Back when we were little kids in El Paso, Texas my brother and I had a good friend who lived up the street. This kid, like us, was spoiled with a multitude of toys. The only difference between him and us was that he was required to take better care of them. We would go over and often play with his Star Wars and G.I. Joe action figures. Usually we played with the two types of figures separately, meaning we rarely mixed playing Star Wars and G.I. Joe together. Being realists we didn’t like blending the laws of the two universes. An F-14 tomcat (G.I. Joe) just doesn’t have the ability to jump into hyperspace. Neither Duke nor the Cobra Commander made a good match against Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader with their grasp of the Force. However, every once and a while we would have a battle of Star Wars vs. G.I. Joe. The G.I.’s tanks, planes, and helicopters never stood a chance against Super Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, a Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, and most of all the devotion of the Force. These battles of injection-molded plastic were almost like sacrifices to the toy gods in recognition for what was good over what was evil in the toy universe.
In its fantasy there is a profound sense of reality to Star Wars. Conversely, in its reality, there is a profound sense of fantasy to GI Joe. Star Wars like any epic heroic, tries to examine good, evil, and ethical dilemmas that face the human existence. GI Joe is mere propaganda for the warfare state.
According to the highly informative site Complete Guide to G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, GI Joe began as a 12-inch action figure in the 1960’s by Hasbro. With the rising price of plastics in 1978 the toy was discontinued by the company. In 1982 Hasbro revisited the toy, however this time at 3.75" height to compete with the Star Wars line of the same height produced by Kenner (Hasbro now owns the Star Wars toy line as well).
In 1985 there was an associated television cartoon that we watched as kids. We enjoyed watching the show but we always had our criticisms. We always thought the GI mottos were quite corny, probably because they were bereft of any real meaning. "Yo Joe!" and "Cobra!" battle cries just didn’t cut it. (We always found the "WOLVERINES!" battle cry to be preferable. Red Dawn was always up there with Star Wars.) Kids age 7—10 are not easily fooled, especially when it comes to their toys.
We also didn’t like how the cartoon would make lasers out of all the weapons. We knew the mechanics of these weapons and how they fired. Also in the cartoon, nobody ever died. When a jet was hit by a missile, the pilot was immediately and safely ejected. If a bomb was dropped on a jeep, no one lost a limb or was ripped by shrapnel. We knew this to be quite unrealistic from our own experience. Explosives were one of our specialties. Back in those unruly summers of the mid eighties in West Texas, a nine- or ten-year-old could buy fireworks from a stoner at a fireworks stand as long as they had cash. With firecrackers, we would blow up army ant hills. We would take old ratty toys, including any Joes that were broken (Star Wars was sacred), and blow them up seeing first hand the concept of shrapnel. With the firecrackers we were able to further deduce what a grenade or an aerial bomb must be like. So in many ways the cartoon was an insult to our intelligence.
In any case, we still enjoyed collecting and playing with the toys, but they never held the same aura of Star Wars and its toys. This was because GI Joe, from the cartoon to the toys was always simply too black and white. "He’ll fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble, GI Joe is there." Sounds like the propaganda of a Toby Keith song doesn’t it? As kids, we never saw it as propaganda for the state, as we never pondered such nonsense at that age. But there is no denying that propaganda is the essence of GI Joe. Propaganda always comes off flat, lacking any real substance. In the long run it fails to inspire because it fails to make us really think and reflect on anything. It is a smooth mechanism for bringing about the ends of those in power. The lessons of GI Joe are that combat destruction occurs without consequence and that the enemy (Cobra, Communists, etc.) is inhuman. Without the enemy’s humanity, death is of no concern, because non-human entities correctly have no rights. Where GI Joe failed, Star Wars took its place.
Star Wars is the great antithesis to GI Joe. Both are toys and stories that profoundly represent American political reality, but Star Wars never comes across as propaganda. In contrast, it seeks to speak truth to power. In Star Wars actions have very relevant consequences and the enemy is very much human. Since the enemy is human, he is never to be underestimated.
Estimation of the enemy is one of the more profound lessons of Star Wars. Many times Obi-Wan and Yoda admonish Luke Skywalker to never underestimate Darth Vader and the power of the dark side, as it is something that both Jedi masters learned the hard way in Episode III. In combat, one of the most defeating mistakes one can make is underestimation of an opponent. Strutting around and touting a cake walk is a sure way to defeat. When Luke shows signs of arrogance and overconfidence in his abilities he fails in the Empire Strikes Back. It is not until he gains effective control of his power and fear while internalizing a sense of humility, that he is successful in Return of the Jedi.
In his youth, Luke not only underestimates his enemies, but also his Jedi master Yoda as well. When Luke searches for Yoda in the swamps of Degobah, Luke comes across a small green elf-like creature which he does not recognize as the great Jedi master. Instead he thinks the master will be of a great size and might. "I’m looking for a great warrior," Luke exasperates. Yoda retorts, "Wars do not make one great."
Later in his training, Luke underestimates the power of the force when his space ship falls deeper into the swamp.
LUKE: Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.
YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.
YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
LUKE: All right, I’ll give it a try.
YODA: No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
Luke closes his eyes and concentrates on thinking the ship out. Slowly, the X-wing’s nose begins to rise above the water. It hovers for a moment and then slides back, disappearing once again.
LUKE: (panting heavily) I can’t. It’s too big.
YODA: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hm? Mmmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we …not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship!
LUKE: (discouraged) You want the impossible.
Quietly Yoda turns toward the X-wing fighter. With his eyes closed and his head bowed, he raises his arm and points at the ship. Soon, the fighter rises above the water and moves forward as Artoo beeps in terror and scoots away. The entire X-wing moves majestically, surely, toward the shore. Yoda stands on a tree root and guides the fighter carefully down toward the beach. Luke stares in astonishment as the fighter settles down onto the shore. He walks toward Yoda.
LUKE: I don’t…I don’t believe it.
YODA: That is why you fail.
We’ve all felt like Luke especially as adolescent boys and young adult men. So certain were we about the things we had no business being certain of, and uncertain of the things we should have. This dialogue has influenced an entire generation of young men in some way or another, and I am proud to say it has been more widely discussed and debated by American men of my age than the likes of the Gettysburg Address (yes there is great hope for my generation). And maybe that’s why we failed in Vietnam and are failing in Iraq; we don’t really believe in democracy and the state, for as Bastiat said it is none other than a great fiction. Yet these calamities still occur because we have no confidence in our belief of the force, or whatever speaks truth to power. When we lose our confidence to know the truth, then the temptations of the dark side seek to find a home. As Yoda warns, "Anger…fear…aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice." The dark side is, "Quicker, easier, more seductive." It is dangerous to underestimate the enemy, for we may fall into its traps and become the enemy ourselves.
These are the men of great talent and leadership who are seduced by power and order over all things. They seek to rule all and impose their vision of order on the universe. It is these individuals and the power of the dark side, in particular, that master Yoda constantly warns not to underestimate. It is through seduction that the Sith recruit for their order. In Episode III, under the political mask of Chancellor Palpatine, Darth Sidious slowly seduces Anakin Skywalker to the dark side of the force. Sidious sees Anakin’s great power as a fighter pilot and most importantly as a truly devoted Jedi. Sidious begins the seduction by subtle suggestion in telling Anakin to decapitate the unarmed prisoner and Sith, Count Dooku, during the heat of combat. Anakin obeys but later is conflicted on the immorality of such an action.
Since the Jedi council has no knowledge of Anakin’s secret pregnant wife, they give him incorrect advice and assign him to further duties under Chancellor Palpatine (Sidious). Sidious takes advantage by playing into Anakin’s prophetic fear that his wife will die at child birth, by slowly explaining the ways Anakin can guarantee the life of his secret wife. Of course such methods are not available to Jedi; it is only through other powers of the force that they can be employed.
Under the slow progression, Palpatine eventually reveals himself to Anakin as Darth Sidious, Dark Lord of the Sith. The seduction is complete when Anakin saves Sidious from arrest and imminent death by Mace Windu. Anakin’s fall fulfills the prophecy that he will bring balance to the force with the destruction of all the Jedi except masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
During the Sith assault on the Jedi, Anakin, who is now Darth Vader, further defiles himself to a point of seemingly no return. He kills a number of small children training in the Jedi temple. At the command of Darth Sidious, he murders countless bureaucrats on the volcanic planet of Mustafar. He assaults his pregnant wife by strangling her. Finally, he is defeated by Obi-Wan in an arrogant fit of rage. In defeat, Darth Vader loses his legs, is badly burned, and mutilated. Vader is saved from death by Darth Sidious with the life protective mask and suit which we all have come to envision as Darth Vader.
With Darth Vader’s great talents, the new Emperor (Darth Sidious) is able to consolidate his imperial power. On behalf of the Empire, Vader continues to partake in the killing of multitudes, destruction of planets, and the crushing of all resistance and dissent. He becomes a tyrannical evil personified, to the point where there is little hope of return.
In the first Star Wars movie produced, Episode IV: A New Hope, Obi-Wan introduces the true power of the force in his final face off with Darth Vader:
VADER: Your powers are weak, old man.
OBI-WAN: You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
Obi-Wan hints at his eventual martyrdom to an angelic being at the destructive hands of Darth Vader. Vader continues to erroneously believe that true power comprises of might and destruction. Blinded by the dark side of the force, Vader is unable to conceive of a greater everlasting life in the force. Obi-Wan’s faith in action proves otherwise. As such he becomes a powerful intercessor and guide to Luke Skywalker, son of Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker). Master Yoda also passes into this angelic state in Return of the Jedi as well, also remaining as a guide to Luke in his future challenges. The deaths and afterlives of Obi-Wan and Yoda are quite similar to the Catholic notion of Sainthood, as Saints often are martyred in speaking truth to power becoming living intercessors and guides long after their physical life. Guardian angels and saintly intercessors possess true power and are important agents in the battle for the redemption of the soul.
Star Wars is ultimately a story of redemption. George Lucas teaches us how an innocent child can grow into a destructive monster. The innocent, talented, and faithful Annie grows to extreme hatred and becomes the practitioner of mass murder known as Darth Vader. However, despite all his evil deeds, all his destruction, and all his acts of murder, there is still the possibility of redemption.
The most brilliant artistry of the Star Wars saga is the Darth Vader mask. In Episodes III to V the viewer sees the explicit hatred behind the mask. However, in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the viewer begins to see regret, sorrow, and the hope of redemption in the exact same mask during a cordial meeting between Vader and his son Luke:
VADER: The Emperor has been expecting you.
LUKE: I know, father.
VADER: So, you have accepted the truth.
LUKE: I’ve accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.
VADER (turning to face him): That name no longer has any meaning for me.
LUKE: It is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully. That is why you couldn’t destroy me. That’s why you won’t bring me to your Emperor now.
Vader looks down from Luke to the lightsaber in his own black- gloved hand. He seems to ponder Luke’s words.
VADER: I see you have constructed a new lightsaber.
Vader ignites the lightsaber and holds it to examine its humming, brilliant blade.
VADER: Your skills are complete. Indeed, you are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen.
LUKE: Come with me.
VADER: Obi-Wan once thought as you do.
Luke steps close to Vader, then stops. Vader is still.
VADER: You don’t know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.
LUKE: I will not turn…and you’ll be forced to kill me.
VADER: If that is your destiny.
LUKE: Search your feelings, father. You can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.
VADER: It is too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.
Often, when men go down the dark path of destruction, they despairingly feel it is too late for redemption. But Luke slowly convinces his father that it is never too late. In the dialogue above we see the mirror opposite of the seduction invoked by Darth Sidious. This time, however, it is the faith and love of his son which leads Darth Vader back out of the dark side to the true power of the force. Anakin Skywalker saves his son, Luke, from murder by the hands of the Emperor, casting the Emperor and the identity of Darth Vader down an endless chasm. Mortally wounded in the process, Anakin finally takes off the infamous mask to look on his son for the first time with his own eyes.
In spite of all the evil done by him before, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed joining his masters Yoda and Obi-Wan in the angelic state of everlasting life in the force. George Lucas offers an important lesson for all of us to ponder. No matter how far along we go to the dark side, there is always hope in humanity for redemption.
GI Joe propaganda is thankfully failing in its purpose. There is no rush to sign up for imperial projects as indicated by poor recruiting results in the Army and the Marine Corps. Conscription will commence, especially if the empire wishes to grow in strength. However, despite the American rise to empire, there is great reason for hope. The truth behind the Star Wars saga is very much alive in the hearts of many young Americans. It is a spirit strong enough to maintain a living remnant of liberty while the last vestiges of the old republic are finally swept away.
So for those mothers out there who worry about the types of toys that their kids play with, steer clear of GI Joe. GI Joe’s propaganda offers us the promise of perpetual war. Its enticements of adventure and excitement lead to nothing but despair, death, and destruction. In contrast, Star Wars’ truth offers the promise of true power and true freedom, but most of all the very real hope of redemption. Besides, mothers will find comfort in the dictums of master Yoda, especially when he exclaims, "…adventure, hmm…excitement, heh…a Jedi craves not these things."
In the days to come, may the force be with us all.
Casey Khan [send him mail] lives in Mesa, AZ, with his wife and son. He was Honorably Discharged from the United States Marine Corps Reserve in October 2003. Check out his blog. He would also like to thank his brother, Danny, for his Jedi companionship in the many years of playing, watching, and pondering on the Star Wars saga, as it led to this article.