By Tom Engelhardt
You come out of the subway at Times Square across the street from the Gap and catty-corner to ESPN Zone, walk past the Drug Enforcement Agency’s temporary museum (“Freedom is… Drug Free!”) with its “Target America: Drug Traffickers, Terrorists, and You” show, stroll past the New York Police Department’s office, its name outlined in flashing, red-capped, neon-blue letters, past the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station with the big-screen video ads over the door, and plunge through traffic into thickening crowds before finally being swept through the Toys “R” Us mega-store’s automatically revolving door, past a behemoth of an indoor ferris wheel filling with children, by the all-Lego, life-sized Santa Claus, by enough stuffed animals to fill a mega-pound, and up the escalator — you can already hear the fierce roaring — to the second floor where an animatronic T-Rex at least a story high, its feet planted in ancient-looking plastic ferns, its head swiveling, its serrated mouth opening, calls out to… well, all of us, to an answering roar of onrushing customers, standing guard as it is over the floor’s well-labeled Jurassic Park display area.
It’s an impressive sight, made more so by the shock of brand recognition — and you’re talking here about a father whose kids long ago outgrew toys and who, though he had once written regularly about the toy business, probably hadn’t set foot in a toy store in a decade. As T-Rex momentarily stills, I take in the action-figure landscape in this near football-field sized area, just a small part of this T-Rex of a toy palace. And here’s the shock: Just about every action figure I remember from my kids’ childhood years is still here. Along with a modest number of recent movie-themed figures (The Incredibles, Lord of the Rings, and Toy Story), updated Lego sets of space aliens called Bionicles, and a few modest brands I’ve never seen before like the Alien Racers and Yu-Gi-Oh! (Japanese robotic monsters), there are endless old friends and acquaintances from toyscapes stretching back decades. Here are the Transformers, those adaptable Japanese robots from the 1980s, and the Power Rangers (more Japanese transformable figures), and Star Wars figurines, and Superheroes that, like Captain America, reach back beyond my own childhood, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that once inhabited my son’s floors, and that oldest war toy of all, G.I. Joe, still fighting, as he was in the 1980s, the evil COBRA.
It’s as if I’ve staggered into someone’s vast attic or a garage sale of unbelievable proportions. Here, under a giant Spiderman webbed to the wall and King Kong climbing a Lego Empire State Building, is a strange panorama of the “landmarks” of what now passes for history in the child’s world, and an eerie reminder of how fully that staple of childhood, war-play, has changed since I was a boy.
The View from the Floor: the 1950s
In the early 1950’s, my childhood years, boys (and some girls) spent hours acting out tales of American battle triumph with generic fighting figures; a crew of cowboys and bluecoats to defeat the Indians and win the West; a bag or two of olive-green marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima.
If ours was a sanguinary tale of warfare against savages in which pleasure came out of the barrel of a gun, it was also a recognizable part of a larger American story that could be found in any neighborhood movie theater. There, we cheered as an enemy who looked nothing like us dropped in his tens, hundreds, thousands before our blazing guns, proof of the triumph of a distinctly American goodness.
On floors nationwide, we were left alone, without apparent instruction, to reinvent such episodes in American history as we then knew it. Who was good and who was bad, who could be killed and under what conditions, were all an accepted part of a collective childhood that drew strength from post-World War II adult culture.
As the Cold War progressed, however, America’s faith in its manifest destiny was slowly and unconsciously relegated to the world of the child. That American children should have inherited a national tale of battle triumph, just as European children had once inherited rituals of nightly battle long discarded by adults, was not in itself extraordinary. The surprise was that, after a 300-year journey, such a triumphant story would, in barely a generation, pass wholly into the realm of children; and then, in the wake of the Vietnam War, leave the American Century altogether for space, alternate Earths, medieval times, and worm holes leading elsewhere — as, by the time my children were growing up, their Christmas floorscapes attested.
If, for a moment, you sink to the level of that floor and survey the toy scene from there, you learn much about the true forces of history; for there, increasingly in the last half of the previous century, children led the way in the crucial battles, not for territory but for market share on the frontiers of brand, style, and technology. It was a war that put history, as we once knew it, to shame — and there’s probably no better place to start than with a “fighting man from head to toe,” a “real American hero,” G.I. Joe.
Joe Hits the Beach: 1964
Joe was born in 1964, while, in Vietnam, thousands of American “advisers” were already offering up their know-how from helicopter seats or through gun barrels. In less than a year we would send in our first large contingent of ground troops, adolescents who would enter the battle zone dreaming of John Wayne and thinking of enemy-controlled territory as “Indian country”; it was, as a recent James Barron piece on Joe in the New York Times reminds us, “the year that Ford Mustang, Diet Pepsi and Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts also joined consumers’ vocabularies”; the year when a generation of children began to play out familiar scenarios of American battle triumph via the most popular toy warrior ever created.
His name, G.I. (for “Government Issue”) Joe was redolent of World War II, America’s last total victory — Korea was already “the forgotten war” — and utterly generic. There was no specific figure named Joe, nor did any of the “Joes” have names. Joe initially came with no story, no instructions, and no enemy because it had not yet occurred to toymakers that a child could not be trusted to choose the right enemy to pit against Joe.
In TV ads, Joe was depicted as the most traditional of war toys. Little boys in World-War-II-style helmets were shown entering battle with a G.I. Joe tank or fiercely displaying their Joe equipment while a chorus of deep, male voices sang (to the tune of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along”) “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe/ Fighting man from head to toe/ on the land, on the sea, in the air.” He could take any landing site in style dressed in his “Ike” jacket with red scarf. And he was a giant, too, nearly a foot tall. From the telltale pink scar on his cheek to the testosterone rush of ad boys shouting “G.I. Joe, take the hill!” he seemed the picture of a manly American fighting toy.
Yet Joe, like much else in his moment, was not quite what he seemed. Launched the year Lyndon Baines Johnson ran for president as a peace candidate (while his administration was seeking a pretext to escalate the war in Vietnam), Joe, though a behemoth of a toy soldier, was also a doll.
Joe was, in fact, the spawn of Barbie, who took the fashion salons, malt shops, boudoirs, and bedrooms not so long before he took the beaches. He was the brainstorm of Stanley Weston, a toy developer convinced that boys secretly played with Barbie and deserved their own doll. Joe was designed as a thoroughly accurate military figure, with a special “grip,” an opposable thumb and forefinger, all the better to grasp those realistic bazookas, and he was built with 21 movable parts so that boys could finally put war in motion.
In those days, everyone in the toy business knew that toy soldiers were 3-inch-high, immobile, plastic or lead figures, and the initial response to Joe ranged from doubt to laughter. But Joe confounded them all, a warrior Adam created from Eve’s plastic rib, a tough guy with his own outfits and accessories, whom you could dress, undress, and take to bed — or at least tent down with, if you were lucky to have that “bivouac-pup tent set” of his.
But none of this could be said. It was taboo at Hasbro, Joe’s company, to call him a “doll.” Instead, the company dubbed him a “poseable action figure for boys,” and the name “action figure” stuck to every war-fighting toy that followed. So Barbie and Joe, hard breasts and soft bullets, the exaggerated bombshell and the touchy-feely, scar-faced warrior, came to represent America’s increasingly shaky gender stories at decade’s end, where a secret history of events was slowly sinking to the level of childhood.
As the Vietnam years wore on, Joe slowly began to transmogrify. His toy-DNA began to change. He became ever less a soldier. Protest was in the air. As early as 1966, mothers in Mary Poppins outfits picketed the New York toy convention, with umbrellas displaying the slogan, “Toy Fair or Warfare?” and Sears soon dropped all military toys from its catalogue. A nervous Hasbro began altering Joe’s look. He gained a beard and “flocked hair,” lost his military edge, and, in 1970, joined the G.I. Joe Adventure Team.
Now, just as Joe began to leave history behind, in various packaged play sets he was linked up with his first real enemies, but they weren’t human. There was the tiger of the “White Tiger Hunt,” the mummy of “Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb,” as well as other assorted carnivorous villains. For the first time, in those years of growing adult confusion, some indication of plot, of what exactly a child should do with these toys, began to be incorporated into titles like “The Search for the Stolen Idol.” Not only was Joe now an adventurer, but his “adventure” was being crudely outlined on the packaging that accompanied him.
This hipper new Joe had also begun to look suspiciously like the antiwar opposition. By 1974, he had even gained a bit of an Asian touch with his new “kung-fu grip.” In 1976, under the pressure of the increased cost of plastic (think first oil crisis here), he shrank almost four inches, and soon after he vanished from the scene. He was, according to Hasbro “furloughed,” and as far as anyone then knew, consigned to toy oblivion along with all those cowboys, Indians, bluecoats and other historical figures.
In this, his fate was typical of what happened to the rest of child culture in those years. It was as if Vietnamese sappers had reached into the American homeland and blasted a story of battle triumph almost 300 years in the making free of its ritualistic content; as if the “Indians” of that moment had sent the cavalry into flight and unsettled the West. In fact, no American entertainment form could long have contained the story of a slow-motion defeat inflicted by a non-white people in a frontier war. Instead, the forms simply dematerialized as well.
By the time Saigon fell in 1975, children, like adults, existed in a remarkably story-less, history-less realm — which turned out to be nothing but a boon for consumer culture, whose corporations were ready indeed to set off for outer space, inner realms, Medieval fantasy times, any place, in fact, that could produce product history was incapable of assailing.
Joe Faces Off Against “Terrorism”: the 1980s
In 1977, George Lucas embraced the storylessness of the time. With Star Wars, he created his own self-enclosed universe in deepest space and an amorphous movie past “in a galaxy far, far away.” By blasting war into outer space, he decontaminated it of its recent history, his special effects giving the high-tech weaponry of Vietnam a bloodless, sleekly unrecognizable new look. The blond Luke Skywalker was barely introduced before his adoptive family — high-tech peasants on an obscure planet — suffered its own little My Lai at the hands of Darth Vader’s Storm Troopers, and Luke set out on an anti-imperial venture as a victim, not a victimizer.
Lucas did more. He almost single-handedly reconstituted war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe’s demise, the world of child-sized war play stood empty. However, some months before Star Wars opened, Kenner Products, a toy company, agreed to create inexpensive, new-style action figures only 3 ¾ inches high, geared to the movie. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.
The result was toy history. In 1978 alone, Kenner sold over 26 million of these figures. By the early 1980s, as President Reagan launched his “Star Wars” space defense initiative (“The Force is with us,” he told his critics) and began to speak of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” children’s TV became a Star Wars-like battle zone in which outnumbered teams of teenaged rebels daily faced down Vader-clones in bloodless machine-versus-machine battles.
Still, the world of war play was distinctly underpopulated on Earth, if not in space. About the time Reagan came into office, Hasbro began to consider resuscitating G.I. Joe. As the company’s executives were aware, the toy retained remarkable name recognition among young boys (who had inherited hand-me-downs from older siblings) and their parents. The question was: What would Joe be? At first, Hasbro considered just marketing “a force of good guys,” but times had changed. According to H. Kirk Bozigian, then the company’s vice president of boys’ toys, “The [toys] trade said, ‘Who do they fight?'” Hasbro’s research with children confirmed that this was a crucial question.
In fact, blasting an action figure 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 tagline, “a real American hero,” the company’s 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.” In this way, Hasbro’s toymakers did a better job of predicting the direction the Cold War was to take than did the CIA or the rest of our government. They had, in a sense, more at stake in being right.
Instead of the Russians or their surrogates, they chose to create a vaguer enemy — and in this, too, they were remarkably predictive. That enemy was a bogeyman called “terrorism” and it took the form of COBRA. (Today you could substitute “al-Qaeda.”) COBRA was an organization of super-bad guys who lived not in Moscow, but in — gasp — Springfield, U.S.A. (Hasbro researchers had discovered that a Springfield existed in every state — except Rhode Island, where the company was located.)
But teams of good and bad guys weren’t enough any more. Children needed context now that all those old landmarks of history had somehow vanished. So a “history” had to be written for these pre-planned figures; what the toy industry would come to call a “backstory.” 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. Now each Joe would carry the story into the home on his back.
In story and style, the Joe’s and their enemies left history behind for some alternate or future Earth and they disported themselves with bulked-up weaponry and a look that befitted not so much “real American heroes” as a set of superheroes or supervillains in any futuristic space epic. Take “enemy leader, COBRA Commander.” Faceless in Darth-Vader style, his head was covered by a hood with eye slits, reminiscent perhaps of the Ku Klux Klan; his body was encased in a torturer’s blue jumpsuit, leather gloves, and boots. He was an enemy uncoupled from history, whose “dossier” included this information: Total control of the world… its people, wealth, and resources – that’s the objective… COBRA commander is hatred and evil personified. Corrupt. A man without scruples. Probably the most dangerous man alive!
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 afternoon animated TV show that put special-effects battles with COBRA constantly within the child’s field of vision. After Joe, all war play on “Earth” would be in the same fantasy mode. Carefully identified teams of good and bad figures, backed by collector’s cards, TV cartoons, movies, video games, books and comics, as well as hosts of licensed products, would offer an over-elaborate frame of instruction in new-style war play. Each set of toys would come with its own context, its own history, its own landmarks set in its own carefully delineated universe.
Joe, part of an extraordinary explosion of entrepreneurial life force in the child’s world, also helped transport “war” into an unearthly commercial space. The enemy, once the most solid and serious of subjects, now became a vague and fragile, if menacing, construct — even, on occasion, a running joke. The COBRA organization, as described by Hasbro’s Bozigian, was, for instance, made up of “accountants, tax attorneys and all other kinds of low lifes that are out to conquer the world.” Everywhere the boundary lines between the good team and the bad team, similarly armed, similarly togged out, similarly muscled up (in the post-Vietnam manner of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and the present Governor of California’s Conan the Barbarian), similarly menacing looking, threatened to collapse into a sameness. For the first time in American history, in this new war-play universe, you did need a scorecard to tell the players apart.
Joe and the Enemy in the Basement: Christmas 2004
By the mid-1990s, hundreds of millions of action figures after his rebirth, the war toy that had outlasted the American war story found itself winded and lagging behind in the increasingly bizarre universe of children’s war play. Finally, those little Star Wars-style figures, Joes and COBRAs alike, simply ran out of steam, and Hasbro stopped producing them. The company retreated to putting out realistic-looking battle figures in the old 12-inch style, mainly for nostalgic grown-up collectors who had played with the giant Joes of the Vietnam era in their own childhoods. (Such a line could still be seen at Toys “R” Us this week, ever updated to include not just a “Marine Squad Leader” but a Joe “Firefighter” to commemorate 9/11.)
Joe, however, really does turn out to be the leading representative of the undead in the toy world. He refuses to stay in his grave. In recent years, little Joe and his COBRA enemies, like any number of 80s toys, have returned to the shelves. Tiny Joes were on display on the second floor of Toys “R” Us this week, a whole wall of them brandishing their weaponry amid the roaring of T-Rex and the screaming chaos of brands from all sorts of recent pasts, none, other than Joe’s, of a faintly earthly variety.
From a plethora of $6.95 two-figure packs, each with a Joe and a Cobra inside, I picked out a pair: The first pitted the Joe Team’s Kamakura, a masked swordsman and “sole heir to the Arashikage ninja secrets” against Destro, a steel-masked, silver headed, pumped up COBRA arms dealer; in the second , the heroic (and busty) counterintelligence agent Scarlett, skilled in the crossbow and enswathed in a tight-fitting green-and-gold exo-body suit faced off against a Sand Scorpion, clothed in a handsome black, grey, and brown exo-skeleton with a venom-spitting, “biomechanical scorpion” ready to be mounted on his back. (He represents, the package said, part of “a fearsome new threat from the evil COBRA organization. Dr. Mindbender has joined the DNA of COBRA fighters with that of the Earth’s most savage creatures, creating hybrid warriors with dangerously superior fighting skills.”) And so it goes on, four decades after Joe was born, except for one small thing. Just beside the alluring promise of a “removable attack DRONE!” on Scarlett’s package is a signal of genuine product vulnerability: Hasbro recommends the toy for “Ages 5+.”
In my childhood, children could still be found playing with toy soldiers right up to the edge of their teenage years. In the half-century since, the window for such toys, like so much else in the child’s life, has narrowed. Such play now has to begin at five, if not earlier, because by nine, if not well before, the video-game screen has captured the child’s game-playing attention and the floor, with its objects to be sorted and arranged according to scenarios still left at least in part to the individual imagination, has lost its interest. As Palavi Gogoi has written in Business Week, the screen takes the child hostage at ever earlier ages: “[T]he choice of games shifts pretty dramatically as soon as the kids turn 6. In youngsters aged 6 to 8, 40% favored playing outdoors, and 30% preferred video games. Playing with toys dropped from 25% for kids under 5 to zero interest after the age of 9.”
This time, Joe and his cohorts have returned, it seems, because it’s too expensive and too difficult to launch new brands to capture a shrinking market. The Joe’s of the toy world are now evidently losing the real war — the product war. “Hasbro’s core brands, which include GI Joe, declined 4.5% in the first three quarters of the year,” writes Gogoi. “Overall sales of toys, video games not included, are down 3% year-to-date, according to NPD Funworld, a consumer-products research firm. Children are increasingly turning to more grown-up kinds of entertainment.” The enemy, it happens, isn’t in Iraq or, for that matter, Springfield, USA. It’s only an escalator ride away, two floors down past screen-implanted walls showing classic toy ads from the 1950s and 1960s (which now radiate a Golden Age aura of nostalgia)… down, down to the basement, around a display of two-foot long, remote-controlled Hummers ($99.99 with — here’s a lovely irony — rechargeable batteries) that offer the promise of “real off-road action” (“not recommended for children under 8 years of age”), and into the beeping, bleating “R” Zone. Here, video games, which are leaping off the store racks this year, seem to reproduce asexually, and a plethora of new product abounds. Onscreen overhead flash ads for John Madden NFL Football and Halo 2, Midnight Madness, a sci-fi first-person shooter game from Microsoft with a cybernetic hero that sold 2.4 million copies on its release day.
Here then, for the Joe’s upstairs and their toy companies, is the enemy. Even as Hasbro promises screen support for its G.I. Joe line (“Valor vs. Venom, The Movie, coming to DVD/UHS this fall”), the screen has stolen a march on war on the floor and captured American children en masse. And it’s down here that, if you squint, it might almost seem like actual history had returned to the child’s life. After all, you can find packaged war games ranging from World War II’s Medal of Honor, Frontline (“Armed to the teeth with 18 authentic World War II weapons… Outgun hundreds of Nazi soldiers”) to a spate of new Vietnam video games including Shellshock: Nam ‘67 (“a smell of napalm in your Xbox”) and Vietcong: Purple Haze in which you “experience the Vietnam conflict as a soldier assigned to lead a squad of U.S. Special Forces running recon missions deep into enemy territory” and are instructed to “utilize any means necessary to control key enemy territory.” You can be even be a Full Spectrum Warrior in a video game “based on a training aid developed for the U.S. Army” and blurbed on the package as “the most intense and shell-shocked war game we’ve ever played.”
Or you can enter the near future, where many of the more “realistic” games tend to take you and become, for example, a member of the elite Delta Force in Shadow Ops: Red Mercury which has a vividly colored mushroom cloud on its cover. “You are Frank Heyden,” reads the description, “an elite operative chasing a weapon of unspeakable destruction. From chaotic Syrian streets to the jungles of the Congo, you must track down and disarm a device known only as red mercury.” At your fingertips are “more than 20 authentic general military and special forces weapons.”
But even here in the jazzy Xbox part of the Zone, in the same row on the rack that holds Vietcong, Purple Haze and Shadow Ops, Red Mercury and so sends you into Vietnamese rice paddies and those Syrian streets armed to the teeth, I notice Raw (a wrestling game), Sonic Heroes (an animated cartoon game), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Silent Hill 4: The Room (horror and monsters), Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus, while above and below are X-Men Legends (mutant superheroes), MX Unleashed (a motorcycle racing game), Sudeki (a fantasy role-playing game), and True Crime, Streets of LA, to name but a few. It’s a vision of “American history” as it now exists in the Zone, no matter which rice paddy or Syrian street you may be in at any moment. It represents a journey into an age of confusion filled with battle galore but with no landmarks at all, presided over by the entertainment conglomerate and the video-game company. No wonder many grown-ups, at least, yearn for a simpler more clear-cut world filled with the recognizable landmarks of an older time.
Landmarks of What?
In my own pre-Joe childhood in the 1950s, I spent endless hours devouring a series of histories for the young that were marketed under the general rubric of The Landmark Books. Much as I loved them, I never gave their series name a moment’s thought. Now it seems to define another age. The books focused on world conquerors, world-altering battles, and figures like Ben Franklin and Wild Bill Hickok, who had, we were assured, made American history a march of freedom across a continent. At that moment of commercial transformation, history was still imagined in America largely as a triumphant processional, a kind of grand tour of a landscape filled with communally agreed-upon “landmarks.”
But by the late 1960s, the landmarks of our past had come into dispute and from then on, a couple of assassinations, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the attacks of 9/11 aside, nobody could agree on the salient features of the second half of the American century — unless, that is, it was to be thought of as the century of consumerism. After all, few would now argue about that century’s landmarks — from Ford’s flivver to Gates’ Microsoft operating system — if thought of solely in commercial terms. In fact, you might say that the history of the ice-less icebox, the horseless carriage, the instant meal, the self-service grocery store, the telephone, television, VCR, and computer is the only history left standing in the new century, the real context for the world of children’s play, the true history that surrounds G.I. Joe’s remarkable four-decade-long saga.
Without that context, those landmarks, writing an American history text that takes you from the 1950s into the 21st century is a daunting task indeed. (The only successful attempt I’ve seen is, fittingly enough, a book called An All-Consuming Century, Why Consumerism Won in Modern America by Gary Cross.) This has driven the right nuts and they have targeted liberals and the left for the damage they feel has been done — hence the culture wars and the history wars — and tried to prescribe as well as proscribe what books should be read or taught, what should be seen or heard. But looking up from the child’s room over the same years, Joe’s years, it’s clear that they are attacking the wrong people and shouting at the deaf.
Both right and left have been deeply disturbed by the way our commercial century, in the form of the screen and the ad in particular, has colonized every previously private or sacred space (home, school, church, the family, the bedroom, the body) and many have focused on the details — the “violence” and mayhem of video games, the sight of Janet Jackson’s pre-prepared nipple or Nicollette Sheridan’s naked back. Neither the right, nor the left has, however, been particularly successful at coming to grips with the way consumerism has spent an American Century’s worth of time breaking all boundaries of time, space, and desire.
If today you really wrote a landmark history of the last century, the conquerors would seize our time, communities, purses and emotional valences; the great battles would be for market share and property rights globally; the freedom-givers would offer that most modern of freedoms, the right to choose among many channels, catalogs, brands, and the shifting identities that go with them. Of course, the landmarks of the year 2004 aren’t to be found in any book, but in the swooshes on our sneakers, the apples on our computers, the Mickey Mouses on our T-shirts, the golden arches that soar over our heads, and that “real American hero” on the child’s floor. So ignore media arguments about what books should be read and what history should be taught and take a good long look from that floor to the screen in your house.
Out here, in the cyber-marketplace, all history has been superseded by a new kind of story-telling. On that child’s floor and on the various screens of childhood are a set of “stories” for straight shooters, largely barren of historical context, reflecting mainly the stripped-down global-selling environment from which they arise; so insular (yet all-encompassing and well-armed) are they as to be both conquering heroes and nothing at all.
G.I. Joe as President
In our politics, it would perhaps not be too strange to say that G.I. Joe in his original incarnation has, at least for the moment, won. We have a “real American hero” for President, though what exactly he ever did that was heroic no one can quite say. In his appearances before the troops, togged out in specially prepared military outfits, whether struting across the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (“Mission Accomplished”), dropping in on Baghdad International Airport for Thanksgiving, or more recently visiting the Marines at Camp Pendleton, he’s had the eerily familiar look of a well-known fashion doll, a “hero” with a distinctly hidden history. He represents, and plays upon, a nostalgic yearning for that landmark-filled world that the first Joe almost missed, a world in which things did indeed seem more solid, less market-driven, and somehow clearer (at least to the young); and in that spirit and that language he’s sent off young Americans on a fool’s task in Iraq, boys and girls who grew up on a history-less diet of “stories” filled with teams of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Our troops in Iraq represent the first video-game generation, kids who spent their teen years ramping up their weaponry in outer space as on Earth. Perhaps then it’s not surprising that, trapped in Iraq, they now speak of the enemy familiarly as “the bad guys.”
But as any video-game “Zone” will tell you, as Joe’s own history indicates, that old world of “landmarks” is long gone — and that would have been so even if the invasion of Iraq had been a success, even if Syria and Iran had fallen like ten pins, even if the world’s oil supplies were secured for us for generations to come. What the culture wars and the history wars and all the rest of the angry buzz hardly touch, what George Bush has no way of saying, is that, for decades, our world has been continually dismantled and restructured in a way that spells a kind of defeat. Like Joe in the Vietnam years, our President has a hold on our nation, but you can’t spend two hours in a toy palace and not think that he won’t, in the end, go the way of the giant Joe.
The automatic revolving door, spinning ever so slowly, disgorges me from that temple of toydom, my two sets of G.I. Joe figures in hand, and back onto bustling Broadway. Far overhead is a darkening winter sky above a street that, as it has been for more than a century, is ablaze with advertising light. Across the way, the Army recruitment office is closed but its screen is still playing dazzling mega-ads 24/7. I stand a minute in the nippy evening air and watch as begoggled soldiers in all-white outfits and skis zip across the screen, not wearing exoskeletons perhaps — not yet anyway — but hardly less exotic-looking than Storm Shadow or so many other COBRAS and Joe’s; just as, in this very neighborhood, you can often catch sight of the New York Police Department’s heavily-armed HERCULES teams, specially stationed at “landmarks” and tourist attractions, togged out in full tactical gear, including the sort of dark helmets and heavy body armor that might leave them at home anywhere in outer space or possibly as the bad guys in some near-future shadow-op scenario.
The military and our increasingly militarized police look ever more like something out of an off-Earth video game or a comic book. They and the toy and video-game companies grow ever closer. (The Army is reportedly even patterning a new, fast-loading assault rifle on Hasbro’s popular Super Soaker Water Gun.) Perhaps it’s not that history, in the form of the military, is returning to the child’s world, but that the exotic look first developed in that world is about to seize history by the throat with mayhem in mind.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, which deals with, among many other subjects, G.I. Joe, American war play, and Cold War culture and from which some of the above material was taken.
Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt