In “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s now classic fictional account of the Vietnam War, that which is carried by the soldiers — both physical and intangible – act as windows into their lives. Similarly, a standard military issue item from that time — the Vietnam War Zippo lighter — now serves to collectively capture the various moods and sentiments of the 1960s and 1970s, the tiny object a lens into a large and politically-loaded historical period.
The classic metal, flip-top Zippo lighter was first manufactured in 1933 by the Zippo Manufacturing Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Advantageous because of its ability to stay lit in inclement weather, its ‘windproof’ reputation garnered it instant success and popularity within the ranks of the military. It has played a large role in nearly every large war since its inception — warming bodies, lighting cigarettes, starting fires, and even acting as mementos, much in the same way dog tags were collected upon soldiers’ deaths in remembrance of their lives. In popular culture, the “clink” of the Zippo as its top is flipped open has become as iconic in Hollywood as its design and original function.
Although popular in the Second World War, it wasn’t until the Vietnam conflict that engraving Zippos became widespread and popular. The lighters were inscribed with personal messages and artwork that spanned the vast range of sentiments from fear and regret to hatred and humor. The phrases, maxims and images that reflect this spectrum of emotions and beliefs are at once witty and blunt. Popular messages included the Psalm 23-derived ‘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 jungle,’ ‘Death from Above,’ and ’We the unwilling led by the unqualified to kill the unfortunate die for the ungrateful.’ Other, more personal, inscriptions included ‘To Mom, from a lonely paratrooper’ and the painstakingly honest ‘The only thing I get out of killing a person is the recoil of my rifle.’ The less verbose and more visually inclined often opted for an array of skulls, women, and military insignias and symbols.
Recently, Bradford Edwards, a collector of some of the best vintage Zippo specimens, decided to auction off 282 of them at the Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati for approximately $35,000 USD. Though an exorbitant amount in the estimation of many, it is hard to argue the value of the Vietnam War Zippo lighter — now part artwork, part historical artifact and one of the more personal glimpses into an event most know only through history books and film.