A Designer’s Perspective on “Vietnam Zippos” by Sherry Buchanan

When it comes to war memorabilia, the emotional gravity of items can sometimes overshadow their design appeal. However, as a designer, my intrigue with “Vietnam Zippos” by Sherry Buchanan was less about the objects as war souvenirs and more about their narrative power through design. The engraved Zippo lighters from the Vietnam conflict era don’t just represent mementos; they are silent storytellers, each one etching a tale of fear, hope, longing, love, and defiance.

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From the moment I picked up Buchanan’s book, the sheer weight of emotion that these seemingly insignificant objects carried was palpable. What makes these engravings stand out isn’t the finesse or technical prowess of the craftsman, but the raw, unfiltered feelings they convey. Through her meticulous documentation, Buchanan offers an intimate journey into the minds and souls of the soldiers who bore these lighters.

So, why did soldiers gravitate towards engraving Zippos? A Zippo lighter, durable and reliable, was not just an instrument to ignite cigarettes in the damp Vietnamese jungles; it became a canvas for personal expression. In the absence of the digital age and social media where we wear our feelings on our sleeves (or rather, our profiles), the Zippo engravings served as an analogue predecessor.

The engravings are a kaleidoscope of emotions. From humorous and sarcastic quips, declarations of love for sweethearts back home, to deeper reflections on the nature of war and one’s own mortality, the spectrum of human experience during wartime is captured in these engravings. The haunting phrase “When I die, I will go to heaven because I have spent my time in hell” remains etched in my mind long after I closed the book.

From a design standpoint, the beauty of these Zippos lies in their raw authenticity. Unlike today’s digital art, which can be edited and re-edited to perfection, these engravings are immutable. The occasional misspelling or crude illustrations only adds to the poignancy, emphasising the realness of the moment when they were crafted.

Moreover, the sheer variety of designs reflects the diverse backgrounds of the soldiers and their varied emotional responses to the conflict. From simple text engravings to more intricate designs involving symbols of death, peace, love, and everything in between, there’s a narrative universality that transcends the physical boundaries of the conflict. As a designer, I can’t help but marvel at how these humble pieces of metal encapsulate such a broad spectrum of the human experience.

Buchanan’s work doesn’t just display these objects but contextualises them. Her insights and anecdotes about the soldiers, along with historical overviews, help bridge the gap between past and present. Readers, regardless of their background, are bound to resonate with the sentiments, bridging a connection between the personal and the universal. Through “Vietnam Zippos”, we are reminded of the profound ways design can intersect with, and amplify, human emotions.

For those seeking an understanding of the Vietnam conflict beyond the political or military narrative, “Vietnam Zippos” offers a rare, deeply personal perspective. It isn’t just about the physical scars of war, but the emotional imprints that wars leave behind. In the end, as with any profound piece of art or design, these Zippos are a testament to humanity’s ability to find expression even in the bleakest of circumstances.


In conclusion, Sherry Buchanan’s “Vietnam Zippos” isn’t just a historical document but a poignant narrative on the interplay of design and emotion. It underscores that sometimes, the most powerful designs are those that speak directly to the heart, unfiltered and unrefined. As a designer, I am reminded of the importance of authenticity and the profound impact that raw, genuine emotion can have in any creative endeavour.

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Post written by: Andrew Backhouse

Andrew Backhouse from Harrogate crafts distinctive websites and logos for Harrogate Businesses and individuals. Check his diverse portfolio and read client praises. Enjoyed the post? Leave a comment or contact Andrew to collaborate.

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