NEW YORK – The next battleground in the war on terror may be in your child's sandbox.
From the moment the Pentagon released those grainy photos of U.S. special operations soldiers on horseback in Afghanistan, the American soldier has become an electrifying, heroic figure in a way he hasn't been since World War II. Now, toy manufacturers are putting professional-soldier dolls in the hands of the nation's boys and girls.
"Before 9/11, a lot of stores were saying, 'We don't want to do violent toys in our stores,'" Stephen A. Koehl, president of toymaker Skullduggery, Inc., said. "Now, because of the war, they're more lenient toward it."
Last year, at the annual American International Toy Fair in Manhattan, you'd be hard-pressed to find booths featuring modern-day soldiers — unless you count Survivor curmudgeon and former Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch.
This year, in comparison, the Jacob Javits Center was festooned with the red, white and blue, and pint-sized Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines figures proudly stood at attention next to the usual assortment of Richard Simmons cherubs, Day-Glo aliens and barking robotic dogs.
The bull's-eye of events-driven toys went to a Hong Kong-based company, Dragon Models Inc., which unveiled "Live From Afghanistan Frontline: American Freedom Fighters." The company's artists used the help of military experts, Army historians and front-line reporters to recreate the smallest detail of the actual American soldiers rooting out the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, North American Dragon spokesman Liam Cusack said.
Everything — from the clasps that hold together "Tora Bora Ted's" holster to the straps and sunglasses on "CIA Agent Jones" — is a nearly exact one-sixth replica, he said.
"This is what the guys are wearing over there," Cusack said. "You can even read the directions on the rocket launcher. Our guys worked overtime, not because it sells but because they want to honor the guys fighting over there."
Especially popular among the 10 figures are the CIA doll, who wears civilian gear and looks more like a WB heartthrob than a trained spy, and the northern Afghanistan soldier, who wears a red-and-white native scarf.
There probably will not be a "Taliban Tommy" or "Al Qaeda Kurt" doll anytime soon, Cusack said. "It's a sensitive subject, and we've looked into it," he said. "But I think this is as close we're going to get."
Other companies are getting into the rank and file, like Hong Kong-based bbi Toys, which introduced the "Freedom Force Line," which a press release described as "tribute to the real-life action heroes of the U.S. Marine Corps, Delta Force, Green Berets, F-14 Tomcat pilots, 82nd Airborne Division and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units."
Another line is centered on American firefighters, with the company gushing that "the word 'hero' has taken on new meaning since Sept. 11." Like the Dragon Models toys, the bbi figures are meant as collectors' items and are precisely detailed by expert dollmakers.
Over at Skullduggery, which is based in Tustin, Calif., it's the children who make the toys. The "Cast & Paint Army Men" set, in which children use molds and paints to create pistol-, grenade- and machinegun-bearing soldiers, has been selling solidly since the attacks, Koehl said.
"Of course, there are still some moms who are against it," he said.
Even toy-train companies are on track. Model train maker K-Line, of Chapel Hill, N.C., sped up to pump out rescue-team and Red Cross train sets after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, with the profits from the Red Cross vehicles going to the eponymous charity. The other prominently displayed lines at K Line's toy fair booth, like the Army train, had already been in production well before Sept. 11, President Maury D. Klein said.
But though his display was dotted liberally with the "Star-Spangled Banner," Klein dismissed the apparent patriotic trend in toys, which he said wouldn't necessarily make the jump from the convention center to real kids' toy chests.
"There is too much patriotic stuff," he said. "No one's paying attention to that."