Dec 4, 2013
The Secret History of G.I. Joe
Posted on Aug 15, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
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.
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.
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