GI Joes are colorful heroes who, episode after episode in the cartoons and issue after issue in the comic books, battle an organization of faceless terrorists called Cobra Command. GI Joe and other flashy heroes — the Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, X-Men and so many others – seem to fit some formula that kids love. A big fan as a child, GI Joe instilled in me a Gung-Ho! sense of valor in war and an almost romantic impression that war is beautiful and had no repercussions. In GI Joe and other children’s media that glorify conflict, my heroes were bruised by bullets but certainly never killed. GI Joe may spread a patriotic message but their battles are dishonest and, worse, intended for a demographic that is too young to extract patriotism without also absorbing the falsehoods of a make-believe, casualty-less war.
One time, however, GI Joe got it right.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the “Wall,” along the National Mall in Washington D.C. is among the most poignant veterans memorials ever constructed. Instead of a steeple pointed toward heaven or an officer mounted atop a horse with saber drawn or a face-less infantryman, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a long wall of granite that enshrines the names of each American soldier who lost his life during the twenty-year conflict. The granite is polished so that when you read the names, when you look into the Wall, the Wall looks into you. This was captured in the Lee Teter painting, “Reflections,” in which a middle-aged man with his head bowed presses a hand against the Wall. Reflected in the Wall are Vietnam soldiers, one of whom presses his own hand against the man’s.
In a shocking moment of awareness – or a horrid attempt to cash-in on patriotism and heartbreak, depending on how you want to look at it – Hasbro produced a Vietnam Wall Memorial GI Joe. The “action figure” is dressed in street clothes except for a green field jacket (like the ones my father kept in a box in the garage). He has a folded American flag tucked under his arm (like the ones that soldiers gave my grandmother at my grandfather’s funeral and my mother at my father’s funeral). His arm is extended, pressed against the Wall. When you push a button, the Wall is illuminated (like the Teter painting) by the ghostly reflection of the soldiers who did not make it home.
I don’t mean to cheapen the memorial or elevate the toy beyond its cultural worth. But this is honest, surprisingly so. I wonder whether I would have gotten the message if, among my Roadblocks and Scarlets and Dukes, I had this toy as a kid.