Saturday, May 14, 2011

War Lighters

For our soldiers in Vietnam, something so honest and everyday as a lighter became a powerful token of pre-war life, and a way to express their frustration, fears, and loathing over the war. These young men were sent into Charlie’s jungle to fight an invisible enemy, over a conflict that many didn’t trust or understand– and about the only items they could take with them from civilian life were a wristwatch and a lighter. The Zippo became a symbol of their souls.

The often dark and powerful haiku-like sayings and mottos engraved on the side of the old chrome Zippo’s often reflected themes of delusion, death, drugs, or sex. It was a way for the soldier’s to express who they were, and how they felt. Many were like tattoos not worn on the body, but carried in a pocket. The old Zippo’s live on today as American folk art, and a haunting reminder of a confusing and painful time for the men who were there, and our country as a whole.

Zippo got behind the movement with their massive marketing team, and flooded the PX’s with their lighters to ensure they were easily in the hands of any soldier who wanted one. You could pick one up for a little over a buck and have it engraved by a local Vietnam “jeweler” for about fifty cents. The Zippo’s also became like currency– a soldier could barter their prized lighter for just about anything– a night on the town, or the company of a woman.

“Zippo’s” were ironically also the handle given to the Naval river patrol boats carrying nasty napalm flame-throwers used to light-up anything deemed suspicious or threatening along the dense riverbank. There is something mythical, primal and powerful about fire that has always captured a man’s soul– whether it’s a lighter, a campfire, or waging war.

Zippo’s Vietnam lighter gallery from Selvedgeyard.

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