Friday, March 16, 2012

History in Toy Form

Recently, discussions have emerged on several blogs about Civil War-themed toys.  Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory drew his many readers' attention, including mine, to the Andersonville Prison playset.  Many seem mortified by the prospect of children (young and old) using this toy to re-create the horrors of that terrible Confederate prison in western Georgia.  Mr. Levin is quite correct to think this way, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Wooden and metal soldiers have been common for the past two centuries, dating as far back as the Napoleonic Wars.  Their proponents allege that they connect young people with history.  In many cases, the uniforms and equipment are authentically presented.  Famous generals receive their own figures.  Plastic replaced them in the mid-20th century, just in time for kids to have their very own Nazi figures.  Even today, one can get a Utah Beach playset.  I wonder why they didn't have one for Omaha Beach.  I once had an Army Men video game for the Playstation years ago.  It was a great game.  But they all have a darker side:

These toys sanitize the violence inherent in war, and if they do not glorify them, they certainly valorize the conflicts they represent.  They present a totally inaccurate view of the past.  It shows, I think, the tendency by the public to see the past in literary terms: heroes and villains, drama, tragedy, comedy, and the like.  All of these views distort the past for profit - although caveat emptor (buyer beware) because self-control is a responsibility.

When I think of this subject, I'm reminded of this scene from the 1987 movie The Living Daylights where James Bond confronts the villain Brad Whittaker in his toy room while he 'plays' with his Gettysburg battle scenes.  Using a gadget and a statue of Wellington, Bond helps Whittaker meet his Waterloo.  Classic Bond humor.

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