On snowflakes and ospreys

TL;DR It’s a shame the set won’t be released as it looked like a really interesting model. But the decision is completely understandable and the beauty of LEGO is you can go and build your own if you really want.

The longer version. Anyone with so much as a passing interest in LEGO can’t help but have heard the news in the last few days that the upcoming 42113 Search & Rescue Osprey set has been withdrawn from sale, just a week before it was slated for worldwide release. Ostensibly LEGO’s decision to pull the set stems from a campaign and petition by the German peace group DFG-VK. But, as they and others rightly point out, the set was a contradiction of LEGO’s own internal policies - which we’ll get into shortly.

Before we get into the debate around the LEGO model, let’s take a brief look at the history of the real aircraft - it’s important to consider the context before getting the pitchforks out.

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, to give it its full name, is a military aircraft plain and simple. There is no civilian version. While there may be units in service that have never seen combat, it was designed for warfare and military missions. It was borne out of the failure of Operation Eagle Claw during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980; Bell and Boeing were awarded a joint development contract for a new VTOL aircraft in 1983 and the first V-22 flew six years later.

The US Marine Corps started training in 2000 and since then it’s seen operation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to name just a few. According to Wikipedia the US Navy plans to start using their CMV-22B variant for delivery duties starting in 2021; between the US Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy there is a fleet of around 375 of them in operation with over half a million combined flight hours.

Now, on to the LEGO. Aside from the set itself, it contained a much sought-after new battery box for the Powered Up components. That’s one reason to be annoyed but let’s be honest - it’s not the last set that will need a battery box, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a new model reusing some of the components sooner rather than later.

The crux of the issue that seems to have got under people’s skin is the apparent hypocrisy from LEGO in terms of what does and doesn’t violate their “no military” policy: people have pointed out, rightly, that this is far from the first military set LEGO have made. Perhaps the best example is the Sopwith Camel which wasn’t even disguised in a bright orange livery. It had RAF markings and guns behind the front prop. Like the V-22, the Camel saw plenty of combat and cut through its fair share of enemy combatants. First World War stats are understandably patchy but at a minimum, the Camel’s pilots shot down almost 1300 enemy aircraft and towards the end of the war it even saw limited use in ground attacks.

LEGO has produced other military-inspired aircraft sets, too. Take a look at the Blue Power Jet for example: an F35 in blue is still an F35.

Furthermore, critics have pointed to other LEGO product lines such as Indiana Jones, Star Wars and even the old Adventurers line. They all feature guns, explosions and in Indy’s case, Nazi bad guys. So what’s the difference? Why were they deemed acceptable, but the V-22 in search-and-rescue mode (no guns, no markings, no Nazis) crossed the line? To my eyes, there are a few major distinctions.

The first of these is that the V-22 is contemporary. It’s in active service in conflicts around the world; it’s been used in the Yemeni civil war, one of the bloodiest ongoing wars in modern history. And as we saw previously, it’s been used in other middle-Eastern theatres: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kuwait. My understanding is that it’s not a primary gunship, but can be mounted with machine guns and a belly-mounted retractable minigun. The Sopwith Camel is over 100 years old; the company that made it doesn’t even exist anymore.

Secondly, with regard to the comparisons to Indiana Jones et al, surely the contrast is obvious. These are all fictional entities. Sure, Indy incorporates aspects of “real life” but the story and characters are make believe. The Galactic Empire, for all its faults, never sold $5 billion of war planes to Saudi Arabia.

But the third and perhaps most crucial difference is the license. This was an officially licensed Bell Boeing product, with the logos of both companies displayed prominently on the box. Every sale of the set would have seen a portion of the RRP go directly into the pocket of a multi-billion dollar arms dealer. The fact that LEGO already produced a Boeing set back in 2006 - the 787 Dreamliner - adds another level of controversy but that’s a separate issue with its own mitigating factors: 2006 was a very different time to 2020 and the plane is for all intents and purposes civilian. But would LEGO release it today? Possibly not.

Let’s take a step back and consider the wider context for a moment. We are living through a particularly turbulent period in human history. Alongside a global pandemic, there has been a bubbling-over of emotion and anger from groups of people who have historically been marginalised, criminalised and stripped of basic rights and privileges at the hands of a systemically prejudiced society. We are seeing great strides forward - not without controversy, it must be said - in the battle for equality between genders, races, sexualities and every other facet of human difference. There is a real sense that people can affect change and 2020 for all its chaos feels like a turning point, a dividing line in the history of civil rights and one which will be written about in history books for centuries.

As a direct consequence, companies are coming under fire for promoting or allowing hate speech, racism or other abuses to happen on their watch. Organisations which have operated with impunity for as long as anyone cares to remember are finally being held to account. There is a growing sense of needing to be “on the right side of history” - and we see this manifest itself in various ways; from the somewhat vacuous gestures of mega-corporations adding a Pride filter to their profile pictures, to actual positive actions such as companies withdrawing advertising money from Facebook, or Twitter flagging Donald Trump’s latest mouthful of hot garbage as misleading.

So where does all that leave us? Well, given the climate we’re in it’s not difficult to see why this has pissed so many people off. Had the set been marketed as an unlicensed VTOL aircraft I doubt we’d have seen anything close to the level of backlash. But in today’s world, slapping the logo of an international megacorp responsible for the deaths of God knows how many people - combatants or innocents, adults or children - on a kids toy is such a no-go it’s frankly incredible the set even got as far as it did.

This goes so much further than the “leftist mob” or “cancel culture” or whatever else you want to call it, words that inevitably come to the fore in situations like this. I do not necessarily agree with people being “cancelled” but equally, it’s high time people and organisations in positions of power took responsibility for the words and actions of those they give a platform to. “Free speech” only goes so far and the right to incite hatred is not enshrined in law.

DFG-VK are not some bunch of millienial snowflakes complaining about non-issues. It’s not “one guy in Germany protesting outside a LEGO store”, or a “bunch of commies saying a helicopter is racist”. They are a legitimate organisation, founded in 1892 and supressed by the Nazis before being re-founded at the end of WWII. It has associations with Nobel Peace Prize winners and its full name Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft - Vereinigte KriegsdienstgegnerInnen literally translated in English is “German Peace Society - United War Resisters”.

It’s been a really interesting few days reading all sides of this argument and there are pros and cons to all of them. But the one inescapable fact that everyone seems to overlook is the licensing issue. Has LEGO licensed sets from other contentious companies? Sure. Look at Maersk for example; the global shipping trade accounts for over 2% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Bugatti, Ford, VW, Fiat, Mini and all the Speed Champions sets - all polluting car producers. Walt Disney has long been accused of being racist, mysoginist and a Nazi to boot. There’s even arguments about Harry Potter given the controversy around JK Rowlings stance on trans rights (which is way over my head; I’m just glad I’m not a Potterhead).

The elephant in the room of course is Shell. My mum used to work for Amnesty and as a kid, both her and my dad would actively avoid filling the car up at Shell stations because of their actions - or complicity with the actions of other players - in Nigeria in the 90s. Some of the Shell sets from the classic LEGO era are iconic and beloved by fans across the world, myself included. But as we’ve already seen, the world was very different back then and it’s hard to imagine LEGO striking up a business partnership with an oil company these days. They’d rather look towards renewables - take the Vestas wind turbine for instance.

But none of the aforementioned companies hold a candle to Boeing. You can slice the argument every which way but the bottom line is this: Boeing sells weapons that kill people, daily, and makes billions off of it. To argue that LEGO should start a new licensing deal because they have existing ones is fallacious: old habits and contracts die hard. Just because they did something in the past doens’t mean they’re beholden to do it again. If you really want to play devils advocate, the issue of where LEGO sources the raw material - oil - to make its products is a valid issue, but we do know they are taking steps (like Maersk, it must be said) towards a carbon-neutral, sustainable future.

Ultimately, I believe LEGO have made the right call here. As an AFOL I’m disappointed we won’t see the set, and doubly so because the few that did make it into customer hands are being hawked for upwards of 1000USD on eBay. It’s instantly become a collectors item and the whole controversy has been blown way out of proportion. But I’m a bigger AFONFIAD (Adult Fan of Not Funding International Arms Dealers) and I think when all is said and done, this is the correct outcome.

It’s not the end of the world. There are already instructions for better-looking V-22 models available and given the fact that some copies of this set did sneak out you can pretty much guarantee we’ll see the official instructions at some point.

If one cancelled set gets your knickers in such a twist that you denounce LEGO and start calling them pussies or pushovers, and claiming “the world has gone to shit” because of “the PC brigade” - well, who’s the real snowflake?

· thoughts, sets