For the generation that came of age in the mid-1960s in the US, the world with all its unsettling realities seemed ready for reinvention.
In the wake of US President John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and African Americans claiming equal rights and often meeting with violence, millions of children born after World War II were entering colleges and universities, challenging established powers and values while shedding all manners of taboo.
And in the midst of this new era, the US started sending soldiers to a far away country most Americans could not even find on a map.
From the first contingent officially sent to Vietnam in 1965 until the ceasefire signed by US President Richard Nixon in 1973, millions of young Americans faced a war that would change their lives whether they volunteered for duty, were drafted or fled to Canada, Sweden or Mexico to avoid conscription.
With an average age of just 19 years old and often coming from rural areas and poor neighborhoods, they were shipped for at least a one-year tour of duty on the other side of the world.
Confronted with heat, mud and an enemy whose culture and motivations they could not begin to comprehend, those mostly momentary soldiers came up with a way of speaking their minds that did not clash with US military rules and censorship.
As US artist Bradford Edwards discovered during a chance encounter in Ho Chi Minh City in 1992, the smooth surfaces of the iconic Zippo lighters those soldiers carried, whether or not they smoked, became the blank page on which they summed up how they felt.
While walking on Le Loi street, Edwards said, he came across a Vietnam veteran looking at Zippos on a street vendor’s table who started telling him about the inscriptions he had etched on his own lighter decades before.
“Dan was a war veteran who had been in Da Nang between 1968 and 1969 with a minesweeper unit,” Edwards writes in the introduction to his book “Vietnam Zippos, American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories, 1965-1973,” which he produced in cooperation with US researcher Sherry Buchanan. The book was just published by the University of Chicago Press.
That chance meeting with Dan launched Edwards on a decade-long quest for Zippos of the Vietnam war era.
“I wanted to find Zippos with soul,” Bradford writes. “I began to search for inscriptions that expressed the hearts and minds” of the average US soldier.
Inscribed with comments ranging from excerpts of religious text to explicit sexual references, Edwards writes, “Zippos were portable utilitarian objects that provided a miniature forum for the GIs’ [US soldiers] thoughts and feelings during the war-sex, drugs, frustration, longing, hope, anger, love. The sentiments on these lighters were genuine, uncensored and heartfelt.”
The US-based Zippo Manufacturing Company had marketed its first lighter in 1933 as a sturdy product that came with a lifetime warranty-it still is being sold in more than 120 countries, according to the company. Very popular with US soldiers during World War II, the basic chrome-plated, brass-hinged rectanglular lighter that could work with a variety of fuels was used by every soldier in Vietnam, Edwards writes.
As Bradford’s collection shows in “Vietnam Zippos”-a color, 180-page, 25-by-23 centimeter and richly illustrated book-the remarks on their lighters reflected their opinions of the army, the missions they were ordered to carry out and eventually their opposition to the US-Vietnamese war in which they found themselves.
The book groups inscriptions under three major themes that also follow the progression of the war and sentiments towards the US involvement in the conflict.
In the section “Getting Charlie,” as US soldiers called the enemy, comments range from “I fear no evil because I am the evilest son of a bitch in the valley,” “Kill them all, let God sort them later” through to “When I die, I will go to heaven because I spent my time in hell.”
In “Get High, Get Laid,” engravings reflect all the irreverence and openness of the late 1960s accompanied by numerous sketches of naked women and sex-related images-from “Candy is Dandy but Sex Won’t Rot your Teeth,” to “When I die, bury me face down so that the whole world can kiss my ass.”
As the chapter “Zippo War” demonstrates, the Peace symbol-a widely used image of the era, drawn on posters and turned into pendants that both men and women wore around their necks-soon appeared on Zippos.
As demonstrations against the US-Vietnamese war multiplied in the US, the engravings on the Zippos turned bitter.
“Live fast, love hard, die young” reads one engraving; “Fighter by day, lover by night, drunkard by choice, marine by mistake” reads another.
One inscription “Killing for Peace was like Fxxxing for Virginity” questions the US’ very motive for fighting in Vietnam.
The book consists of many close-ups of Zippos-most of them with the names of the soldiers who owned them, their units and years of duty in Vietnam. The book also has photos of artworks Edwards created with his extensive range of Zippos; some photos of soldiers’ lives; and even a glossary of US soldiers’ commonly used expressions.
Born in 1954 the son of a career military officer who did two tours of duty in Vietnam, Edwards only became aware of the US-Vietnam war when it was over, he said in an e-mail interview from Hanoi.
“I grew up with the war flickering on a blue [television] screen in my living room, and my father either flying in Vietnam,” designing weapons at the US Department of Defense’s headquarters in Arlington, state of Virginia, or teaching Weapon Design at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis in the state of Maryland, he said.
“But I was mostly an unaware, spoiled American kid consumed by the social demands of high school,” he said.
Rather than doing a book about the war, “Vietnam Zippos” was meant to show how soldiers thrown into that conflict felt about it, Edwards wrote.