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How Star Wars Saved American Triumphalism

With its departure from realistic warfare and its nominal embrace of the underdog, the franchise got American kids back into war.

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 1:13 PM EDT

2. The Second Coming of G.I. Joe

The reversals of history first introduced in Star Wars were picked up by a fast-developing toy business in the 1980s. Every "action figure" set would now be a Star Wars knock-off, and each toy company faced Lucas's problem. In post-Vietnam war-space, how would a child left alone in a room with generic figures know what to play? Star Wars had offered a movie universe for its toys to share, but a toy on its own needed another kind of help.

About the time Ronald Reagan came into office, Hasbro began to consider resuscitating G.I. Joe, for the world of war play was still distinctly underpopulated on Earth, if not in space. As the toy company's executives were aware, Joe retained remarkable name recognition, not only among young boys (who had inherited hand-me-downs from older siblings) but among their parents. The question was, what would Joe be? At first, Hasbro had only considered marketing "a force of good guys," but according to H. Kirk Bozigian, Hasbro's vice-president of boys toys, "the [toy] trade said, who do they fight?" Hasbro's research with children confirmed that this was a crucial question.

In fact, blasting an action figure team into a world in which, as Bozigian put it, "there was a fine line between the good guys and the bad guys," called for considerable grown-up thought. Although Joe was to gain the tag line, "a real American hero," the G.I. Joe R&D and marketing group ("all closet quasi-military historians") early on reached "a conscious decision that the Soviets would never be the enemy, because we felt there would never be a conflict between us." Instead they chose a vaguer enemy—"terrorism"—and created COBRA, an organization of super-bad guys who lived not in Moscow but in Springfield, USA. (Hasbro researchers had discovered that a Springfield existed in every state—except Rhode Island, where the company was located.)

Re-launching Joe

But teams of good and bad guys weren't enough. Children needed context. A "history" had to be written for these preplanned figures, what the toy industry would come to call a "backstory." Then a way had to be found for each figure to bring his own backstory, his play instructions, into the home. First, "Joe" was shrunk to 3 3/4-inch size, so that his warrior team could fit into the Star Wars universe. Next, he was reconceived as a set of earthbound fantasy figures (rather than "real" soldiers) and armed with Star Wars-style weaponry.

A Marvel comic book series lent the toys an ongoing story form, while Hasbro pioneered using the space on the back of each figure's package for a collector card/profile of the enclosed toy. Larry Hama, creator of the comics and of the earliest profiles, called them "intelligence dossiers." Each Joe or COBRA was now to come with his own spacy code name (from Air Tight to Zartan) and his own "biography." Each "individualized" team member would carry his story into the home on his back.

Take "enemy leader, COBRA Commander." Poisonous snakes are bad news, but his no-goodness was almost laughably overdetermined. Faceless in the style of Darth Vader, his head was covered by a hood with eye slits, reminiscent of the KKK, his body encased in a torturer's blue jumpsuit, leather gloves, and boots. Here is his "dossier":

"Primary Military Specialty: Intelligence.

Secondary Military Specialty: Ordnance (experimental weaponry).

Birthplace: Classified.

Absolute power! Total control of the world... its people, wealth, and resources—that's the objective of COBRA Commander. This fanatical leader rules with an iron fist. He demands total loyalty and allegiance. His main battle plan, for world control, relies on revolution and chaos. He personally led uprisings in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and other trouble spots. Responsible for kidnapping scientists, businessmen, and military leaders then forcing them to reveal their top level secrets. COBRA commander is hatred and evil personified. Corrupt. A man without scruples. Probably the most dangerous man alive!"

Other than the telltale reference to Southeast Asia, he was an enemy uncoupled from the war story. Only the profile that came with him separated him from Snake-Eyes, a good guy with Ninja training who also came encased in a blue jumpsuit with slits for eyeholes.

Launched in 1982, the new G.I. Joe was to prove the most successful boy's toy of the period. By the mid-1980s, Joe had an every afternoon animated TV show that put special effects battles with COBRA constantly within the child's field of vision. After Joe, war play on "Earth" would be in the reconstructionist mode. Carefully identified teams of good and bad figures, backed by collectors' cards, TV cartoons, movies, video games, books, and comics, as well as a host of licensed products stamped with their images, would offer an overelaborate frame of instruction in new-style war play. All a child had to do was read the toy box, turn on the TV, go to the video store, put on the audio tape that accompanied the "book," or pick up the character's "magazine" to be surrounded by a backstory of war play. Yet the void where the national war story had been remained.

The New Business of War Play

By 1993, Hasbro had produced over 300 G.I. Joe figures with "close to 260 different personalities" and sold hundreds of millions of them. No longer a masked man and his lone sidekick, but color, price, and weapons coordinated masked teams, these "characters" on screen and on the child's floor were byproducts of an extraordinary explosion of entrepreneurial life force, for the business impulse behind war play was childhood's real story in the 1980s. The intrusive, unsettling world of commercial possibility that had first looked through the screen at the child three decades earlier represented the real victory culture of the postwar child's world.

The new war story it produced had only a mocking relationship to a national story, for all "war" now inhabited the same unearthly, ahistorical commercial space. Even Rambo, transformed into an action-figure team for children, found himself locked in televised cartoon combat with General Terror and his S.A.V.A.G.E. terrorist group. While various Ninjas and Native Americans brought their spiritual skills to the good side, everywhere the "enemy" remained a vague and fragile construct, a metallic voice stripped of ethnic or racial character; and everywhere the boundary lines between us and the enemy, the good team and the bad team, threatened to collapse into a desperate sameness.

In its characters, names, and plots, the new war story relied on constant self-mockery. The enemy, once the most serious of subjects, was now a running joke. The evil COBRA organization, as described by Hasbro's Bozigian, was made up of "accountants, tax attorneys, and all other kinds of low lifes that are out to conquer the world." The mocking voice of deconstruction was alive and selling product in children's culture—as with that mega-hit of the late 1980s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

In the new war play universe, you did need a scorecard to tell the players apart. In the comic book world, for example, the story had become so self-enclosed that it was nearly impossible to pick up an X-Man comic and have any sense of where you were if you hadn't read the previous 20 issues. Here is part of the dossier of a 1991 Marvel Comics supervillain from one of 160-odd similar bubble gum cards. His code name is Apocalypse.

"Battles Fought: 6344

Wins: 3993 Losses: 2135 Ties: 216

Win Percentage: 63%

Arch-enemies: X-Factor

First Appearance: X-Factor #5, June 1986

Apocalypse believes that only the strong survive, and that the weak must be destroyed. In his quest to weed out those he deems unfit to live, he manipulates various factions of mutants to battle each other to the death...

Did You Know: Apocalypse's former headquarters, a massive sentient starship, now serves as the headquarters for his arch-enemies, the super hero group known as X-Factor."

Though a sort of story was recaptured and with the help of television made to surround the child constantly, behind the special effects was an eerie inaction—of which, at an adult level, the war in the Persian Gulf would be symbolic.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear, runs the Nation Institute's This is part two of a series. The first part, "The Secret History of G.I. Joe," can be found by clicking here. Both posts are excerpted from Engelhardt's 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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