protective shield" over the reconstruction of war on Earth.

[Part 2, "Teenagers in Space" will be posted on Thursday, August 15th.]

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. This post is excerpted from his history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (just published in a Kindle edition), with the permission of its publisher, the University of Massachusetts Press.

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