Now that the Christmas season has passed, the prevalence of war-oriented and violent toys and games was there for all to see, a symptom of a militaristic society that reinforces and normalizes militarism in people young and old alike. This year it was the Nerf N-Strike "Stampede EC5," which was pitched for kids eight years and up and found its place on the Toys 'R' Us Hot Toys list. Nerf describes the EC5 as a "fully automatic blaster that launches a continuous stream of darts up to 25-feet." It comes with 18 dart clips, a detachable shield to repel enemy fire, and a pop-out stand for stability. One parent blogger commented favorably that it reminded him of a military-issue M-4 assault rifle.
The rise of conservatism and militarism over the last 30 years has led to a renewed effort to promote militaristic toys and activities to young people. As Antonia Fraser notes in her book A History of Toys, toy soldiers and miniature weapons have been viewed as teaching future generations of warriors the art of war. As peace scholar Wendy Varney notes, "It is therefore in the interests of militarists and those who seek to gain advantage from war in any number of direct and peripheral ways, to socialize children into militarism, to make it seem logical, necessary, natural, and even fun" (Peace Review, 2000).
The problem of war toys is so serious an issue in Iraq that politicians are trying to do something about it. Samira al-Moussaqi, head of Iraq's parliamentary committee on children and women, led the effort to ban toy guns in Iraq to "curb increasingly aggressive behavior among children who have grown up amid real war." If war toys are seen as teaching violence there, can't the same be said about the socialization of our own children?
Military-themed and violence-oriented toys appear in abundant proportions on the shelf, visible in many different forms. Jeffrey Goldstein, in Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment, notes that even though they may be regarded as universal, the popularity of war toys changes with changing circumstances. They are to be found especially in cultures where war and aggression are prevalent. War and war play reflects the prevailing values of the culture in which they flourish, values that stress aggression, assertion, and dominance.
Military-themed and violence-oriented toys have a long history, exemplified by the first BB gun developed in 1886. Made for children, it concerned many parents because it was actually a working gun that could cause injury. The BB gun was a descendant of the cap gun, which was invented soon after the U.S. Civil War, when some shotgun manufacturers converted their factories to toy manufacture. Penny pistols and other authentic-looking toy guns also began to appear in the 1880s. In the 1950s, American children got Western-style six-shooters and holsters, Dick Tracy-style tommy guns, police guns, toy hunting rifles, and futuristic ray guns. In the case of the Western cowboy outfits, kids got to rehearse the historical script of "how the West was won."
Militaristic toys are not inevitable, but are the result of a particular social environment. Hence, toy makers are concerned with public and customer opinion. GI Joe was developed in the 1960s as a conventional soldier, but, because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, he was "retasked" in the 1970s as the "Adventure Team" and in the 1980s he was put on steroids, redesigned, and remilitarized. As a sign of the new times, the Orange County Register reported on August 10, 2010 that Disneyland has decided to begin selling wooden toy "frontier rifles" again; it had stopped their sale after the Columbine shootings in 1999. The military design of the Stampede EC5 is a sign that, from the perspective of toy makers and governments, it's never too early to promote militarism among children.
In May 2009, Britain's Character Options Toy company announced the launch of the "H.M. Armed Forces Collection," 32 action figures and accessories from the British military, designed with government cooperation. The Ministry of Defence denied the initiative was a recruitment ploy, but hopes the toys will help to burnish the armed forces' reputation, as well as generate a stipend in licensing revenues.
Militarized teddy bears are for sale in stores and across the Internet, each sporting unique additions to their familiar shape, size, and description. Once the teddy bear is militarized, all is subject to militarization. Dressed in the outfits corresponding to their title, bears come adorned in "Marine Corps Camouflage Desert Sand Uniforms" and "Air Force in Dress Uniforms." As Marita Sturken argues in her remarkable study of post 9/11 consumerism and U.S. popular culture (Tourists of History, 2007), the teddy bear is the embodiment of innocence and thus serves to domesticate and humanize America's militarism.
It is certainly a sign of a militaristic society when violence and warfare are allowed—even urged—to invade the children's world of play. In social critic Roland Barthes's view, toys are a way in which children are prepared to become consumers of both meanings and products, so a society with militaristic toys and amusements is preparing its children for just that fate. Judging from the blogs, many parents think there's no harm in choosing to give their kids guns and other war toys for Christmas.
But there has been and continues to be a vibrant movement to raise awareness and to fight the retailing of simulated violence. CodePink: Women for Peace has used a variety of means of resistance to put an end to the focus on war toys for children. They advocate for education and communication between adults and children, supplying children with a context for war toys and as an opportunity to promote peace and anti-violence. They have dressed in pink camouflage and distributed pamphlets outside stores that sell war toys, stickered anti-militaristic messages, purchased toys and formed long line-ups to return them on the grounds that they are dangerous, lobbied retailers and threatened to organize consumer boycotts until store managers stopped selling war toys.
In association with the 2006 World Peace Forum in Vancouver, school teachers in the Canadian province of British Columbia worked with their students to explore the problem of child soldiers, social responsibility, and art by addressing the question of war toys in classrooms. They had students bring in guns and war toys in order to create art and imagine alternative uses for them. In fall 2009, in the nearby community of Anmore, British Columbia, staff and students undertook a similar peace project and decorated a large drawing of a hummingbird with war toys. They also had an assembly to hear speakers and sing songs. As one of the speakers told the students, "When you choose to talk, rather than hit, speak rather than yell, create rather than destroy, include rather than exclude, you make a difference. Our War Toy Artwork represents this daily commitment to peace" (Anmore Times, December 21, 2009).
Normalizing militarism in culture prepares a large segment of the population to support war. Any effort to end overseas wars must also address the cultural basis of support for present and future wars.
Geoff Martin and Erin Steuter teach at Mount Allison University in Canada and are the authors of Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror (Lexington Books, 2010).
Resources on war toys from warresistersleague.org
Ø The Granny Peace Brigade’s “No More War Toys, No More War” campaign offers educational materials at www.grannypeacebrigade.org
Ø Code Pink has a “Say No to War Toys” page with downloadable graphics and suggestions for peaceful play at www.codepink4peace.org
Ø TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) offers an updated toy guide at www.truceteachers.org
Ø CEASE (Concerned Educators Allied for a Safe Environment) offers “Take Action” resources at www.peaceeducators.org
Ø Deep Dish TV offers the video No More War Toys at www.deepdishtv.org
Ø Canada’s Promoting Cultures of Peace for Children offers “Acts of Transformation: From War Toys to Peace Art,” examples at www.wartoystopeaceart.com