Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Look What I Found: Desert Storm Trading Cards

On a recent trip to idyllic Cape May, NJ, I found myself in an antique flea market as I often do. While perusing jewelry, ceramics and mid 90s comic books (X-Force!), I suddenly came upon some packages of Topps Desert Storm trading cards. My initial reaction was, “Wow, we actually used to manufacture and sell trading cards dedicated to a war.” My second, almost simultaneous reaction was, “I remember these.”

The pack

Despite being aware of these cards as a kid, and possibly owning some, I was pretty shocked to rediscover the fact that they existed. Trading cards used to be a big business in America. In addition to the numerous companies that made cards for every sport, there were trading cards for comic books, movies, TV shows (SNL cards were awesome!), not to mention Garbage Pail Kids and the like. So, as a kid it probably didn’t seem too strange to me that there were cards for a war as well.

As an adult, it seems grotesque, especially with the cards released so close to the actual war. Not to mention that there were multiple sets of Desert Storm cards  made by Topps and other companies. Desert Storm wasn’t much of a war, and at this point it seems more like prologue than anything else, but it’s not exactly something we should treat like a football season or the new Batman movie. While the United States-led Allied Forces “only” lost 379 lives, the Iraqi casualties are estimated to be between 20,000 and 35,000.  Even worse, 3,664 Iraqi civilians were killed. Fewer than 3,000 civilians died in the 9/11 attacks. Can you imagine what the response would be if another country released a set of 9/11 trading cards? Selling trading cards dedicated to such a lopsided military conflict almost seems like gloating. And to quote Dalton, “Nobody ever wins a fight.”

So I bought four packages to try to figure out just what Topps, and the United States as a whole, was thinking. Here's what I found.

Satellite CommunicationsWell this is a little disappointing, but I'm starting to see how Topps may be able to get out of here with some dignity intact. Highlighting some of the technological advancements of the US Armed Forces is hardly incendiary, and it actually kind of makes sense.

Powell and CheneyThis one is great but only from a 2009 perspective. You recognize that little weasel on the right, don't you? Look at that evil little smirk.  Is it just me or does he look exactly like the sort of Oswald Cobblepot-ish caricatures and impersonations that would become so popular a decade later?

Still, they're sticking with the "dedicated to the men [no women yet] of our Armed Forces" company line pretty well. Did I unfairly pre-judge Desert Storm trading cards?

Carpet Bombing

I'm sorry, what? "Carpet bombing?" Is that what you just said to me. You are talking about the indiscriminate destruction of large areas, even whole cities, right? That "carpet bombing." The one that killed 580,000 Japanese civilians in a 9 month span in WWII. This is more like it. There's nothing more American than celebrating a massively destructive military tactic with a fucking trading card. This also undercuts a lot of the "high tech war" rhetoric. Despite all the laser guided missiles and other precise equipment, we were still just straight bombing the fuck out of people.

Laying an M-21 MineHey kids, you know how you used to go out in the yard, and get down in the dirt and pretend you were a soldier? Now, you can keep that whimsical fantasy alive well into your 20s... with REAL EXPLOSIVES. Just look at all the fun these two lads are having. Just remember, don't accidentally trigger the device. It's intended to blow holes in armored tanks, so you can imagine what it will do to you fragile and improperly armored flesh and bones. ENLIST NOW!

Top GunThe recruitment drive continues with a card that shamelessly exploits the popularity of the Tony Scott/Tom Cruise machismo/homoerotism opus Top Gun. The card is a slightly odd choice for this set, as the description on the back makes no mention of Desert Storm. It does, however, sound like it was written by a marketing exec with phrases like "airborne playoffs" and "cream of the flying crop" (sounds dirty). Another odd choice, titling the card the way the movie is named rather than the military's "TOPGUN." Then again, verisimilitude has never been a priority in US Armed Forces ads (nor have facts).

The cards so far have been very US-centric, but we're Americans and we never take all the credit. The descriptions are very careful to always refer to the "Allied Forces," and the front of the cards is neutral. The logo even celebrates the "Coalition for Peace." Of course, the design on the back tells a different story:

The red and blue isn't for England and the stars aren't for Syria

The red and blue isn't for England and the stars aren't for Syria

But we're gracious enough to acknowledge the other side in this conflict. And we're going to do it in a fair, respectful, not at all propaganda-ish way. See...

The ScudThere's nothing overtly sinister about that photograph. Interesting note about the unpleasant sounding "scud" missile. That's just a name we made up for it. For no reason. What did we name our missile to counteract the scud? The dignified and noble "patriot" of course. You know what I think the Soviets who designed the scud would have called it if they'd chosen the name? The patriot.

Aside from photographs that range from jingoistic to sadistic, the card backs provide a lot of useful information. Did you know that the name of the HAWK missile is actually a highly technical acronym for Homing All-the-Way Killer? Or that the shoulder-mounted anti-armor Dragon Missile Launcher helped give US soldiers the "power to confidently confront" armored vehicles? Which is great, because, as we all know, the US was sorely lacking confidence in Desert Storm.

All in all, these cards were an eye opening trip down memory lane. A rare opportunity to revisit not only a historical event, but also the exact way that event was experienced by some people. The results were disturbing. The cards exude the United States' aura of invincibility and moral superiority that I very clearly remember from my childhood, but that I was also too young to recognize for what it was.

To find out more about the process that created these cards, I got in touch with the good people at Topps. There was no one there to talk to me about that, but they were happy to offer me a WORLDWIDE EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEEK at some cards from the upcoming Operation Enduring Freedom set. Enjoy!

Mission Accomplished!The first card in the series would also work nicely as the final card in the Desert Storm set. In a stellar example of the proud military tradition of ceremonies and back patting, a new President Bush is able to proudly proclaim, "We won! We finally won!"

Greeted as LiberatorsThis card is proof positive that no matter what you've been told, the Iraqi people LOVE us and are practically breaking their backs to thank us. And that's not fear or apprehension about the giant guns around the corner you see in those kids' faces. That's anxiety about meeting the people that were generous enough to free them.

And finally...

Abu Ghraib

War trading cards - perfect for kids, historians and people who like to torture animals.

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3 Responses »

  1. Fantastic work. Memories of the Beckett Baseball Monthly "Funny Cards" section.

    Don't sleep on the "Yo!" trading cards, greatest non-sport trading card ever...reasons are too many to list.

    That Joshua Bible Action figure I have came with a trading card as well.

    -failed "get money" scheme...the "Limited Edition" Marvel Halloween Pack resale...FTW.

  2. im almost sure i have some of these somewhere.

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