From a distance, it looks like a dollhouse. Up close, you see the bullet holes, the broken banister and gaps in the shingled roof.
Inside there's a doll-size machine gun, miniature missile and plastic, mustachioed soldier dressed in green-and-black Army fatigues. The object, called Forward Command Post and recommended for kids age 5 and up, is a two-foot-tall plastic replica of a destroyed home converted into an Army field command.
There are two schools of parental thought on playthings like this.
My colleague Greg Schneider, who grew up watching his father come home in an Army uniform, bought the command post for his 4-year-old.
Daphne White, the mother of a 14-year-old boy, who organized a Bethesda-based parents advocacy group in 1995 called the Lion and Lamb Project to actively oppose "the marketing of violence to children," loathes it.
On the violent toy thing, Schneider and White are worlds apart.
Schneider's son has toy guns, most given to him by his grandparents. (Schneider doesn't let him take the plastic guns outside or point them at people and says even if he took the toy guns away, his son would play the same way -- making guns out of Tinkertoys, maybe, or sticks in the yard.)
White wouldn't let her son play with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers, the once-popular action figures that battled to save the world. Instead, when her son was 4, he and his friends liked playing with packing peanuts -- you know, the plastic foam nuggets you buy when you're moving.
"They would put packing peanuts and water in bowls around the house and set ghost traps," White said. "That was their favorite game."
White and her son also found stuffed animals and nontraditional board games that promoted "cooperative play."
Schneider's and White's parenting philosophies are reflective of the long-running debate over whether toys should reflect the real world, and whether kids who play with "war toys" become more violent adults.
Truth is -- well, it depends whom you ask.
The genre of "war toys" teeters on the line between toys and collectibles. On the Internet, toys such as Forward Command Post are linked to other Army figurines, such as 21st Century Toy's WWII Farmhouse -- a farmhouse converted into a military headquarters. It is in many ways a smaller version of the command post.
Connoisseurs of military miniatures say the farmhouse is a collector's item but the Forward Command Post is a toy.
Larry Simons of Reno, Nev., owner of online retailer March Through Times, sells detailed pieces like the farmhouse and burned-out buildings to Civil War and Revolutionary War enthusiasts who participate in reenactments and build dioramas of battles. Most of his customers are adult men, although some kids take up the hobby, Simons said. He does not think they would be interested in the plastic command post.
Collectibles provide "facts about particular people, heroes, generals," Simons said, and "people relate to it if they are studying a particular period of war." He said there's no historical value to the Forward Command Post.
There could be value for kids, though, said Gerard Jones, a former comic-book creator and author of the book "Killing Monsters," in which he argues that fantasy violence gives kids the coping skills they need.
He doesn't think the command-post toy is wildly popular -- though we don't know for sure, since Toys R Us and J.C. Penney spokesmen did not return calls seeking comment about sales -- because most kids like toys that are based in fantasy. But kids who do want to play with the Army toy could be using it to feel powerful, Jones said.
"There are a few reasons that kids play. One is sort of for rehearsing for what you are going to do in real life, but another function is to be able to do the things they don't get to do in real life," Jones said. "They get to be big and strong. . . . I think we forget how little kids feel. It's kind of a condition of childhood that you're not allowed to do what you want and are frightened by things that don't scare adults."
Schneider agrees. His 4-year-old is the littlest boy in the family and has a hard time keeping up with his 9- and 6-year-old brothers.
"His big brothers are really active and really dominating," Schneider said. "Part of it is his way of having power."
What the little guy does is immerse himself in his play world. At age 2, he was into trash trucks. At age 3, he was into firemen. Now, it's Army guys -- he even sleeps in Army PJs. The command-post set was an extension of the Army commando fetish.
"It gave me some qualms, but he's so into it," said Schneider, who talked to his son about the dangers of war and has taken him to battlegrounds at Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown, using his son's interest in soldiers as an opportunity to discuss history.
"I had an Army uniform at his age, and I'm okay," Schneider said.
White is undeterred. She's often heard the I-played-guns-and-robbers-when-I-was-a-kid-and-I-turned-out-okay story.
But the command post, which White says looks like a bombed-out two-story house in Potomac, with its wraparound porch, is too much.
"Kids until they are about 8 don't understand the difference between fantasy and reality," said White, who can quote reams of research by child psychologists affirming her point. "They believe in Santa Claus and monsters under the bed. It's not that they're stupid. Their mind works different."
Melanie Killen, a psychologist and associate director of the University of Maryland's Center for Children, Relationships and Culture, backs up White's arguments. She strongly disapproves of boys' toys such as guns and the command post.
"I don't think there is a direct link" between violence and war toys, Killen said, "but there are a lot of complexities there." She said playing with something like the command post "symbolizes something, and it does create an insensitivity to the real consequences of what war is all about."
But in the end, will boys be boys even without the war toys? In many cases, yes.
"Guns and robbers will be there anyway," Killen said. "We don't have to encourage it. There are lots of things that we can do to stimulate children's imagination."