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Three Military Experts on the Inspired Madness of G.I. Joe Toys

Missiles on everything. Planes and helicopters brighter than 1980s skateboard graphics. No armor. But are G.I. Joe and Cobra vehicles really that dumb? (Yes.)

It was the very end of the Cold War and a rare decade of peace (well, by America’s standards). Nevertheless, a certain generation of adults spent a big part of their 1980s childhood engaged in a never-ending war against terror thanks to G.I. Joe, a toy line, cartoon and comic book series about a quasi elite, special-operations, anti-terrorism force, or… something. They never quite explained it.

Anyway, the Joes spent all their time battling a privately financed terrorist organization called Cobra that, by the looks of it, must’ve had the second largest standing army in the world. But despite their military might, it was led by an inept, slapstick villain called Cobra Commander who concealed his face and spoke with a snakelike lisp, and had a sardonic Scottish arms dealer who wore a full chrome helmet as his insolent second-in-command. Yes, that already sounds insane, but millions of kids thought it was the most amazing thing ever: an eclectic fighting force full of commandos, machine gunners, ninjas, divers, sailors, pilots — the list kept growing as Hasbro needed new toys to sell every year. 

Their vehicles, in particular, remain utterly absurd: Open cockpits sit inches away from giant rockets; missiles are on everything; drivers will drive vehicles lying prone, for some reason; armored vehicles have glass cockpits; many come in extremely un-camo shades of neon yellow and blue. Which naturally made us wonder, what do actual military experts think of these hilariously designed war machines? 

Let’s find out. Because knowing is half the battle, isn’t it?

On Whether It’s Standard Practice to Have an Open Cockpit Next to a Ballistic Missile Exhaust (Or an Open Cockpit at All)

Tom Schwallie, founder of Tank and AFV News: There’s always a complete lack of concern for crew protection in G.I. Joe. Open cockpits are just a ridiculous idea because it’d be the target. In fact, it defeats the whole purpose of an armored vehicle! It’s the equivalent of those fantasy drawings where barbarian women are running around with an armored bra and nothing else. It defeats the purpose if you’re not covering your whole body! Same with armored vehicles.

Sgt. Major Daniel Sebby of the California State Guard, a former combat logistician and currently chief curator of the California Military Department: This [RPV] is wrong on so many levels. It’s got an exposed operator, exposed target acquisition radar and exposure to the exhaust. You’d get cooked if you sat in that cockpit and fired a missile. Also, I don’t understand how this thing moves, because I don’t see an engine!

On the Practicality of a Glass Cockpit in a Tank

Schwallie: They’ve probably made advances in impact-resistant glass, but nothing to the limit of working on an armored vehicle. I spent so much time as a kid trying to justify in my head the H.I.S.S. tank. It’s got zero trench-crossing ability, because it’s just going to nose right into the trench. The other thing is they’ve put in little dots to represent rivets — we haven’t riveted armored vehicles together since the early World War II years. If a plate of armor gets hit by a projectile really hard, it’s going to pop the heads off the rivets and they’ll fly around the inside of the vehicle. So that’s, like, 80 years out of date.

Will, Army infantry veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and blogger at Funker530: A glass cockpit would be extremely practical in a tank, so long as it’s the thick ballistic glass that’s already used in many armored vehicles. I was in a Stryker unit vehicle, and it was incredibly hard for our drivers to see at night using night-vision goggles through the vehicle’s periscopes. Before the end of my Iraq tour, our vehicles were being modified to have a large armored glass windshield placed in their driver hatch.

On the Effectiveness of Neon Pink, Yellow, Lavender or Magenta as Vehicle Colors

Sebby: Color all depends on the mission. Obviously, in the desert, we went to tan. In woodland Germany, we used brown, black and green. Night operations would be obviously black. Red makes a helluva good target. And those red Cobra logos? Might as well paint a bullseye on it! 

On the Number of Missiles You’re Generally Supposed to Attach to a Vehicle

Sebby: Oh God, what the hell is this? First of all, the thrust from those vertical rockets would burn up the vehicle. Then you have all those missiles on a turntable. What do you think’s gonna happen when you fire a missile, with the exhaust, to the missiles behind it? Same with the yellow rockets on the underside. And that little 6×6 go-kart: completely superfluous to the mission. Mounting a missile on the barrel of a tank gun? That’s dumb. They tried to make this thing a tank, a ballistic missile launcher and some sort of equipment carrier. Too many missions for one vehicle. Yeah, this thing is so wrong. 

Schwallie: With anti-tank [missile] systems you only have one or two missiles mounted. With artillery you can have as many as you want, but they’re usually mounted inside some kind of tube or something. They’re not just slapped on different parts of the vehicle randomly. In G.I. Joe, there’s a lot of, ‘We’re going to pile guns on it with no protection and no aiming devices, or ways of feeding ammunition to them,’ and obviously it’s just capturing kids’ imaginations, but at the same time, it’s just randomly placing missiles and guns on everything.

On Whether a Windsurf Makes an Effective Fighting Vehicle

Sebby: Okay, this is just dumb. With an M16 hooked up to the sail, you could only shoot at things that your sail will allow you to. The wind is doing the aiming for you. If you’ve ever sailboarded, the wind decides where you’ll go, not you. Torpedo? Same thing! First of all, a torpedo that small is useless: By the time you get close enough to hit anything, they’re going to blow you out of the water. And having a woodland camouflage sail on the ocean makes a really good target.

On Whether Flying a Helicopter With an Open Cockpit Is Ever a Good Idea

Sebby: Great visibility, but zero operator protection. I see no target acquisition system for what are supposed to be sidewinder missiles — let’s assume these are unguided missiles. Then there’s the thrust that you’re exposing the pilot to, and I don’t know what the hell that gun is in the nose. On the plus side, it has a more modern protected rear rotor. 

Schwallie: I got the feeling the FANG was probably inspired by a James Bond movie [You Only Live Twice]. At least it looks plausible, but it’s got a little engine and can probably be taken down by a kid with his .22. It can’t be very fast. And it’s got that big gravity bomb so it’s got to get right over the target — it’s not like it’s not going to be noticed!

On Whether Any of the G.I. Joe Vehicles Could Ever Feasibly Be Used For Anything in Battle

Schwallie: There are G.I. Joe vehicles that are plausible. The Mauler was by far the best. They literally copied an experimental U.S. light tank design and they didn’t put a bunch of extra machine guns on it, and they made hatches the crew could go in. It was exactly what I wanted as a kid — I was like, this thing makes sense!

Also, the first G.I. Joe fighter jet was an F-14 — that made sense. And the Dragonfly helicopter was like an old Bell AH-1 Cobra, which was a little outdated by the time G.I. Joe came out. Cobra had the Rattler, which looked like an A10 Warthog. That was one of my favorite toys as a kid. But then they came up with all these little one-man flying machines. They’re so bad.

On the Military Soundness of Having Your Unit Dressed in a Football Jersey/Wetsuit/Ninja Costume/Jaunty Sailor Outfit/Samurai Armor/Aloha Shirt/Astronaut Suit, Etc.

Sebby: That tells me there’s a lack of discipline. There’s a reason why we wear uniforms: First of all, the resupply is easier. And two, you don’t want to spend time trying to figure out who’s who. Then you’ve got a sailor with a parrot on his shoulder: First thing I would do is shoot the parrot, because the last thing you want is to be on a surveillance mission and some bird pipes up. And why’s a sailor wearing blue if you’re in the desert? Again, you might as well paint a target on him.

Schwallie: For me, the biggest issue was I when I got all my figures together and tried to form them into a platoon and you realized only half of them have a decent gun. It’s like, I’ve got a firefighter: How’s that help me? Or a guy I can only use in the desert — we’re not going to the desert, sorry. Or the snow dude.

This stuff is all designed to make kids say, “That looks cool.” Because if you actually made a line of toys that look like real army guys, they’d all just look the same. In the first set in 1982, they all did kind of look the same, then they realized, we’ve gotta make each guy look more individualistic. Which I’m sure is great from a marketing standpoint, but I wouldn’t want to be the G.I. Joe ordinance/logistics guy, having to remember, “Oh, this guy carries this kind of gun so I have to order this ammo; this guy needs food for his parrot and gunpowder for his pirate pistol.”

Will: This does happen, although maybe not to the extent of the cartoon. Look at the special operations units: Sometimes it’s cringe when you meet the spec-ops dudes that try to pretend they’re this super-deep, spiritual, Bodhi-from-Point Break, warrior-monk type, when the reality is that the military just allowed those guys to express themselves overtly and they decided to run hard with it.

On the Effectiveness of Bellowing “Yo Joe!” or “Cobralalalalala” as You Charge Headlong into Enemy Laser Fire

Schwallie: In the Civil War, the rebel yell was a legitimate thing, but that was back when they were still doing things like bayonet charges, where you kind of need to get psyched up for it. The thing is, the modern battlefield is incredibly noisy, and if you’re some sort of super sneaky anti-terrorist unit you probably don’t want to be heard. And “Yo Joe!”? It’s just not a good war cry.

On the Overall Conceit of G.I. Joe

Will: The Cobra organization had what it took to dominate the world, but they were repeatedly failed by Cobra Commander himself. The guy was a complete idiot and repeatedly demonstrated poor leadership resulting in losses and casualties on the battlefield. Had Cobra Commander sat back in a symbolic role and let his arms supplier, Destro, run the show as commander of Cobra military operations, I believe the Joes would’ve been totally fucked.