Built on regional artist Bradford Edwards’ 300-strong collection of lighters, “Vietnam Zippo” flirts with America’s obsession with the Vietnam War and revels in that conflict’s lingering anti-war sentiments.
Most people can instantly identify a Zippo. Even non-smokers recognize their significance, their signature click-clack closure and the gleaming, chrome-plated heft of what has become the ultimate macho lighting device.
The Zippo has become deeply entrenched in Americana. Like smoking, it became a badge of rebellion; a trademark of toughs and hard cases. As such, it’s always been nearly sacred to US soldiers.
Beginning with WWII the Zippo was practically standard issue for GIs. They could be purchased at any PX for less than $2. It was a utilitarian device and, for many, a prized possession.
“They’re a sturdy and very strong lighter that can work on many kinds of fuels. So they’re quite practical, and the military has always liked the Zippo ever since it was introduced in 1932,” says artist Bradford Edwards, whose collection of Vietnam conflict-era Zippos has become the subject of an impressive coffee table book, “Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories 1965-1973.”
During a book launch at Monument Books in Phnom Penh, Edwards explained that since 1992 he has collected the intriguing, disturbing, and sometimes downright humorous, Zippos of former US soldiers in Vietnam. Combing through shops and markets in Ho Chi Minh City, he estimates he looked at more than 100,000 before settling on a permanent collection of more than 300.
What he discovered was that the Zippo played a very important, personal role for young soldiers in a decidedly strange land and dangerous situations. They reacted by inscribing, by way of local engravers and makeshift carving tools, their thoughts, fears and emotions on the clean “canvas” of the Zippo’s shell. Understandably, many were homesick, most were angry.
“Vietnam Zippos became the ideal protest vehicle,” writes author Sherry Buchanan in the book’s introduction. “They escaped the brass’s attention more easily than Afros, Buddhist swastika medallions, Tibetan prayer beads and the ‘Make Love Not War’ slogans on helmets that incurred the disapproval of the powers that be.”
The result is what Edwards calls “trench art,” deeply personal inscriptions that shed light on the mental state of these young GIs, and additionally the mindset of any soldier in any life-threatening situation.
“The Zippo was a blank surface — a canvas — waiting to be embellished. A corollary would be the tattoo. It was natural that they started expressing themselves on the Zippo,” Edwards says. “It’s not just about the Vietnam conflict; it’s all conflicts. But in the Vietnam conflict it was this vehicle that best mirrored what the GIs were thinking. You really get the sense of a person struggling, often to stay alive or to see their loved ones again. Many want to see the conflict come to an end. There’s lots of yearning for peace and messages specifically expressing how much someone misses their wife, girlfriend even ones who’re missing their mom. They’re really touching and universal.”
“Vietnam Zippos” is a handsome book. Through vintage photos and striking graphic design it manages to aptly frame the iconic images of 1960s American culture. The Zippos are presented artfully, and the inscriptions themselves are priceless in their admixture of pop culture references, anti-war slogans and bawdy boasting. As Edwards puts it, they range from the “profound to the profane.”
A few of the classics:
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for I am the evilest son of a bitch in the valley.
I’m not scared, just lonesome.
Ours is not to do or die, ours is to smoke and stay high.
You’ve never really lived until you’ve nearly died.
A self-professed “Army brat” originally from the US East Coast, but mostly from California, Edwards has spent much of the last 15 years in Southeast Asia, mostly bouncing between Hanoi and Phnom Penh. As the middle son of a Marine Corps colonel who served two tours of duty in Vietnam in 1966 and 1969, the 53-year-old Edwards says he had the Vietnam conflict in his life since “day one.”
Since 1997, Edwards has had four art exhibitions at the FCC Phnom Penh, including “Between Beauty and Blight” in June 2002, and his most recent exhibit, “Borrowed Memory,” in January 2006.
Earlier this decade, Edwards met Sam Bottoms — the actor who played the acid-tripping surfer dude Lance in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” — at a party in Southern California.
“To have gotten one of the few surfer Zippos in the war, and then to meet ‘Lance’ and then tie this pop culture circle: It’s the most amazing coincidence of my life thus far.”
Or is it? Each Zippo is stamped on the bottom with the word “Bradford,” the town where every lighter is made by the Zippo Manufacturing Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania.
This article was originally published in the November 2007 issue of The Wires.