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The Secret History of G.I. Joe

Credit: Wiki Commons.

Originally posted in two parts on TomDispatch.com

1. The First Coming of G.I. Joe

It was 1964, and in Vietnam thousands of American “advisers” were already offering up their know-how from helicopter seats or gun sights. The United States was just a year short of sending its first large contingent of ground troops there, adolescents who would enter the battle zone dreaming of John Wayne and thinking of enemy-controlled territory as “Indian country.” Meanwhile, in that inaugural year of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a new generation of children began to experience the American war story via the most popular toy warrior ever created.

His name, G.I. -- for “Government Issue” -- Joe was redolent of America’s last victorious war and utterly generic. There was no specific figure named Joe, nor did any of the “Joes” have names. “He” came in four types, one for each service, including the Marines. Yet every Joe was, in essence, the same. Since he was a toy of the Great Society with its dreams of inclusion, it only took a year for his manufacturer, Hasbro, to produce a “Negro Joe,” and two more to add a she-Joe (a nurse, naturally). Joe initially came with no story, no instructions, and no enemy, because it had not yet occurred to adults (or toy makers) not to trust the child to choose the right enemy to pit against Joe.

In TV ads of the time, 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 Halls of Montezuma”), “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, Fighting man from head to toe on the land, on the sea, in the air.” He was “authentic” with his “ten-inch bazooka that really works,” his “beachhead flame thrower,” and his “authentically detailed replica” of a U.S. Army Jeep with its own “tripod mounted recoilless rifle” and four “rocket projectiles.”

He could take any beach or landing site in style, dressed in “the real thing,” ranging from an “Ike” jacket with red scarf to a “beachhead assault fatigue shirt,” pants, and field pack. He could chow down with his own mess kit, or bed down in his own “bivouac-pup tent set.” And he was a toy giant, too, nearly a foot tall. From the telltale pink scar on his cheek to the testosterone rush of fierce-faced ad boys shouting, “G.I. Joe, take the hill!” he seemed the picture of a manly fighting toy.

Yet Joe, like much else in his era, was hardly what he seemed. Launched the year Lyndon Johnson ran for president as a peace candidate against Barry Goldwater while his administration was secretly planning the large-scale bombing of North Vietnam, Joe, too, was involved in a cover-up. For if Joe was a behemoth of a toy soldier, he was also, though the word was unmentionable, a doll. War play Joe-style was, in fact, largely patterned on and due to a “girl” -- Mattel’s Barbie.

The Secret History of Joe

Barbie had arrived on the toy scene in 1958 with a hard expression on her face and her nippleless breasts outthrust, a reminder that she, too, had a secret past. She was a breakthrough, the first “teenage” doll with a “teenage” figure. However, her creator, Ruth Handler, had modeled her not on a teenager but on a German tabloid comic strip “playgirl” named Lili, who, in doll form, was sold not to children but to men “in tobacconists and bars… as an adult male’s pet.” As Joe was later to hit the beaches, so Barbie took the fashion salons, malt shops, boudoirs, and bedrooms, fully accessorized, and with the same undercurrent of exaggeration. (The bigger the breasts, after all, the better to hang that Barbie Wedding Gown on.)

Joe was the brainstorm of a toy developer named Stanley Weston, who was convinced that boys secretly played with Barbie and deserved their own doll. Having loved toy soldiers as a child, he chose a military theme as the most acceptable for a boy’s doll and took his idea to Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro), a toy company then best known for producing Mr. Potato Head.

In those days, everyone in the toy business knew that toy soldiers were three-inch-high, immobile, plastic or lead figures, and the initial response to Joe ranged from doubt to scorn to laughter; but Merrill Hassenfeld, one of the two brothers running the company, called on an old friend, Major General Leonard Holland, head of the Rhode Island National Guard, who offered access to weaponry, uniforms, and gear in order to design a thoroughly accurate military figure. Joe was also given a special “grip,” an opposable thumb and forefinger, all the better to grasp those realistic machine guns and bazookas, and he was built with 21 movable parts so that boys could finally put war into motion.

Hassenfeld Brothers confounded the givens of the toy business by selling $16.9 million worth of Joes and equipment in Joe’s first year on the market, and after that things only got better. In this way was 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 tent down with, anyway. But none of this could be said. It was taboo at Hasbro to call Joe a doll. Instead, the company dubbed him a “poseable action figure for boys,” and the name “action figure” stuck to every war-fighting toy to follow. So Barbie and Joe, hard breasts and soft bullets, the exaggerated bombshell and the touchy-feely scar-faced warrior, came to represent the shaky gender stories of America at decade’s end, where a secret history of events was slowly sinking to the level of childhood.

For a while, all remained as it seemed. But Joe underwent a slow transformation that Barbie largely escaped (though in the early 1970s, facing the new feminism, her sales did decline). As the Vietnam years wore on, Joe became less and less a soldier. Protest was in the air. As early as 1966, a group of mothers dressed in Mary Poppins outfits picketed the toy industry’s yearly trade convention in New York, their umbrellas displaying the slogan, “Toy Fair or Warfare?” Indeed, Sears dropped all military toys from its catalog. According to Tomart’s Guide to Action Figure Collectibles, “In the late ‘60s… [f]earing a possible boycott of their ‘war-oriented toy,’ Hasbro changed Joe’s facial appearance and wardrobe. Flocked hair and a beard were added to the figures. Hasbro liquidated strictly military-looking pieces in special sets, and by 1970 the G.I. Joe Adventure Team was created.”

Now, Joe was teamed with his first real enemies, but they weren’t human. There was the tiger of the “White Tiger Hunt,” the “hammerhead stingray” of “Devil of the Deep,” the mummy of “Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb,” and the “black shark” of “Revenge of the Spy Shark,” as well as assorted polar bears, octopi, vultures, and a host of natural enemies in toy sets like “Sandstorm Survival.” For the first time, in those years of 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” or “The Capture of the Pygmy Gorilla.” Not only was Joe now an adventurer, but his adventure was being crudely outlined on the packaging that accompanied him; and few of these new adventures bore any relationship to the war story into which he had been born.

This hipper, new Joe was, if not exactly gaining a personality, then undergoing a personalizing process. He no longer appeared so military with his new hairstyles and his “A” (for adventure) insignia, which, as Katharine Whittemore has pointed out, “looked just a bit like a peace sign.” In fact, he was beginning to look suspiciously like the opposition, fading as a warrior just as he was becoming a less generic doll. By 1974, he had even gained a bit of an oriental touch with a new “kung-fu grip.” In 1976, under the pressure of the increased cost of plastic, 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.

Stripping War Out of the Child’s World

In this he was typical of the rest of the war story in child culture in those years. It was as if Vietnamese sappers had reached into the American homeland and blasted the war story free of its ritualistic content, as if the “Indians” of that moment had sent the cavalry into flight and unsettled the West. So many years of Vietnamese resistance had transformed the pleasures of war-play culture into atrocities, embarrassments to look at. By the 1970s, America’s cultural products seemed intent either on critiquing their own mechanics and myths or on staking out ever newer frontiers of defensiveness.

Take Sgt. Rock, that heroic World War II noncom of DC Comics’ Our Army at War series. Each issue of his adventures now sported a new seal that proclaimed, “make WAR no more,” while his resolutely World War II-bound adventures were being undermined by a new enemy-like consciousness. The cover of a June 1971 issue, for instance, showed the intrepid but shaken sergeant stuttering “B-but they were civilians!” and pointing at the bodies of five men, none in uniform, who seemed to have been lined up against a wall and executed. Next to him, a GI, his submachine gun still smoking, exclaims, “I stopped the enemy, Rock! None of ‘em got away!”

Inside, an episode, “Headcount,” told the “underside” of the story of one Johnny Doe, a posthumously decorated private, who shoots first and asks later. “Hold it, Johnny!” yells Rock as Private Doe is about to do in a whole room of French hostages with their Nazi captors, claiming they’re all phonies, “if you’re wrong… we’re no better’n the nazi butchers we’re fightin’ against!” Of Doe, killed by Rock before he can murder the hostages, the story asked a final question that in 1971 would have been familiar to Americans of any age: “Was Johnny Doe a murderer -- or a hero? That’s one question each of you will have to decide for yourselves!”

Two months later, in the August issue of Our Army at War, a reader could enter the mind of Tatsuno Sakigawa in “Kamikaze.” Sakigawa, about to plunge his plane into the USS Stevens, recalls “when his mother held him close and warm! He remembered the fishing junk on which they lived… the pungent smell of sea and wind… he was at another place… in a happier time.” As his plane is hit by antiaircraft fire and explodes, you see his agonized face. “FATHER… MOTHER … WHERE ARE YOU?” he screams.

The scene cuts briefly to his parents on their burning junk (“H-help us… my son… help…”), and then to a final image of “the flames rising from Japan’s burning cities! Houses of wood and paper… his own home.” Tatsuno Sakigawa, the episode concludes, “died for the emperor… for country… for honor! But mostly… to avenge the death of his parents! The destruction of his home! The loss of his own life!” At page bottom, below DC's pacifist seal of approval, was a “historical note: 250,000 Japanese died in the fire raids… 80,000 died in the Hiroshima A-bombing.”

Even in that most guarded of sanctuaries, the school textbook, the American story began to disassemble. First in its interstices, and then in its place emerged a series of previously hidden stories. In the late 1960s, textbooks rediscovered “the poor,” a group in absentia since the 1930s. By the early 1970s, the black story, the story of women, the Chicano story, the Native American story -- all those previously “invisible” narratives -- were emerging from under the monolithic story of America that had previously been imposed on a nation of children. Similarly, at the college level, histories of the non-European world emerged from under the monolithic “world” story that had once taken the student from Egypt to twentieth-century America via Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, and the Renaissance.

These new “celebratory” tales of the travails and triumphs of various “minorities” arose mainly as implicit critiques of the One American Story that had preceded them or as self-encapsulated and largely self-referential ministories like that new TV form, the miniseries. In either case, they proved linkable to no larger narrative, though in the 1980s they would all be gathered up willy-nilly under the umbrella of “multi-culturalism.”

Being celebratory, they needed no actual enemy, but implicitly the enemy was the very story that had until recently made them invisible. They were something like interest groups competing for a limited amount of just emptied space. The national story, which was supposed to be inclusive enough to gather in all those “huddled masses,” which had only a few years earlier allowed textbook writers to craft sentences like, “We are too little astonished at the unprecedented virtuous-ness of U.S. foreign policy, and at its good sense,” had now been cracked open.

By the time Saigon fell in 1975, children like adults existed in a remarkably story-less realm. The very word war had been stripped out of children’s culture and childhood transformed into something like an un-American event. The subterranean haunted and haunting quality of children in the 1950s had risen to the surface. The young were now openly threatening adults. Some were challenging American power with evidence of the destruction of minority children at home or out there (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”), while others, whether as political radicals, part of the counterculture, or GIs in Vietnam, seemed in the process of defecting to the Eastern enemy.

Yet, paradoxically, that victorious enemy was nowhere in sight -- not in the movies, not on TV (despite the image of Vietnam as a television war), not even in the press. Where the Vietnamese should have been, there was instead an absence. Because it was impossible to “see” who had defeated the United States and hence why Americans had lost, it was impossible to grasp what had been lost. So American victimhood, American loss -- including the loss of childhood’s cultural forms -- became a subject in itself, the only subject, you might say, while the invisibility of the foe who had taken the story away lent that loss a particular aura of unfairness.

So, in a final, strange reversal in that era of reversals, American postwar “reconstruction” would begin not in Vietnam, the land in ruins, which should have been but was not the defeated country, but at home in a land almost untouched by war, which should have been but was not the victor; and the rebuilding would focus not on some devastated physical environment but on the national psyche. In this postwar passage from John Wayne to Sylvester Stallone, from Pax Americana to Pecs Americana, this attempt to rebuild a furloughed American narrative of triumph, children were to play a special role.

2. Empty Space

On the evening of May 25, 1977, a dazed 32-year-old movie director, with one success to his name, was finishing a Herculean two weeks “mixing” his latest film for European audiences. Breaking for dinner, he and his wife headed for Hamburger Hamlet, a restaurant across the street from Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, only to run into heavy traffic and sizable crowds. Coming around a corner, he spied the title of his new film in giant letters on the theater marquee. It was opening day. “I said, ‘I don’t believe this,’” he recalled. “So we sat in Hamburger Hamlet and watched the giant crowd out there, and then I went back and mixed all night… I felt it was some kind of aberration.”

Director George Lucas had already celebrated his teenage years in American Graffiti (“Where were you in ‘62?”), the surprise hit of 1973, which sparked a wave of nostalgia for the years before Vietnam and inspired the TV series Happy Days (1974). As a moviemaker, however, he had had a desire to reach even deeper into his California boyhood, to return to those moments when he had acted out World War II scenarios with toy soldiers, or watched old Flash Gordon serials, cowboy and war films on television.

Like movie audiences (as box office receipts of the time indicated), he wanted to reverse the cinematic cannibalism of the 1960s. In this, he stood apart from directors as disparate as Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Mel Brooks, and his own mentor Francis Ford Coppola, who for years had been dismantling space and horse operas, war and detective films; in fact, all familiar on-screen space.

“There’s a whole generation,” he would later say, “growing up without any kind of fairy tales.” Although he undoubtedly identified with the countercultural politics of the time, his was a conservative vision. Instinctively, he wanted to still the mocking voices and return the movie audience not just to his own childhood but to a childlike viewing state.

Throughout the early 1970s, he struggled to construct a script that would rebuild the missing war story in outer space. The heavens had been empty since, at the end of the 1960s, Stanley Kubrick blasted an American astronaut into a fetal state in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Planet of the Apes took its astronauts on a mocking journey to a post-nuclear Earth where humans were not the dominant species; and the USS Enterprise of TV’s Star Trek left the “final frontier” to be mothballed.

In 1975, Lucas signed on with Twentieth Century Fox to produce a space film that (he reassured his wife) “ten-year-old boys would love.” To make it, he had his costume designer study books on World War II uniforms and Japanese armor, while he turned to films ranging from Frank Capra’s Battle of Britain (1943) to The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) to construct dogfights in space. In casting, he avoided white ethnics like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, who had played on-screen rebels for years, in favor of unknown WASP-y actors who might bring to mind the one-dimensional whiteness of his movie past.

Summoning up enemies from his screen childhood, he patterned his evil emperor on Ming, ruler of Mongo in Flash Gordon (as well as on Richard Nixon), and cloaked his dark Jedi, Darth Vader, in gleaming black visor and body suit. Although there would be no blacks on screen, he hired the black actor James Earl Jones to play Vader’s hissing techno-voice. In Chewbacca, the “Wookie” with the Mexican cartridge belts strung across his hairy chest, the Others of the previous decade from ascendant ape to Native American would be returned to their rightful place. This nonwhite would not even be capable of Hollywood-style broken English; only of King Kong-ish howls of frustration or rage (made by mixing bear, walrus, seal, and badger calls).

In early 1977, the almost finished film seemed an unlikely candidate for success. Fox’s research showed that the word war in a title would turn off women, that robots would turn off everyone, and that science fiction was a dead category. Fox’s board of directors had only reluctantly financed the film; and at a special screening, those directors who did not go to sleep were outraged. As movie theater owners showed little enthusiasm, the film opened in only 32 theaters nationwide.

Not in his wildest flights of fancy did Lucas imagine that his cinematic vision would sweep all before it, that his reconquest of a child audience and of “the kids in all of us” would be crucial to the reconstruction of a narrative of triumph, that he would help give a new look of entertainment to the design of war and reintroduce the spectacle of slaughter to the many screens of America.

The Look of Star Wars Enters the World of War

About two years before Star Wars opened, a 20-year-old MIT student, Peter Hagelstein, applied for a fellowship to the Hertz Foundation. Among its board members was Edward Teller, “father” of the H-bomb and a founder of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a government nuclear weapons research facility in Northern California. Although John D. Hertz (of rental car fame) had set up the fellowships to “foster the technological strength of America” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and some recipients were recruited into Livermore’s weapons research by those interviewing them, the foundation advertised only that “[t]he proposed field of graduate study must be concerned with applications of the physical sciences to human problems, broadly construed.”

Hagelstein was offered a fellowship and a summer job at Livermore by Lowell Wood, his interviewer and head of Livermore’s O Group. Its young scientists were working on designing a “third generation” of nuclear weapons (the first two being the A and H bombs). According to Hagelstein, Wood told him only that they were working on “lasers and laser fusion, which I had never heard of before, and he said there were computer codes out there that were like playing a Wurlitzer organ. It all sounded kind of dreamy… The lab made quite an impression, especially the guards and barbed wire. When I got to the personnel department it dawned on me that they worked on weapons here, and that’s about the first I knew about it.”

In the summer of 1976, he went there full time, while continuing Ph.D. work at MIT. He was a young man who “hated bombs” and “didn’t want to be associated with anything nuclear.” He was even romantically involved with an antinuclear activist who picketed the lab. But he was held by a dream of creating a laboratory x-ray laser that would allow scientists to “see” various biological processes, and by the appealing young men of O Group, with their jeans and long hair, all-night work habits, countercultural élan, and perverse humor. (Once, they even “took up a collection” to buy Lowell Wood a Darth Vader costume.)

The year that Star Wars soared into box office heaven, a senior O Group scientist came up with a new concept for using a nuclear explosion to “pump” enough focused energy into a laser to turn it into a weapon. In the summer of 1979, Hagelstein appeared at a meeting where the use of an underground nuclear explosion to test out the idea was being discussed. Dazed from 20 straight hours of work, he made a suggestion -- “The mouth just said it” -- that was to lead to a laser device dubbed Excalibur and successfully tested in November 1980. While Hagelstein’s dream of a laboratory x-ray laser faded, “his” weapon became the centerpiece of a different sort of fantasy.

In February 1981, the trade journal Aviation Week and Space Technology reported the x-ray laser’s heavily classified existence, saying that, “mounted in a laser battle station” in space, it had “the potential to blunt a Soviet nuclear weapons attack.” The magazine’s account was accompanied by a hyper-realistic, futuristic “artist’s drawing” showing a snazzy battle station that “bristled with long laser rods,” an image the mainstream media picked up, thus marrying the look of war to the look of Star Wars.

By 1982, Teller had taken news of Peter Hagelstein’s laser directly to Ronald Reagan. Space lasers and other third-generation weapons, he assured the president, “by converting hydrogen bombs into hitherto unprecedented forms and by directing these in highly effective fashions against enemy targets would end the MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] era and commence a period of assured survival on terms favorable to the Western alliance.” Even a young weapons researcher whose doctoral thesis (“Physics of Short Wavelength Laser Design”) mentioned three science fiction novels featuring beam weapons could hardly have imagined that one spaced-out suggestion would become a crucial part of a multibillion-dollar national fantasy to create a “protective shield” over the reconstruction of war on Earth.

3. “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 stormtroopers 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 Dark Side). 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 fourteen 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 stormtroopers,” 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.

4. 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.