Do children’s toys breed a culture of violence and war? This was one of the many questions you’re left to ponder when reading Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest by Dutch artist Pierre Derks. The book arrived at Hyperallergic HQ with its very own UN Peacekeeper, a zip tie to secure your soldier to a location and instructions on how to become a part of the global online project. The book is mostly a selection of 500 images of the 50,000 blue-topped toy soldiers that have been distributed to more than 60 countries as park of Derks’s global art project. These images are the result of collaborative efforts by participants from all over the world who uploaded their toy soldier images onto Minibluehelmets.com.
Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest begins with a unique ensemble of essays about the art project and its subject, the UN Peacekeepers, from several perspectives. Although the authors’ opinions of the UN Peacekeepers are varied, many focused on the power of toys to prepare kids for war. They believe that militarism is embedded in children through toy guns, tanks and soldiers. This project begs the question, could we give our children symbols of peace to play with — and are the UN Peacekeepers that toy?
Susan Manuel, who is part of the Chief, Peace and Security Section of the UN Department of Public Information, is the first essayist in the book and she celebrates the UN Peacekeepers, writing that “Many of them serve in hardship situations trying to heal conflicts that were not of their making. Each year, more than 100 die in service. For this they should be acknowledged and thanked, even in plastic form.”
Linda Polman, journalist and author of We Did Nothing – Why the Truth Doesn’t Always Come Out When the UN Goes In, wouldn’t claim the UN has a perfect record, but when comparing their military missions with those by the US, she thinks the UN is remarkably successful. “The costs of one year of American military operations in Iraq comes close to the costs of all the UN peacekeeping missions together that have taken place since 1945,” she writes in her contribution to the book. The lesser of two evils argument, when talking civilian deaths, always seemed like a weak point to me, but the comparison is astounding.
UN Peacekeepers are by no means without criticism. Policing the globe is a problematic task at best. There have been accusations of personnel abusing their power through rapes and stealing. Also, as we saw in the Rwandan genocide, the UN Peacekeepers can be horribly ineffective when it truly matters. These are important counter-points to pro-UN involvement, but deeper questions in many of the essays are simply, whose peace are they enforcing? Who decides where these soldiers go? These questions are unignorable as you flip through the book and look online at the images of the UN Peacekeepers spread across the world.
Jonathan Vickery talks about the blurry line of where global conflict zones begin and end. He writes, “sometimes we can’t see conflict anymore than we can see peace.” Peacekeepers are only deployed in conflict zones, so seeing blue helmets deployed in New York City or Houston would be extremely disorienting — the West always believes that they are the peacekeepers.
These little peacekeepers show how much meaning can be embedded in a color — one dab of blue paint completely transforms the toy soldiers. The transformation is strong but ambiguous, creating different meanings for everyone. After reading the essays and uploading my own photo (Look for one in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn) this playful project slowly became more serious to me. I suddenly remembered that in fact there are major conflicts in Afganistan, Iraq, Syria and more. The whole world must be asking themselves these questions around what peace looks like and how to realize it. Although this book is just a scratch on the surface, it is a enjoyable start.
Pierre Derks’s Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest is available at minibluehelmets.com or can be purchased at various bookshops in the Netherlands and New York, including McNally Jackson (52 Prince Street, Soho, Manhattan).