Toy Soldiers 

You can choose CIA operatives or Delta-Force figures wearing desert camo and carrying silenced pistols. These figures are not "Home for the Holidays" G.I. JOE with his Christmas presents.

A stack of Desert Storm Trading Cards recently emerged after 10 years under the eaves of the house. Back in grad school, I'd bought the cards to amuse cynical friends and outrage politically correct, terminally glum colleagues in Indiana University's English department. Even before the burned-out vehicles along the "Highway of Death" stopped smoldering, the cards appeared in a Bigfoot Convenience store, right next to the lottery tickets. I bought three packs for a dollar.

The timing for my cards' reappearance was eerie, and I had forgotten about the only Topps cards, to date, for an active war. The pictures of weapons, flags and people are in near-mint condition, though the chewing gum is gone. Well, I think there was gum. There had to be gum; it is a toy, right?

Cheney is the only personality in my bunch of cards. The first President Bush's secretary of defense looks unflinchingly at the camera, but his smile is odd. One corner of his mouth draws up into a smirk, as if he's going toe-to-toe with someone he loathes: Saddam, bin Laden, proponents of alternative sources of energy.

Cheney's look is not so out of place on a military hawk — or a toy. When I was a kid I thought G.I. JOE could have used a smirk. In fact, as America's war on terrorism has cranked along, Hasbro's plastic "Fighting Man from Head to Toe" has gotten tougher, as have other action figures who fight our new enemies. "Enduring Freedom" action figures are hot items for adult collectors. You can choose CIA operatives or Delta-Force figures wearing desert camo and carrying silenced pistols. These figures are not "Home for the Holidays" G.I. JOE with his Christmas presents and World War II dress greens, back from Bastogne and ready for a wet kiss from Babs. The new action figures, with their one-sixth scale shades and stubbly beards, instead are ready for "wet work" to eliminate equally disheveled Taliban leaders.

When "Tora Bora Ted" and his squad-mates hit store shelves, some segments of the media bubbled up with righteous indignation. But there's nothing new here, or in my trading cards. During the Vietnam War, even as F-105 Thunderchiefs fell out of the sky to earn the queasy nickname "Thud," I built a kit of the plane that came with two variants: factory-new or with a pre-damaged fuselage, as if flak or a Mig's cannon fire had knocked off a few panels. Families wept as American prisoners of war checked into "the Hanoi Hilton," while I idiotically glued 500-pound bombs on my Thud. Only later, as an adult, could I fully comprehend the courage of our POWs, the anguish of their families, and the rage of those upset by toys like mine.

Toys do change, of course. In 1970, Hasbro replaced its military line with an "Adventure Team," whose bearded members captured endangered White Tigers and braved "The Peril of the Raging Volcano." The Adventure Team made G.I. JOE popular again for a few years, at least until rising oil prices made plastic so expensive that Hasbro stopped making one-sixth scale G.I. JOEs for more than a decade.

But in the early years of the Reagan Administration, Hasbro's action figure was reborn in a smaller, all-plastic body to fight not the Viet Cong but COBRA, an international terrorist organization with an elusive, enigmatic and hard-to-kill leader, of all things. In time, with cheaper oil and more demand for retro-toys, Hasbro brought back G.I. JOE in all of his 11.5-inch, easily beheaded glory. He's a made-in-China best seller for the company now, as are other companies' CIA spooks, Nazi tank commanders, and, so help me, "Mad Bombers" wearing clown masks and hugging bundles of TNT sticks to their chests (sorry, kids: Internet orders only). And did I mention the talking George W. Bush action figure, who speaks 17 phrases that include the president's most famous malapropisms?

There is something perverse about toys for a war still underway. What if a battleship Arizona play-set had appeared in early 1942, with the Pacific War in full swing? Back then, people bought war bonds to support the war effort. At best, today's collectors of adult war-toys pump up our sputtering consumer economy by creating low-wage jobs in Chinese factories and Wal-Mart. But isn't that what the president urged us to do after the 9-11 attacks, to go out and use our credit cards? After all, this same president referred to our "sacred lifestyle" in a speech. Perhaps we get the toys we deserve.

But it's not completely creepy in the world of action toys. The Adventure Team is back, too. I own the new White Tiger set; JOE wears a goatee, has a chambray shirt open at the collar and carries a tranquilizer gun on his assignment for an environmental organization. He's tagging and tracking the tiger in its natural, though threatened, habitat. JOE has finally gotten his smirk, too: a postmodern, world-weary look. He's a toy that's been to war, but now he's got a better job. His rugged good looks would make Barbie jump out of her pink Miata and leave Ken weeping.

So I'll vote with my debit card: collecting Adventure Team and auctioning off smirking Dick Cheney — eBay shoppers, good luck bidding in my no-reserve auction. Proceeds will be donated to charity. International customers pay actual shipping costs to bring Dick Cheney to their locations. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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