G.I. Joe (Courtesy of Flickr)
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
The following excerpt, from Tom Engelhardt’s book, The End of Victory Culture, is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.
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 US 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.)