WHEN I was a kid, which wasn't that long ago, my buddies and I would play Marine Corps sniper with a scope-mounted Daisy 880 pump-action pellet-gun. Some of our favorite targets were G.I. Joes, in particular the ridiculous bargain-bin figures such as Destro, the evil metal-headed sidekick, and Snow Job, the unfortunately named arctic warrior. Taking off a Joe's head at 25 yards from a prone position under heavy cover remains one of my finest hours.
How times have changed. Instead of the K-B Toys fire sale and the firing range in my backyard, G.I. Joes now occupy an entire boutique in luxury toy dealer F.A.O. Schwartz's posh Manhattan store. And it seems that the newfound wave of post-September 11 patriotism--MSNBC reports a 36 percent increase in action-figure sales --has spurred the creation of a new, glossier breed of toy soldiers.
The American Freedom Fighters series from Dragon Models Limited--as the collectible boxes suggest--are "live from the Afghanistan frontline," with each character based on an actual unit and operational theater in Southern Asia. For example, there's Dean, a Special Forces sniper stationed in Kabul; Gil, an F/A-18 pilot on the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Arabian Sea; and Hugh, a Marine holding down the airfield in Kandahar. An unnamed British Royal Marine commando stationed at the Bagram Airport, and Clay Ramsey, a domestic counterterrorism adviser, are recent additions to the set, while a native "Afghanistan Warrior"--one assumes from the Northern Alliance--is a special bonus figure for individuals who collect all ten American Freedom Fighters.
Striking a sharp contrast to the G.I. Joes of old is the level of realism present in each figure. Joes carried faux-futuristic weaponry that, at least on the animated series, never really hurt or killed the enemy, yet somehow allowed them to prevail over the bad guys (interestingly enough, a terrorist organization named Cobra) by the conclusion of every episode. Counterintelligence specialist Scarlett packed the nonstandard "XK-1 Power Crossbow." Cobra grunts carried the Skorpion VZOR61, while their comrade the Baroness drove the H.I.S.S. Tank. Dr. Mindbender's enigmatic "hand-portable weapon system" was capable, his filecard declares, "of reducing the most strong-willed individual into a cowering wimp."
The American Freedom Fighters, however, come equipped with the true-to-life, nuts-and-bolts gear of American grunts dug into the red clay of Afghanistan. A figure from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit comes replete with rolled isomat, insulated canteen, ALICE pack with Gore-Tex cover, AT-4 (Anti-Tank Weapon 4th generation), flak jacket, entrenching tool, LBV (Load-Bearing Vest), Ka-Bar, Gas mask bag, and a haircut so tight you can feel the bristles.
Delta Force Frank sports an Afghan tribal hat and shawl over his uniform. While Frank carries his M-16 with over-under M-203 grenade launcher and a 9mm pistol, his colleague, Central Intelligence Agent Jones, totes an AK-47 instead of the American-issued rifle (Is this a good or bad idea? Read here.). His gear includes a Camelback water bladder (now ubiquitous among American forces in the field), aviator sunglasses, and Adidas soccer sneakers instead of combat boots.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the relatively large figures--think Barbie-doll sized rather than the 3 3/4" G.I. Joe--is their high degree of detail. Tora Bora Ted looks scruffy and downright scary--just imagine how you would look if you had to spend a few months searching Afghan caves in the dead of winter. Delta Force Frank comes with an impressively detailed smoke signal, right down to the asinine military nomenclature and acronyms on the label. Jose, a Special Operations Airman, even has long Air Force hippie hair.
You can check the figures out at the Dragon Models website (which, as viewers will see, is still under construction).
Interesting to note is that the models are made--much like Larry Miller's American flag--in China, by the Hong Kong-based Dragon Models Limited. And, quite frankly, the amount they know about the gear our G.I.s hump is a little scary.
Will American Freedom Fighters give G.I. Joe a run for his money? At $30 to $50 a pop, they're more likely to dig into dad's desk than any backyard killing zone. And, the Freedom Fighters series has one obvious defect. There's no Taliban or al Qaeda terrorists, no bin Laden or Mohammed Atef, no enemies for our Special Forces sniper to nail with a .50 cal at half a click, no Cobras to serve as targets for whistling bottle rockets or a hand-me-down pellet gun.
Bo Crader is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.