Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Imaginary Lithuanian Hero (GI Joe, GI Joe: The Atlantis Factor)

I remember vividly and guiltily how, in the lead up to the Gulf War, I longed for war. It was natural. A view of history that treated war as the interesting bits, reinforced by a view of mass media that taught me that wars were where fun things like cartoons and video games happened meant that by 1990, at the age of 8, I was positively bitter that my life had dragged on without a proper war to keep things interesting.

The viewpoint is, like so much of being eight, barbaric in hindsight. It is not quite bloodlust, but rather a sort of blood blindness - the complete failure to recognize war as something other than the skeleton upon which a textbook is draped.

Despite this, growing up, I avoided the Scylla and Charybdis of gender roles, eschewing both Matell's pink offerings and Hasbro's GI Joe line. It is not that I was not properly socialized into the commodity fetishism of cartoon voodoo dolls, but mine were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and He-Man (and even then, my previously stated disdain for my gender showed - I much preferred She-Ra, and searched long and hard for an April O'Neil figure). GI Joe always seemed vaguely alarming to me.

Part of this is perhaps the marketing. Little appeals to me less than the prospect of real American heroes. Nationalism has never been a comfortable ideology for me. There are articulable reasons for this, but those are mostly the products of a 28-year-old liberal coming to terms with a sense he has always had. At the end of the day, my sense is rather that nobody ever got around to making a compelling case for the greatness of America, instead leaving the world to make its unsettling case against us.

I am not anti-American so much as more or less neutral American. Given the choice between loving it or leaving it, I opt mostly to bet that whoever is shouting that at me is not actually going to pop back around in a few and see if I cleared out. I neither love it nor dislike it with sufficient passage to make departure a priority. (Yet. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't seriously considering fleeing for a place with a health care system.) The result is a sense of anti-patriotism that is mostly perfectly willing to sulk in relative silence, but every once in a while comes face to face with loud nationalism and is compelled to make bitchy comments.

But I'm straying too far forward here. At the age of eight, the calculus was far simpler. Advertising something as a real American hero meant nothing to me. No, that's not quite it either. It meant something to me, but what it meant was unsettlingly and indistinctly sinister. Too much of the phrase seemed over-earnest. Was there an excess of artificial American heroes? Was America somehow lacking in heroes compared to other countries? What about the phrase "real American hero" exactly was intended to signify, and what?

This dilemma seems to me the bread and butter of childhood, a period that it is more or less impossible to look back on without wondering how, exactly, anyone thought it was a good idea to simply turn us loose in a world of signifiers and media and expect us to find dry land. Without some explanation of the interplay between the real and the imaginary, and a firm sense of the geopolitical implications of American heroism as compared to the other hundred and ninety-four choices (fewer then, to be fair, as Eastern Europe was still fragmenting).

Although my instincts, as I said, were to circle warily around these signifiers, the nature of the Nintendo Project is that such evasion cannot last forever. Eventually it becomes necessary to confront the abandoned remnants of childhood. Eventually one must face a real American hero and decide for once and for all what it is.

Based purely on the 1991 and 1992 GI Joe video games, the answer is not much. Tedious run-and-guns of the most banal sort, inasmuch as these games seem to make any comment about American heroism it suggests that American heroism consists of the Protestant ethic as opposed to any thrilling bravado. If there were games to indoctrinate children into the foolish ideology of warmongering, this is hardly the game to do it with, making the Army of One an unappealing slog. I would do the games the basic courtesy of separating them into two paragraphs, but there's no real reason to do that - they're the same generic action game.

What is most striking about them, however, is their sense of the enemy. This is endemic to GI Joe, in which Real American Heroes are contrasted with nothing except for, tellingly, Cobra Command. I do not mean to be so megalomaniacal as to suggest that this organization was named for the concept I defined off of an unrelated video game, but if they were, they did a great job. As a fictional concept, Cobra Command is a staggeringly vague assemblage of concepts, basically being a paramilitary corporation. Although the temptation is to draw some sort of equivalence to Xe Services or something, the truth is that Cobra Command is altogether more ambiguous, a sort of lurking villainy happy to slot in and be evil in a given situation.

This sticky tack and string approach to villainy, in which there is not so much a set of principles and an ethos as there is a twirling moustache that will tie Pauline to the railroad tracks when called upon to do so, is a chilling reduction of the world that is enough to make one long for the Frankfurt School conspiracy theories of the culture industry. There, at least, there is some sense that the strings are being pulled in pursuit of some greater evil. The sense that one is opposed by something significant.

The world of GI Joe is far worse. A world in which heroism is a banal and rote opposition to a nebulously defined evil, where the wheels turn and the bullets fly without any larger interest being served. Looking back, we can see that the greatest sin of real American heroes is not blind patriotism, or any jingoistic brutality, but the far more banal evil of base nihilism. We do not fight because we must, nor because we can, nor even because we want to. Indeed, we do not fight because. We simply fight, real heroes that we aren't.


  1. Best post in a while, sir.

    I also steered clear of GI Joes. I think the uncanny valley played a role for me, though. The figurines were too lifelike, and since the implied mode of play for these little men was to have them fight and die, there was something kind of off-putting, a kind of fear-forcefield around the toys that kept me from them. Not that I didn't play fight-and-die games, but it was much easier to stomach with a stick and a friend, or with the totally ridiculous mutant turtles.

  2. Interesting. I recently wrote a blog about GI Joe myself.


  3. Great post, especially the last bit.