There is something awfully weird about J.C. Penney’s "Forward Command Post," a toy for kids age five and up. It’s not apparent, at first sight, exactly where the weirdness is coming from. Sure, it’s a battle scene, and the house is shattered, cratered with bullet holes and looking kind of charred. But what else would you expect from a war toy built around this concept right? Yes, but look closer .
Furniture is overturned, and scattered about, but you’ll notice it’s pretty expensive-looking furniture. Not the sort that would be in some Third World hovel. And the house itself, which has seen better days, looks like it was once a prime piece of real estate: it has a deck, and a balcony. Not exactly a slum, but not a palace either: just your typical middle class home. And that is what gives this "toy" a truly sinister edge: it looks too familiar to be a scene from some foreign battlefield. It looks like Barbie’s Dream House after the apocalypse or your house after a bout of rather fierce street fighting.
It seems clear to me that this Forward Command Post is located, not in some exotic foreign locale, but right here in America, or, at least, a country very much like the U.S. If this were Somalia, say, or even the most developed section of the Middle East, we would see some indication of foreign-ness: a somewhat minaret-ish structure, a Persian rug, a tell-tale decorative pattern adorning the balcony. But no: nothing but the straight lines and bourgeois coziness of a typically American home, right down to the vaguely Victorian-style window frames, which I can see replicas of if I just open the door and walk half a block down the street.
The implications of such a "toy" are downright eerie. You remember being a child, don’t you? You remember peopling the landscape of your imagination with all sorts of creatures and scenarios. What, exactly, is being suggested as a narrative in this instance? Toy soldiers, one arrayed against the other, are one thing: that, at least, is a fair fight; but this is just one rather ominous-looking "action figure" presiding over the ruins of somebody’s home. He stands on the balcony, ready to take on all comers, but what did he do on the way up there and to whom?
We got more letters about the story our webmaster Eric Garris did on "Forward Command Post" than on any single piece we’ve ever published. Hundreds of emails, most of them horrified that such a toy could exist, but a few saying "so what’s the big deal." One wise-guy even thanked us for the heads-up: we was going to be sure to get one for his son for Christmas. (Hey, how would you like having that guy for a father!)
Most of our critics, however, seemed to miss the point. Far from being one of those whiny hippie guys who think children should be shielded from everything unpleasant, especially so-called "war toys," I take quite the opposite view. When I was a kid we played Romans, wielding wooden swords. Garbage-can tops made great shields. I still remember getting upbraided by my parents: they had gotten an irate phone call from the very conservative Irishman down the block wanting to know why I was trying to get his kids involved in a battle on behalf of the "Red Army." I had a fine time talking myself out of that one.
War games are a learning experience: we learned history, and named our toy soldiers Achilles, Hector, and Agamemnon. But "Forward Command Post" is nothing like that, and the closer we look, the weirder it gets. Pinned to a pillar in the center of this surrealistic scene is an official-looking notice: I can’t quite make it out, but one can easily imagine an official notice of requisition. The house has been seized by the government as an "emergency" measure, under the sweeping powers granted to whom? And what government are we talking about here?
If we look at toys as framing and shaping the childish imagination, as well as getting them used to the world as it is, then why "Forward Command Post"? Why familiarize children with a scene of urban fighting straight out of the Second American Civil War? The overlay of the violent and the familiar, the implication of unseen atrocities, the white plaster broken in places, exposing the red brick innards of the house, like open wounds. This toy is telling our kids a story, but the plot-line seems a trifle twisted.
In a concession to squeamishness remember this is a supposed to be a suitable Christmas gift for a five-year-old we have "action figures" but no corpses. One can always make do, however, with Barbie and Ken dolls, and, for added realism, maybe a few "Bimbo Barbies" ($45.00, at FAO Schwartz) walking the streets of the bombed-out city.
I’d sure like to get a good look inside the mental landscape of the person or persons responsible for this bizarre construct masquerading as a plaything for children: or, on second thought, maybe just a brief glimpse.
I don’t know if it’s fair to draw any wider implications from the mere existence of such a strange product, unless, of course, it becomes wildly popular. From the reaction to the story in the media, and from the many letters we got, it seems clear that we haven’t yet reached the final stage of imperial decadence, where sadistic games are a common pastime and no one bats an eye.
The general response to "Forward Command Post" seemed to be shocked incredulity, and I don’t imagine it is selling all that well this year especially at 45 bucks a pop. Pretty pricey for what is really just a cheap plastic trompe d’oeil of an atrocity scene. We are not yet Rome: or, if we are, it is in the last days of the republic, before the rot set in.
That’s one reason I don’t buy the fashionable anti-Americanism of the anti-populist, alienated Left, which sees America as thoroughly corrupted by capitalism, "greed," and bourgeois individualism. It is precisely because of the huge American middle class, and its bourgeois values, that our culture has so far remained immune to the more demented forms of decadence. In a healthy culture, one not yet too distorted by endless wars of conquest, a "toy" that is openly recruiting kiddies to play the game of "War Criminal" is bound to provoke general revulsion, and it has.
THE LIBERTARIAN STUDENT MOVEMENT TAKES OFF
I want to thank John Thrasher, of the University of Colorado, in beautiful Boulder, and the UC Libertarians for sponsoring my recent visit to their campus, where I spoke on "Iraq: First Stop on the Road to Empire." As usual, the question-and-answer period was the most fun, for me, and lasted longer than my spiel. I also had a great time just hanging out and I even made my early morning flight after only a few hours sleep!
Great things are happening on the student libertarian front: that has been the one overwhelming impression I brought back with me from the 2002 Antiwar.com campus tour. Everywhere I went, libertarian youth groups were getting more active and experiencing a wave of growth. And they are taking the lead, on many campuses, in organizing against the prospect of war in the Middle East.
The good news is that these disparate efforts, scattered across the country, are reaching out to each other, and beginning to think about how they might coordinate their activities on a national scale. During the early 1980s, there was a national libertarian youth group. Students for a Libertarian Society (SLS) was founded by followers of Murray Rothbard as a consequence of a strategy memo Rothbard wrote for Charles Koch, chief funder of the Cato Institute and allied libertarian institutions. Before its untimely demise, sometime in the mid-80s, SLS did manage to establish a national network of libertarian campus activists, and attracted considerable notice. Now, SLS has been revived, along with the activist spirit that animated the original group. They’re planning a national conference, and it is going to be a blast. If you’re a student hanging out at your parents’ place for Christmas, surfing the internet to distract yourself from god knows what, then check out the new SLS here.
Of course, Antiwar.com is always "on duty," so to speak, and we’ll be watching, as Christmas carolers sing outside the window, for any signs in Iraq of the much-anticipated war. Leave it to the War Party to catch everyone unawares. Everyone, that is, but us. We’ll be at our posts all through the holiday season, updating the news as it comes, but my next column will appear on Monday, December 29.