How Much Responsibility Do I Bear?

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"G.I. Joe is the code name for America's daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."

Given the opportunity to do shows like Transformers and G.I. Joe, we leapt at the chance.

1970s / early 80s cartoons were often suckalicious pablum.   Various groups and busybodies hammered the networks over violence, racial & religious references, and any hint of impropriety.

As a result all the juice got squeezed out of most shows long before they hit the air.  They were sanitized, purified, and rectified.

We were told to produce entertaining programming, yet robbed of all tools to do so.

I worked on a show called The Little Clowns Of Happytown, an attempt to deliberately engineer a show for kids with no conflict, no violence, no "victim based humor".  For example, we couldn't have the little clowns actually throw pies at one another, but a little clown could place a pie on the ground and then another little clown could accidentally trip and fall face first in it.

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the show was an abomination in the eyes of God and man.   We shall  speak of it no more.

So when toy companies found a loophole in FCC regs, big enough to drive 30-minute commercial thru,[1] the syndication airwaves were choked with Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcakes, GoBots, Transformers...

...and G.I. Joe.

I won’t lie:  We had a blast doing this show.[2]  It was a huge breath of fresh air and freedom at a time when everything else seemed to be really stale and confining.  Some of the happiest work experiences of my life occurred at Sunbow West.

One reason I was brought aboard at Steve Gerber’s insistence was that I had actually served in the military; I was able to give the series a patina of verisimilitude lacking in other shows with similar settings.[3]  To the end that I got most of the egregious nonsense out, that I managed to convey to other writers some idea of how a military unit operates, that the characters at least sounded like an approximation of service personnel, I did my job well.

To the end that I gave our audience anything approaching an accurate idea of what real war and combat was like, not so well.  Hasbro refused to let us show anyone getting killed despite all the murderous intent and lethal weapons employed.  I was able to finesse this somewhat by making sure at least one character got seriously hurt in every episode I story edited (though of course they were often back 100% healthy and intact, rarin' to go by the next day's episode) and by referring to the number of casualties in a given battle (Hasbro never realizing that casualties referred to both injured and dead; a tiny nod towards realism but the best I could do under the circumstances).

Bottom line: Despite my best efforts, G.I. Joe depicted war and combat as glamorous, exciting, fun-filled activities, not as anything inflicting real lasting pain and suffering.

The show was popular, ran five seasons, had a barely seen animated feature, and has lasted to this day as a fond memory of people who were kids in the 1980s.

And that is what has come to bother me over time.

While I tried to give it a gloss of realism, ultimately at the core G.I. Joe was just a militaristic super-hero show.  Imagine an X-Men where nobody has super-powers but packs techno heat like Tony Stark or superb training ala Bruce Wayne and you get an idea of how “realistic” it was.

Cobra was a one dimensional enemy.[4]  Straight outta James Bond by way of Nazi Germany, there is no way they could have existed in the real world without major support from a political super-power that could protect them and arm them.[5]

Instead, our show painted them as “…a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

I have apologized frequently and sincerely for coining “Cobra-la” as the secret society behind Cobra; in my defense I point out it was merely intended as a placeholder name until we could come up with a much better one.[6]

But frankly, something else bothers me much, much more, and to this day I do not know how much responsibility I bear, how much I should apologize, or to whom.

The target audience for G.I. Joe were kids (primarily boys) between the ages of 9 and 12 (though we had both younger and much, much older fans).

Five days a week (sometimes six counting weekends), 52 weeks a year, for five years we hammered home to them the message of how important it was to “…defend human freedom against…ruthless terrorist organization[s] determined to rule the world…

One thousand, three hundred times.

In every major market in the United States.

And most of the smaller ones, too.

One thousand, three hundred times.

To kids between the ages of 9 and 12 at the start of the series.

Who on September 11, 2001 would have been 25 to 28 years of age.

I tell people I am a conservative and they don’t believe me.  My own family thinks I’ve become a loony left liberal, or an impractical progressive, or a wacked out radical.

They don’t  believe me when I tell them that from where I stand, my values haven’t changed at all, that I didn’t leave the conservative movement, the conservative movement left me.

I supported the first Gulf War.  I thought it was a mistake to leave Saddam Hussein in power[7] but I could understand the political logic for doing so.

And while I supported Bill Clinton in his first run for office, particularly because of his goal of national health care, I was quickly disappointed by his personal peccadillos.[8]

So I supported George W. Bush in 2000.  He wasn’t a glib speaker, true, but then neither was his opposition.  And while it’s popular to claim he stole the election, truth is he won it by the rules in place on election day; blame the opposition for doing a very poor job of preparing ballots and educating voters in Florida.

I was looking for him to be a competent president and hopefully one with a more boring presidency than his father.

Well, we all know what happened, right?

The country got revved up on its biggest war footing since Vietnam.  It wasn’t just a matter of chasing a tin horn dictator out of a neighboring country that was our ally,[9] it was an epic clash of civilizations, of world views, of…

…a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

In the initial shock and outrage after 9-1-1, like many other Americans I was 100% supportive of the president and his administration.  I thought going after the Taliban in Afghanistan was a proper move[10] and considering the circumstances at the time, I don’t think it impossible that any other administration, seeing there was even a remote possibility of Saddam possessing large scale weapons, wouldn’t have tried to remove him from power.

But it soon became apparent the administration was in over its head.  They created…well, not a fictitious Al Qeada, but certainly an mythologized one, a seemingly hydra-headed serpent capable of striking anywhere at any time, certainly packing stolen Soviet-era nukes and home grown bio-weapons and who knows what kind of poisons and toxins.

They blew right past the idea of Al Qeada as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and latched onto Al Qeada as Nazi Germany.

And I wonder how much easier it was to sell that idea to 25 to 28 year old voters because of what we did with G.I. Joe vs Cobra…?

Look, I’m not saying this was some deliberate long term conspiracy cooked up and carefully cultivated over nearly two generations.  Frankly, the world is pretty patently not run by any single competent entity; if it was, it wouldn’t be in this bad a shape.

Rather, more horribly, nobody is in charge, we are all just improvising and bullshitting our myriad ways through life, and when we act with compassion and kindness and courtesy a lot less people die as a result.

The second, disastrous Gulf War was sold -- quite literally, and with a deliberate choice of words -- as a grand crusade to the West in general and the United States in particular.  We were told the enemy was everywhere, well armed, well financed, and utterly ruthless; an enemy who needed a Patton to confront them…

…and not a James Bond (if we saw them as a S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-like analogy) or an FBI (if we saw them as what they really were; a loosely connected organized crime ring whose crimes, albeit grandiose, were still just the work of a tiny handful of individuals).

Instead we marched off after…Cobra.

I supported Bush during his first term and the start of his second, and if I had remained ignorant I might support him still.

I was horrified when the abuses of Abu Ghraib first came to light.  Let me explain:  For the six years I was in the military, we had it drummed into us that Americans did not commit war crimes.  The memories of My Lai were still fresh in the military’s mind; it was not going to happen again.

And I took that message to heart.

So did millions of other U.S. service personnel.

At first we were told Abu Ghraib wasn’t that bad, then that it was an aberration.

And then we learned about Gitmo…and waterboarding…and egregious violations of not only the Geneva Convention but our own basic laws, of our own (purportedly) Christian culture.

No!  No!  It is wrong!  It was wrong when the Nazis did it, it was wrong when the Imperial Japanese did it, it was wrong when the Khmer Rouge did it, it is wrong wrong wrong wrong WRONG for us when we did it!

And these were not aberrations, these were deliberate acts specifically ordered by the president of the United States.  Let the records show that his administration’s own documents show who the “deciderer” was in this case, who authorized the horrors, who expanded the war not only against foreign combatants but our own citizens.

Have you flown recently? Ever wonder how many terrorists the TSA has caught? Wanna try ”none”?

And not because the terrorists are afraid they’ll be caught.  Al Qeada has very little operational capacity.  Yeah, in places like Libya they can pick up a few stray radicals and make a local impact, but they can’t mount sustained offenses.  Look at their track record since 2001:  A tiny handful of pathetic attempts, most of which end in dismal failure.

This is what we are afraid of?

The 2001 response to the legitimate threat of Al Qeada was all out of proportion to their actual danger.  We destroyed three nations[11] battling a phantasm we puffed up to cartoon super-villain proportions, committing fleets and armies and squadrons of bombers and drones to battle a foe that could have been handled just as efficiently by a small team of special forces.

When the Bush administration confessed to ordering the torture of prisoners -- several of whom were totally innocent of any anti-U.S. activity, at least two who were beaten to death in U.S. custody -- I realized whatever political / cultural viewpoint they espoused had nothing to do with the conservatism I believed in.

I stepped off their train and watched it depart over a distant, dark horizon.

Now I look at what we accomplished -- or rather, failed to accomplish -- in the Middle East.  I look at the damage we have done not only to our own country, but to the West and to Christianity by allowing scoundrels to drape themselves in God and country while committing heinous deeds.

And I look at the hundreds of thousands dead in the Middle East…uselessly dead…pointlessly dead…and the men and women of our armed services and the armed services of our allies who came back home draped in flags…

…and I see how pointless it is…

…and I see how stupid it is…

…and I keep remembering how I helped tell millions of impressionable young kids that “…America [had]… to defend human freedom against…a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

Oh, my God…if something I did, if something I wrote was even partially responsible for putting even one body in a grave, forgive me.

mea culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa

On Memorial and Veterans’ Day Sundays, pastors often ask members of the congregation who have served in the armed forces to stand up.

If I’m in church, I do so; not for recognition of the pittance I put in, but for those who gave their all, the guys and gals who didn’t make it back after having their lives squandered in Vietnam and Central America and the Middle East by administrations who lied to the world, lied to us, lied to themselves about their real motives.

I think of fresh faced young kids eagerly crowding up to their TV sets, watching colorful characters have exciting adventures fighting clearly defined and indisputable evil…and I think about their parents and siblings and spouses and children who would give anything -- anything! -- to have them back for just five minutes.

Memorial Day is a day we set aside to remember.

Most of us don’t.

I do.

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[1]  In a nutshell, the FCC wouldn't allow shows based on toys to be aired.  The people promoting Smurf toys -- and they were huge in the 70s -- wanted to do a cartoon but were thwarted until they realized the Smurfs had been a Belgian comic book first.  When the FCC approved that show based on the Smurfs being a "pre-existing literary property" before being turned into tiny blue toys, keyrings, and chatchkies, Mattel licensed their He-Man concept to DC comics.  While the comic bore no resemblance to the eventual series, it did give Mattel and Filmation the figleaf of "based on a pre-existing literary property".  Hasbro and Marvel promptly followed suit with Transformers and G.I. Joe comics, and the rest is history...

[2]  And by “we” I mean Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Flint Dille, Doug Booth, Jay Bacal, Mike Hill, Christy Marx, Hildy Mesnick, and a host of others (yrs trly inc.) who wrote / drew / directed / animated / produced it.

[3]  =koff-koff= Rambo =koff-koff=

[4]  Tho on occasion we managed to push it up to two dimensions.

[5]  Which we alluded to -- badly -- in the movie, but that’s another tale for another time…

[6]  Thinking that surely the Hasbro legal department couldn’t be so @#%&ing STOOPID as to let the company name their lost civilization after the single most famous lost civilization in all literature, Shangri-la in James Hilton’s classic Lost Horizon!

[7]  The man was a destabilizing influence in the Middle East, paying bounties to the families of Palestinian anti-Israeli suicide bombers, among other things; removing him was not an unreasonable or unrealistic objective.

[8]  Sorry, folks, but the man was guilty of an impeachable offense:  Lying under oath in a trial where he was a defendant and suborning perjury in other witnesses.  Those are felonies that earn common citizens jail time, and the fact that he subjected the country to the whole tawdry spectacle when he could have just refused to answer the initial lawsuit and gotten off with a maximum $85,000 judgment -- a mere fraction of what was spent defending him -- indicates there is something very, very wrong in his head / heart / soul; that he enjoys this kind of brinksmanship, and that despite his good ol’ boy charm he should have never been allowed access to national office.  And he still lost the initial lawsuit, anyway…

[9]  And truth be told, Saddam had a legitimate beef against Kuwait; they had been tapping into Iraq’s oil fields which was the incident that provoked the invasion.  Settling the matter by invading them, however, was waaaaaaay outta proportion.

[10]  But I knew Afghanistan was called “the graveyard of empires” for a reason and that while wiping out the Taliban and Al Qeada were good ideas, we’d damn sure better have a viable exit strategy in place to keep it from turning into another Vietnam.

[11]  Iraq, Afghanistan, the United States

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