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War Toys and the National Character


Children like to see things shot up, blown up, dismembered, distempered and digested, mayhem being their genes’ fresher remembrance of things Paleolithic than any more recent babble-tattle on sharing, caring and hugging. So every Christmas, while peace on Earth streaks its seasonal sleigh ride across the sky–hopefully beyond the range of snipers and Stinger missiles–toy manufacturers in their caves of Isengard down below unleash the latest arsenals of make-believe weaponry. Right-thinking parents and left-leaning psychologists get up in arms over the supposed abuse of innocence. Manufacturers and their retailers circle the toy tanks and plead sainthood, because they’re only providing what the infallible marketplace demands.

Meanwhile grown-ups in charge of real armies go on their unchallenged ways, devouring a third of the federal budget to feed a superhero war machine more lethal than anything Gengis Khan could ever dream of, more disproportionate with existing dangers than any imbalance of power in history. Taxpayers right and left barely bat an eye at that lunacy, as if a single laser-guided missile that costs more than a year’s worth of child care subsidies for an entire state were a perfectly reasonable way to project American values, but a $44.99 toy kit of a bombed out house will spell the end of American innocence. The toy manufacturers, it seems to me, have it right. They’re preparing the kids for the flag-waving world of their fathers. Their bombed out houses, their ATV-like ridable tanks, their “GI Joe Long Range Army Sniper” are character education at its best, because it is in line with the national character. Military power is America’s defining identity.

It’s nice to pretend otherwise, at least during the holidays. So this year’s righteous fury is over that $50 “Forward Command Post” manufactured by Ever Sparkle Industrial Toys, a company whose ear for irony is perfectly in tune with its ability to make a killing. The toy is generating super-sales and super-controversies in equal measure. Commentators incensed by “Forward Command Post”‘s realistic recreation of Beirut-haus architecture have invariably compared the thing to “a Barbie Dream House after a mortar attack.” I’ve never seen a Barbie’s dream house that couldn’t use a good bombing, so the comparison is more to the toy’s credit than not. Where the commentators may have a point is in the collaterals of the kit–the sniper-nest mingling with the dining room table, where grenades have replaced the salt and pepper shakers, the mysterious green barrels and the not-so-mysterious ammo boxes that have shoved out the kitchen’s less explosive appliances, and, topping it off, Mr. GI Joe himself, as confident as his conquering self has ever been, standing proudly in the remains of what once was a child’s bedroom. A bazooka (the shoulder-ready rocket-launcher, not the bubble-gum) juts from between the soldier’s legs.

The assumption is that Joe has taken over. He’s in charge now, so everything–raping, pillaging and fresh-squeezed deaths aside–should be OK. For ages 5 and up. A friend sent me the war-torn pages out of the JC Penney catalogue that advertises them so colorfully. I admit that at first I was as incensed as the earnest Yale psychologist National Precious Radio trotted out a couple of Saturdays ago to bomb the toy with her own piccolo-voiced outrage, although I had an even bigger problem with the picture of the 5-year-old kid astraddle a maneuverable tank (“Two 6V batteries for plenty of armored’ power,” the caption says), not only because it brings back frightful memories of Michael Dukakis, but because of a suggestion as unsubtly phallic as it was violent. There’s also the bazooka and walkie talkie set, the “World peacekeepers battle station” where peace’s pieces add up to two M-16’s, two machine guns, a mortar tube, artillery, grenades and sandbags, for ages 3 and up. And, of course, that “JCPenney exclusive,” the “GI Joe MP Figure,” presumably to keep any other GI from coming to his senses and running away from so much “good-old American know-how at insanity,” as Hawkeye once described a Sherman tank in M*A*S*H.

Insane, but besides the point, and on the whole no more damaging to a child’s sense of values than Barbie’s First Prostitution Kit, as the bimbo’s boas and fetish-spiked heels can only be described, or Ken’s very own pimpmobile, without which–who knows–America’s other identity, the sex-obsessed one, might have gone flaccid. Rousseau’s wussy ideals aside, childhood has always been as much Hobbes as Barney, as much “Lord of the Flies” as “Circle of Love.” It is up to adults to civilize, to free the humane impulse from the caveman mentality or its slut-and-jock progeny.

Schools have tried emasculating childhood of its natural-born barbarism with speech codes, behavior codes and more self-esteem narcotics than the Drug Enforcement Agency could ever catalogue. But codes do nothing when grown-up examples don’t follow. So it is with violent toys. The problem isn’t the toys themselves, or even their popularity, but the empty sanctimony behind a campaign to discredit those toys while the toys’ inspiration–the Pentagon’s monstrous appetite for state-of-the-art killware, the White House’s warmongering junta of he-men–are worshipped as blindly cultish deities. They’re the real action figures, the real toys to worry about, because they’ve not outgrown the caveman mentality, they’re every child’s example, and they’re in charge. Compared to them, I’ll take “Forward Command Post” any day. At $50, it’s probably cheaper than a Pentagon paper clip. And unlike its real-life likeness, its plastic figurines couldn’t hurt a fly.

PIERRE TRISTAM is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at


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