The Vietnam War, or the American War as the Vietnamese call it, was a horror story from start to finish. I guess that’s a daft thing to say seeing as all wars are horrific, but the Vietnam War had so much madness and pointlessness about it it’s just insane.
For starters the Vietnamese had done nothing wrong, they just had a different political ideology to the West. Vietnam’s neighbouring countries – Cambodia and Laos – got the brunt of the bombing despite having done even less wrong. Laos remains to this day the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. Between 1964 and 1973 an average of one B-52 bomb load was dropped on Laos every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day.
Bearing in mind that one third of Laos’ population live below the poverty line and that the majority of its citizens live in hill tribes, that seems just a little bit over the top. The lighters here, all belonging to American troops, serve as a tiny window into their experiences, emotions and mindset. They’re as dark as they are fascinating.
Basically, American children were sent off to fight a baseless war in dense, tropical jungle. Jungles are terrifying enough even without guerrillas hiding in the jungle trying to kill you constantly. At least with WWII we knew we were fighting against Hitler and his rampant murdering of Jews, gypsies and disabled people.
WWII was an honest fight against a super power which had got way out of control. Vietnam however was a pointless war that dragged on for two decades. Millions died, nobody won, nothing was gained. It was utterly pointless.
Many of the young Americans who were sent off to this godforsaken war knew what they were letting themselves in for. They’d seen people their age return from the war physically destroyed or mentally scarred. No one knew why they were fighting, all they knew was that they had pretty good odds of returning home completely changed, and not for the better.
Vietnam saw Agent Orange being used as a weapon for the first time. Agent Orange was a chemical used to destroy vegetation. The US army sprayed this across swathes of jungle to try to destroy the Vietnamese army’s natural jungle cover. The chemical did the job well, it destroyed acres of plant life and reduced hiding places; but it also caused generations of birth defects and premature deaths.
The Vietnam War also witnessed the birth of napalm, possibly one of the ugliest tools of war ever invented. As any good Vietnam War film has showed you, napalm bombs explode and released burning hot goop which sticks to skin and severely injures anyone it contacts.
Napalm, in its earlier forms, didn’t stick to skin very well, so the sticky hot substance could be rubbed off before it caused too much damage. American military scientists went back to the lab. They came up with a gel that was much stickier, so that once it got on your skin it couldn’t be removed at all. The Vietnamese napalm victims soon found that if you jumped into water the flames of this new brew would go out. So the war scientists continued their lethal tinkering…
Back in the lab the US military scientists added more chemicals so that the napalm would burn bright and strong even under water. This meant that if you got napalm on you it would burn straight through you and there was literally nothing you could do about it. What hideously bizarre scientific work, imagine being in charge of that project?
The Zippo lighters pictured here are a reminder of the desperation and abandoned feelings of these cursed troops. The lighters were mostly carved at small roadside shops in Vietnam. The messages were either to bolster themselves up or to remind them that all was already lost and to not think about it. On the other hand some of the lighters served as messages to the poor fools that might find their lifeless body should the worst happen.
These Zippo designs have been collected by Bradford Edwards who admits to being completely obsessed by them. I kind of get his fascination. The terrors that these objects have witnessed are immense. It’s hard to imagine being a teenager fighting through a pitch black jungle being convinced of an ambush at any moment.
If nothing else, these lighters serve to remind me that I am a lucky, lucky boy to not be at war right now. It’s also worth remembering the other poor friggers that are facing war on a daily basis. We are lucky indeed guys and gals.