G.I. Joe, Post-American Hero

The Long, Slow Death of American Triumphalism

| Online Exclusive August 2009

  • Action Figure

  • Action Figure

Originally published by TomDispatch.

In my childhood, I played endlessly with toy soldiers—a crew of cowboys and bluecoats to defeat the Indians and win the West; a bag or two of tiny olive-green plastic Marines to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima. Alternately, I grabbed my toy six-guns, or simply picked up a suitable stick in the park, and with friends replayed scenes from the movies of World War II, my father's war. It was second nature to do so. No instruction was necessary. After all, a script involving a heady version of American triumphalism was already firmly in place not just in popular culture, but in the ether, as it had been long before my grandfather made it to this land in steerage in the 1890s.

My sunny fantasies of war play were intimately connected to the wars Americans had actually fought by an elaborate mythology of American goodness and ultimate victory. If my father tended to be silent about the war he had taken part in, it made no difference. I already knew what he had done. I had seen it at the movies, in comic books, and sooner or later in shows like Victory at Sea on that new entertainment medium, television.

And when, in the 1960s, countless demonstrators from my generation went into opposition to a brutal American war in Vietnam, they did so still garbed in cast-off "Good War" paraphernalia—secondhand Army jackets and bombardier coats—or they formed themselves into "tribes" and turned goodness and victory over to the former enemies in their childhood war stories. They transformed the V for Victory into a peace sign and made themselves into beings recognizable from thousands of westerns. They wore the Pancho Villa mustache, sombrero, and serape, or the Native American headband and moccasins. They painted their faces and grew long hair in the manner of the formerly "savage" foe, and smoked the peace (now, hash) pipe.

American mytho-history, even when turned upside down, was deeply embedded in their lives. How could they have known that they would be its undertakers, that their six-shooters would become eBayable relics?

You can bet on one thing today: in those streets, fields, parks, or rooms, children in significant numbers are not playing G.I. versus Sunni insurgent, or Special Op soldier versus Taliban fighter; and if those kids are wielding toy guns, they're not replicas from the current arsenal, but flashingly neon weaponry from some fantasy future.

As it happens, G.I. Joe—then dubbed a "real American hero"—proved to be my introduction to this new world of child's war play. I had, of course, grown up years too early for the original G.I. Joe (b. 1964), but one spring in the mid-1980s, during his second heyday, I paid a journalistic visit to the Toy Fair, a yearly industry bash for toy-store buyers held in New York City.

Hasbro, which produced the popular G.I. Joe action figures, was one of the Big Two in the toy business. Mattel, the maker of Joe's original inspiration and big sister, Barbie, was the other. Hasbro had its own building and, on arriving, I soon found myself being led by a company minder through a labyrinthine exhibit hall in the deeply gender segregated world of toys. Featured were blond models dressed in white holding baby dolls and fashion dolls of every imaginable sort, set against an environment done up in nothing but pink and robin's egg blue.

Here, the hum of the world seemed to lower to a selling hush, a baby-doll whisper, but somewhere off in the distance, you could faintly hear the high-pitched whistle of an incoming mortar round amid brief bursts of machine-gun fire. And then, suddenly, you stepped across a threshold and out of a world of pastels into a kingdom of darkness, of netting and camouflage, of blasting music and a soundtrack of destruction, as well-muscled male models in camo performed battle routines while displaying the upcoming line of little G.I. Joe action figures or their evil Cobra counterparts.

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