Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories (1965-1973) was written by Sherry Buchanan, with contributions from Bradford Edwards, whose collection forms the basis of the book. Bradford Edwards spent fifteen years searching for and collecting Zippo lighters in Vietnam that once belonged to American soldiers during the war.
It became clear to Edwards that the evidence engraved on the lighters told the stories in the hearts and minds of soldiers fighting in the war. Edwards stated in the Collecting section of the book, “From the discovering, to the collecting, to the making of the artwork, to the telling of the stories and, finally, to this incisive documentation, the Zippos are the witnesses and I am simply the messenger.”
Vietnam Zippos starts off with a timeline beginning in 1965 when the first US Marines landed in Vietnam and ending in 1973 when the last US Combat Forces left. Each year gives a few facts regarding the Zippos, the war, and America at that specific time. The timeline picks up at 1990 to the present, showing when the Vietnam Zippos began being sold to tourists.
The next section is labeled Unzipped and was written by Sherry Buchanan. It gives background information on America during the Vietnam War, the Zippo engravings, as well as the accounts from Vietnamese war artists. The following section, Collecting, is Bradford Edward’s account of his journey from discovering his first Vietnam Zippo to the making of this book.
The next three sections of the book are dedicated to the three different types of engravings mostly seen on the Zippos. The first, “Get Charlie,” contains engravings related to combat. The second, “Get High, Get Laid,” contains engravings related to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, while the third, titled “Zippo War,” contains peace and protest engravings.
A-Zippo Inscriptions, gives a list of all of the engravings shown in the pictures throughout the book. Glossary & Notes, defines terms, references and operations that occurred in Vietnam that the reader might not be familiar with.
Vietnam Zippos is in my opinion, a great book to educate oneself on the thoughts and feelings that plagued the men who fought in this war. This book takes a unique approach compared to other books on Vietnam, which often recount true events told by the former soldiers or recount battles in a more historical sense. This book does not use photos to explain the history of the Vietnam War; it uses photos to show the emotions and thoughts of the men that fought, courtesy of the Zippos they left behind.
The photos in this book are perhaps the best tool we can be given to understand an experience we will never go through. The photos about combat in the “Get Charlie” section are eye opening. Engravings such as “It don’t mean noth’in”, ‘God is alive and well in Mexico City”, and “When I die I will go to Heaven because I have spent my time in Hell” are hard to read. Mexico City is a reference to the destination many draft dodgers fled to, and the first owner of that Zippo had those lonely feelings engraved on it. It is easy to see the loss of faith in these men and it is sad to see. And while some clearly still believe in Heaven, the message left behind is one of men in a living Hell. While I like that this book has captions and stories to go with the images, nothing makes those feelings more real than seeing it in photos, rather than reading it in the form of words.
The “Get High, Get Laid” section shows a more carefree attitude from the soldiers. Sayings such as “A friend with weed is a friend indeed”, “I love sex – so baby you can give your soul to God because your ass is mine”, and images of oral sex acts are amusing compared to the seriousness of the combat engravings. It is comforting to see that many soldiers could still relax, attempt to have fun and get their minds off the everyday conflict they faced. The ability to stay lighthearted was undoubtedly essential to surviving a tour in Vietnam.
The “Zippo War” section contains the peace engravings. The few that stood out to me were “Pray for peace and put a lifer out of a job”, “When the power of love over comes the love of power only then will there be a chance for true peace”, and “Why me”, with a peace sign accompanying it. The feelings of hope and anger are clearly evident. Seeing those photos brought about a heart wrenching desire to want to save those soldiers and I felt I owed it to them to see the photos of the Zippos they left behind, for the sacrifices they made.
The text in this book relates to the pictures. It is on the same or opposite page of the Zippo it is referring to, and is often the same text that is on the engravings. The text is bigger and bolder, using colors to put emphasis on a word or phrase. Other writing gives information relevant to understanding sayings on the Zippos and background stories about events that inspired the engravings. The text in this book is different from other works about Vietnam because it not only tells a story using images; it uses images in a different way. This story is told in the form of words, phrases and images left on objects. This story was left for someone to discover. Even if you choose not to read the text that appears with the photos, the book is successful at drawing in the reader.
Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories (1965-1973) has much to offer all readers, not just history buffs. It is a unique account of a time that should be remembered. I highly suggest taking the time to get lost in this great read.
Photo: Photo courtesy of The Selvedge Yard blog.