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At the Astor Place Kmart, the encampment is on display just inside the main entrance. A camouflaged sandy-haired soldier with an American-flag arm patch stands alert in a teal, pink, and yellow basket beneath a pretty green-and-purple bow. Within a doll-arm's reach are a machine gun, rifle, hand grenade, large knife, pistol, and round of ammunition. In the next basket a buzz-cut blond with a snazzy dress uniform hawks over homeland security, an American eagle shield on his arm, and a machine gun, pistol, Bowie knife, two grenades, truncheon, and handcuffs at the ready.
One must hunt a little harder to find the Easter sniper at Walgreens, but what lies in wait among the bunnies and chicks there is perhaps even more surreal. The Super Wrriors (sic) Battle Set and Placekeepers (sic) Military Men Play Set bristle with toy assault rifles and machine guns, tanks, troop transports, bomber planes, commanded by armored men with shaved heads and sunglasses. The assortment also includes a space-age ray gun and other imaginary hardware for orbital combat. Packets of jellybeans are tossed in as if an afterthought, nestled in the cellophane underbrush like anti-personnel mines.
Not surprisingly, the merger of religious observance and jingoistic lust sparked the ire of Christian leaders. Bishop George Packard, who oversees spiritual care for Episcopalian members of the armed services, worries about practical issues. He's concerned about creating a backlash against the military, and questions the message sent to Muslims by the melding of a Christian holiday with images of war.
The products themselves, Packard says, are "really, really bizarre. It's a crass embrace of the far end of a range of options for parents to provide their kids. Easter baskets have been deteriorating for a long time, but they've really gone over the edge. I am so disturbed, I am so confounded by this bad taste."
Other Christian groups agree. Dr. Richard Land, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention commission on ethics and religious liberty, says, "Well, of course, it certainly would be a jarring note for the celebration of Easter. I certainly wouldn't buy one for my children, when my children were small."
The religious leaders noted that the eggs, bunnies, and chicks so intimately associated with the holiday are also unrelated to the narrative of Jesus. They are instead the trappings of Ostara (also known as Eostra), a Teutonic goddess of spring, fertility, and the dawn, who also lends her name to estrogen and the East.
But guns would seem to be at odds with that convergent pagan and Christian spirit of renewal. The juxtaposition is an affront to some soldiers, too. "I call that, myself, a pretty stupid insult and a slap at a religious observance," says Bruce Zielsdorf, who served 23 years in the air force and is now a spokesperson for the army in New York City. "First they commercialize one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, and now this? It sounds like some vendor threw some stuff up on a shelf to see what would sell. I can assure you that we were not consulted on any decision to make any such Easter baskets."
Retailers went on the defensive. "There was no intention on our part to offer up a violent Easter basket. We're very conscious of what will and what will not offend our customers. It was meant to be a lighthearted and fun gift," says Kmart spokesperson Abigail Jacobs. "It's in my opinion a harmless toy included in an Easter basket."
The reaction to a Voice query at Walgreens contrasted sharply, with company representatives retreating instead of digging in. "Going forward next year, we don't plan to have Easter baskets with toy soldiers or a military theme. The thinking on these Easter baskets was more toy-related and we didn't really think about it otherwise," says Walgreens spokesperson Carol Hively. "We apologize to anybody who is offended or felt that this was inappropriate."
That's not enough for Bishop Packard. "Well, isn't that nice? What about this season? This is when it really counts," he says. "Kids are eavesdropping on the talk of war and get enveloped in its trauma."
The armored baskets are only the latest combat-themed toy to hit the shelves. Hasbro's G.I. Joe is a perennial favorite that's surged 46 percent amid the war fever, and new ones like Tora Bora "Ted" are still being rolled out by other companies. In the current climate, the plastic soldiers allow children to "role-play out their feelings about war," says toy industry analyst Reyne Rice of the NPD Group.
Easter provides a way for makers of generic troops to capitalize on the trend. Unlike superhero dolls, war toys don't come with costly trademarks attached. That lowers the bar to entry for small manufacturers, today typically Chinese. That industry has followed confectioners to transform Easter into the second-largest selling season, Rice says. "Maybe they are trying to promote products in another way, to draw attention to them. Obviously this isn't the kind of attention they intended," she says. Kmart's basket supplier, Megatoys, didn't return calls.
Most toy-filled baskets contain items like sandbox goodies and cuddly dolls, and this isn't the first time the toy soldiers have made an appearance. This year, though, the action figures seem to have more prominent shelf positions at the two downtown Kmart and Walgreens stores. Hively says they were particularly strong sellers. Walgreens' supplier, Wondertreats, justifies its product as the result of careful market analysis. "We don't determine the mix [of toys]. It's determined by what the consumers want. We talk to kids and watch kids in stores," explains Greg Hall, owner of Wondertreats. "They're exposed to the violence and blood that sells newspapers. We don't create that, we're just responding to what customers want."
Such toys are, however, a frequent focus of children's advocacy groups like the Lion & Lamb Project, which during the Christmas season highlighted another toy, the Military Forward Command Post, made by Ever Sparkle Industrial, that seemed to cross culture lines in an unsettling way. The Web site for Kay-Bee Toy Stores describes it as "a lifelike replica of a real battlefield headquarter. . . . Two-tiered and loaded with realistic weapons, accessories, furniture and equipment, this set is ready for action." This "battle-worn playset," also carried for the holiday season by Kmart, Toys "R" Us and Amazon.com, looks like a dollhouse but has been gutted, torched, and bullet-pocked. A similar toy offered by Hobbylinc.com features a bombed-out farmhouse.
"Parents say, 'Oh, kids know it's fantasy,' and then they want to tell their kids to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny," observes Lion & Lamb director Daphne White. "You can't have it both ways. To market war as something fun and to play around with is sending them a very dangerous message."