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    Teenagers in Space (The Secret History of G.I. Joe, Part 2)

    How warfare reentered
    childhood 

    [The following excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s book The End of Victory Culture is posted with permission from the University of
    Massachusetts Press
    . Part 1, “The Secret History of G.I. Joe (Part 1),” can be found
    by clicking here.
    This essay originally appeared at Tom
    Dispatch
    .
    ]

    1. “Hey, How Come They Got All
    the Fun?”

    Now that Darth
    Vader’s breathy techno-voice is a staple of our culture, it’s hard to remember
    how empty was the particular sector of space Star
    Wars
    blasted into. The very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed
    in 1973, Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an
    admission of the obvious: war, American-style, had lost its hold on young
    minds. As an activity, it was now to be officially turned over to the poor and
    nonwhite.

    Those in a
    position to produce movies, TV shows, comics, novels, or memoirs about Vietnam were
    convinced that Americans felt badly enough without such reminders. It was
    simpler to consider the war film and war toy casualties of Vietnam than to
    create cultural products with the wrong heroes, victims, and villains. In Star Wars, Lucas successfully
    challenged this view, decontaminating war of its recent history through a
    series of inspired cinematic decisions that rescued crucial material from the
    wreckage of Vietnam.

    To start with,
    he embraced the storylessness of the period, creating his own self-enclosed
    universe in deepest space and in an amorphous movie past, “a long time ago in a
    galaxy far, far away.” Beginning with “Episode IV” of a projected nonology, he
    offered only the flimsiest of historical frameworks — an era of civil war, an
    evil empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, a struggle for freedom.

    Mobilizing a
    new world of special effects and computer graphics, he then made the high-tech
    weaponry of the recent war exotic, bloodless, and sleekly unrecognizable. At
    the same time, he uncoupled the audience from a legacy of massacre and
    atrocity. The blond, young Luke Skywalker is barely introduced before his
    adoptive family — high-tech peasants on an obscure planet — suffers its own My Lai. Imperial storm troopers led by Darth Vader
    descend upon their homestead and turn it into a smoking ruin (thus returning
    fire to its rightful owners). Luke — and the audience — can now set off on an
    anti-imperial venture as the victimized, not as victimizers. Others in space
    will torture, maim, and destroy. Others will put “us” in high-tech tiger cages;
    and our revenge, whatever it may be, will be justified.

    In this way, Star Wars
    denied the enemy a role “they” had monopolized for a decade — that of brave
    rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How
    come they got all the fun?”
    And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s bog them down and
    be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”

    Like Green
    Berets or Peace Corps members, Lucas’s white teenage rebels would glide
    effortlessly among the natives. They would learn from value-superior Third
    World mystics like the Ho-Chi-Minh-ish Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and be protected by ecological
    fuzzballs like the Ewoks in Return of the
    Jedi
    . In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning
    history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom and victory, captivity and rescue, underdog status and the spectacle of slaughter. As with
    the Indian fighter of old, advanced weaponry and
    the spiritual powers of the guerrilla might be ours.

    Left to the
    enemy would be a Nazi-like capacity for destroying life, a desire to perform search-and-destroy
    missions on the universe, and the breathy machine voice of Darth Vader (as if
    evil were a dirty phone call from the Darkside). The Tao of the Chinese, the
    “life force” of Yaqui mystic Don Juan, even the political will of the
    Vietnamese would rally to “our” side as the Force and be applied to a crucial
    technical problem; for having the Force “with you” meant learning to merge with
    your high-tech weaponry in such a way as to assure the enemy’s destruction.
    Looked at today, the last part of Star
    Wars
    concentrates on a problem that might have been invented after,
    not 14 years before, the 1991 Persian Gulf War: how to fly a computerized,
    one-man jet fighter down a narrow corridor under heavy antiaircraft fire and
    drop a missile into an impossibly small air shaft, the sole vulnerable spot in
    the Emperor’s Death Star.

    Here, Lucas
    even appropriated the kamikaze-like fusion of human and machine. In Vietnam, there
    had been two such man-machine meldings. The first, the bombing campaign, had
    the machinelike impersonality of the production line. Lifting off from distant
    spots of relative comfort like Guam, B-52
    crews delivered their bombs to coordinates stripped of place or people and left
    the war zone for another day. The crew member symbolically regained humanity
    only when the enemy’s technology stripped him of his machinery — and, alone,
    he fluttered to earth and captivity.

    At the same
    time, from Secretary of Defense McNamara’s “electronic battlefield” to the
    first “smart bombs,” Vietnam
    proved an experimental testing ground for machine-guided war. Unlike the B-52
    or napalm, the smart bomb, the computer, the electronic sensor, and the video
    camera were not discredited by the war; and it was these machines of wonder
    that Lucas rescued through the innocence of special effects.

    In James Bond
    films, high-tech had been a display category like fine wines, and
    techno-weaponry just another consumer item for 007. For Lucas, however,
    technology in the right hands actually solved problems, offering — whether as
    laser sword or X-wing fighter — not status but potential spiritualization.
    This elevation of technology made possible the return of slaughter to the
    screen as a triumphal and cleansing pleasure (especially since dying “imperial
    storm troopers,” encased in full body carapaces, looked like so many bugs).

    The World as a Star Wars Theme Park

    Not only would
    George Lucas put “war” back into a movie title, he would almost single-handedly
    reconstitute war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe’s demise,
    the world of child-sized war play stood empty. The toy soldier had long ago
    moved into history, an object for adult collectors. However, some months before
    Star Wars opened, Fox reached
    an agreement with Kenner Products, a toy company, to create action figures and
    fantasy vehicles geared to the movie. Kenner
    president Bernard Loomis decided that these would be inexpensive, new-style
    figures, only 3 ¾-inch high. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.

    Since Kenner could not produce
    the figures quickly enough for the 1977 Christmas season, Loomis offered an
    “Early Bird Certificate Package” — essentially an empty box — that promised
    the child the first four figures when produced. The result was toy history. In
    1978, Kenner
    sold over 26 million figures; by 1985, 250 million. All 111 figures and other Star Wars paraphernalia, ranging from
    lunch boxes and watches to video games, would ring up $2.5 billion in sales.

    By the early
    1980s, children’s TV had become a Star
    Wars-
    like battle zone. Outnumbered rebels daily transformed
    themselves from teenagers into mighty robots “loved by good, feared by evil” (Voltron) or “heroic teams of armed
    machines” (M.A.S.K.) in order
    to fight Lotar and his evil, blue-faced father from Planet Doom (Voltron), General Spidrax, master of
    the Dark Domain’s mighty armies (Sectaurs),
    or the evil red-eyed Darkseid of the Planet Apokolips (Superfriends).

    Future war would be a machine-versus-machine affair, a
    bloodless matter of special effects, in the revamped war story designed for
    childhood consumption. In popular cartoons like Transformers, where good “Autobots” fought evil
    “Decepticons,” Japanese-animated machines transformed themselves from mundane
    vehicles into futuristic weapons systems. At the same time, proliferating teams
    of action figures, Star Wars-size
    and linked to such shows, were transported into millions of homes where
    new-style war scenarios could be played out.

    In those years,
    Star Wars-like themes also
    began to penetrate the world of adult entertainment. Starting in 1983 with the
    surprise movie hit Uncommon Valor,
    right-wing revenge fantasies like Missing-in-Action
    (1984) returned American guerrillas to “Vietnam” to rescue captive pilots
    from jungle prisons and bog Communists down here on Earth. In a subset of these
    Red Dawn (1984) and the TV
    miniseries Amerika (1987) are
    prime examples — the action took place in a future, conquered United States
    where home-grown guerrillas fought to liberate the country from Soviet imperial
    occupation. Meanwhile, melds of technology and humanity ranging from Robocop to
    Arnold Schwarzenegger began to proliferate on adult screens. In 1985-1986, two
    major hits featured man-as-machine fusions. As Rambo, Sylvester Stallone was a
    “pure fighting machine,” with muscles and weaponry to prove it; while in Top Gun, Tom Cruise played a “maverick”
    on a motorcycle who was transformed from hot dog to top dog by fusing with his
    navy jet as he soared to victory over the evil empire’s aggressor machines,
    Libyan MIGs.

    War Games in the Adult World

    It took some
    time for political leaders to catch up with George Lucas’s battle scenarios. In
    the years when he was producing Star Wars, America’s post-Vietnam presidents
    were having a woeful time organizing any narrative at all. In the real world,
    there seemed to be no Lucas-like outer space into which to escape the
    deconstruction job Vietnam
    had done to the war story. The military was in shambles; the public, according
    to pollsters, had become resistant to American troops being sent into battle
    anywhere; and past enemies were now negotiating partners in a new “détente.”

    Gerald Ford,
    inheriting a collapsed presidency from Richard Nixon, attempted only once to
    display American military resolve. In May 1975, a month after Saigon fell,
    Cambodian Khmer Rouge rebels captured an American merchant ship, the Mayaguez.
    Ford ordered the bombing of the Cambodian port city of Kampong Son and sent in the Marines. They
    promptly stormed an island on which the Mayaguez crew
    was not being held, hours after ship and crew had been released, and fought a
    pointless, bitter battle, suffering 41 dead. The event seemed to mock American
    prowess, confirming that rescue, like victory, had slipped from its grasp.

    Jimmy Carter,
    elected president in 1976, had an even more woeful time of it. Facing what he
    termed a Vietnam-induced “national malaise,” he proposed briefly that Americans
    engage in “the moral equivalent of war” by mobilizing and sacrificing on the
    home front to achieve energy independence from the OPEC oil cartel. The public,
    deep in a peacetime recession, responded without enthusiasm.

    In 1979, in a
    defining moment of his presidency, Carter watched helplessly as young Islamic
    followers of the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini took 52 Americans captive in the U.S. embassy in
    Teheran and held them for 444 days. In April 1980, “Desert One,” a military
    raid the president ordered to rescue the captives, failed dismally in the
    Iranian desert, and the president was forced to live out his term against a
    televised backdrop of unending captivity and humiliation that seemed to
    highlight American impotence.

    Only with the
    presidency of Ronald Reagan did a Lucas-like reconstitution of the war story
    truly begin at the governmental level. The new president defined the Soviet
    Union in Star Wars-like terms
    as an “evil empire,” while the Army began advertising for recruits on TV by
    displaying spacy weaponry and extolling the pleasures of being “out there” in
    search of “the bad guys.” In Nicaragua,
    Angola, Afghanistan,
    and elsewhere, the Reagan administration managed to portray the forces it
    supported as outnumbered “freedom fighters” struggling to roll back an overwhelming
    tide of imperial evil. This time, we would do the hitting and running, and yet
    we — or our surrogates — would retain the high-tech weaponry: mines for their
    harbors and Stinger missiles for their helicopters.

    Meanwhile,
    planners discovered in an intervention in Grenada that, with the right media
    controls in place and speed, you could produce the equivalent of an outer space
    war fantasy here on Earth. No wonder that a group of junior officers at the
    Army Command and General Staff College at Fort
    Leavenworth responsible for aspects of
    the ground campaign used against Iraq in 1991 would be nicknamed the
    Jedi Knights.

    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, U.S.A. (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
    TomDispatch.com. 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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    Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and
    Cyberwarfare
    .

    Copyright 2013
    Tom Engelhardt and the University
    of Massachusetts Press

    Image by Happy Batatinha,
    licensed under Creative Commons

    Published on Aug 15, 2013

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