On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, part II, the toy arsenal now includes four-foot long Apache helicopters, Bradley tanks, aircraft carriers, and even fire trucks decked out defiantly with the crest of FDNY. In addition to the new hardware, there are legions of plastic action figures—mostly GI Joes—which hang from little hooks waiting to turn a seven-year-old’s playroom into a battlefield.
For all the bravado of these glorified dolls and their extravagant accessories, they seem woefully unprepared without their gas masks. Sure, some of these action figures are designed for imaginary conflicts. They fight Cobra, an imaginary enemy, who represented the Axis of Evil before that was even a glimmer in President George W. Bush’s eye.
But about half of the action figures are based on real soldiers. They wear the same fatigues, they carry the same weapons and even have the same dog tags as real troops. In fact, Hasbro, the maker of G.I. Joe, goes through no small effort to recreate the detail of historic soldiers in its Luftwaffe, NVA, and Soviet Union soldiers. It also includes more recent soldiers, such as those who participated in the first Persian Gulf War.
Among the recent combatants are “Desert Recon,” “Desert Army SAWS Gunner,” and “Desert Striker.” Veterans of the first Gulf War, and harbingers of the next one, these figures are realistic mimics in every important respect except for their defense against chemical and biological weapons. Clearly these soldiers are rooted in the conflict with Saddam Hussein; the action-figure of an Apache helicopter pilot even comes with detailed maps of Baghdad, which show strategic targets within the city.
And yet for all their realism, they don’t carry gas masks. One of the main arguments for regime change is that Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction, but these replica soldiers seem to deny that reality. They show the disconnect between the upcoming war with Iraq and the representation of that war in the world of toys.
But they’re only toys, right? Toys indeed! With the exception of television, the G.I. Joe action figures are the most important influence on the way American children come to think about war. The make-believe games that kids play with these dolls are the only hands-on fighting experience that most Americans ever encounter, which means that G.I. Joe’s design is a matter of pedagogy, not just entertainment.
Hasbro earns money by making the dolls as lifelike as possible, but the real threat that hundreds of thousands of American soldiers faced from chemical and biological weapons in the first Gulf War—and will face in the Second Gulf War—seems to be outside the scope of Hasbro’s realism. Unfortunately, this reflects a larger problem: Americans don’t fully appreciate the danger posed by these weapons, and even when they sense the danger, they don’t understand its imminence.
In Israel, public schools teach children how to put on gas masks to protect themselves from an Iraqi attack. These young Israelis confront the specter of chemical and biological warfare every time they practice with their masks. In the United States, we go to the opposite extreme to shelter children from these types of worries. Persian Gulf G.I. Joes don’t have gas mask for the same reason that they don’t carry miniature condoms. Soldiers carry both types of protective devices, but parents don’t want seven year-olds to learn about sex from an action-figure.
Likewise, parents don’t want to explain the dreaded threat of non-conventional warfare to impressionable children. It’s quite difficult to explain to a child how poison gas stops your respiratory system, how it leaves your body swollen with scabs and rashes, or how it makes you bleed through your pores. Worse still, try explaining that the mask is useless against blistering agents, which enter through the skin.
But the real problem with G.I. Joe’s lack of a gas mask is the denial it shows on the part of parents (and society) in thinking that these threats are something that can be covered up. If Saddam Hussein uses these types of weapons, there will be nothing more irrelevant than a G.I. Joe without a gas mask. When American soldiers are killed by these poison gases, it will not be possible to shield children from the horrors of chemical and biological warfare. And this is a reality that we don’t seem ready to accept.
The G.I. Joe doll is just one manifestation of our deluded expectations that Saddam will not actually use these weapons. Our optimism lets us treat these weapons as distant, hypothetical dangers—reasons to invade Iraq—without considering them real and immediate threats to American soldiers. If Americans think they can gloss over the threat from chemical and biological weapons, then it seems the war against Iraq will bring a very difficult surprise.
All those parents who can’t face a G.I. Joe with a gas mask will have to explain to themselves, and their children, the gruesome deaths of real American soldiers.
Jonathan P. Abel ’05 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.