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Until the Vietnam War era, war toys—playthings calling to mind military life, battlefields, or warfare broadly speaking—reflected weaponry historically used in U.S. conflicts while encouraging forms of play reinforcing a triumphant war story narrative culturally grounded in movies and television. Whether waged with manufactured toys or do-it-yourself ingenuity, pretend fighting for most of the 20th century oriented children toward a mythical American way of war identified by writer Tom Engelhardt. In a cavalry charge or storming the sands of Iwo Jima, the ultimate victory of normally peaceful but outnumbered good guys facing off against ruthless bad guys justified the winner’s use of violence while validating his virtue.

Ethical campaigns to limit—if not abolish—war toys contested what activists saw as commercial militarization of childhood, conditioning boys to ...

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