combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Bracelet Wearers

Military men have always been clannish. This is partly due to the armed forces structure, and partly due to the uniquely shared experience of organized warfare. The uniform and distinctive insignia, which distinguishes unit members, functions both to mark them as one of many and to bond them as a unified whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts. Despite the stereotypic perceptions to the contrary, the motive behind uniformity is not to depersonalize the individual, but to subordinate his autonomy to the greater sovereignty, to adapt his dedication to a broader application, to utilize his assets for a higher concern. Soldiers have, nevertheless, retained their separate identity, and have somehow always personalized their missions.

hat angles as worn by World War Two
armor (left) and infantry (right) soldiers
hat angles worn by WWII soldiers
armor (left) and infantry (right)

The most obvious personalization is the acquisition of skill badges (also known as ticket-punching trash) and awards for valor or merit (getting gonged with fruit-salad), which distinguishes one trooper's performance from another. Devices, from hershey bars and crossed idiot-sticks to flying ice-cream cones and olympic torches, serve as overt recognition of credibility or authenticity. The wearing of fraternal society, athletic achievement, or school graduation finger-rings by ring-knockers advertises one's membership in an exclusive subgroup. Paratroopers formed the habit of cutting through the back of their consummate rings, including wedding bands, so as not to lose a finger if the ring accidentally caught on something while exiting an aircraft. Even among equivalent ranks, specialized occupations, and elite organizations, individuation persists as one entity or another strives to achieve or surpass, so as to obtain some privilege or merit, from a guidon streamer to an honors' brassard or trophy. Sometimes it simply gets down to making a fashion statement by tilting the hat slightly off-center or by wearing a military press creased blouse. Some units promoted esprit-de-corps by encouraging off-duty unit-specific clothing, like sports attire, but the team jacket for most veterans is their last fatigue shirt with combat designations. The term mufti refers to an obviously regimented person dressed in civvies as if such informality were the designated uniform. Tribes and coteries have long identified themselves with one or another form of skin art, and the military tattoo serves the same function, but with a mixed blessing. The airborne school's black hat instructors tormented anyone imprudent enough to acquire a parachutist's tattoo before qualification with a great deal of additional special training. Members of elite units in Vietnam demonstrated their intractable commitment by indelibly marking themselves with their Ranger (Biet Dong Quan) badge or a defiant legend, such as kill communists (sat cong); knowing full well that they were guaranteed no mercy or other consideration if captured.

The Vietnam War was replete with adaptive personalizations ... some of which became institutionalized. The war began with full-color insignia on European-style fatigues, evolved through three types of jungle bags (which were a light-weight adaptation of the World War Two paratrooper's outfit), and concluded with a tropical battle-dress uniform in woodland camouflage pattern. Special units wore leopard-spotted and tiger-striped camouflage, and almost everyone tried to do something different with their headgear ... from tailored bush (boonies) hats and camouflage berets (headshrinkers) to side-pinned safaris and cowboy patterns. Only new meat was uncool enough to wear a semblance of recognizably regulation attire! During the brotherhood ceremony of cutting-off the ribbon-tails from the beret, after the unit returned to base camp, as a signal of having been under fire together, reminded me of the dubbing ritual of conferring knighthood ... because the recipient willingly submits himself to the vulnerability of a lethal weapon in his comrade's hands for the privilege of the distinction. As the saying goes, if it weren't for the honor of the thing ...!

Not only was there a great variation in uniformity in Vietnam, but more than thirty years after the war, new unauthorized insignia from various small units continues to emerge. Whenever possible, these badges were worn on jacket pockets in solidarity, but if commanders objected to the paramilitary gang theme such illegal displays propounded, then these patches migrated inside the shirt or hat. Such livery was often crudely handmade in very small quantity at a local tailor's shop for a nominal fee, but they served the purpose of melding a disparate group into a cohesive element. These unauthorized insignia represent a perspective on the historical experience, and due to their scarcity, such emblems have become very collectible at astonishing prices. This rarity has generated fraudulent and exploitative imitation, but everything desirable is copied in one form or another, from speech and conduct to activity and ornament.

One historian has interpreted the Vietnam War by tabulating the tokens and mementos which set this event apart from others. He itemized the plaques and chits, the challenge-coins and souvenir militaria, to create a discrete image that juxtaposes the headline accounts. His account didn't tell the conventional story of the war, but then the typical timetable tends to omit the minor details which constitute the only point of reference that any veteran retains. Not only was the Vietnam experience strategically inconsistent (as one pundit has said: not ten years, but one year repeated ten times!), but it was personally incoherent for troops who could not reconcile the impractical rules of engagement with the lavish nation-building campaign; so their own private war became the only substantive reality. A couple of other historians have documented the war by the things they carried, from external-frame rucksacks and jungle hammocks to filter-necked canteens and whisper-microphone radios. Because the average person lacks the experience of combat, and often doesn't understand any of the intangibles, most people concentrate on the objects associated with war ... whether as icons or as symbols. A spouse is supposed to extrapolate an entire gestalt of an alien past when shown a collection of tattered photographs, a lapel rosette, a necklace bearing identity tags, a P-38 can-opener, some tarnished brass shell-casings, some rusty grenade pull-rings, an emblematic mug, a stained plastic spoon, and a pair of handcarved chopsticks. The bereaved family is presented a triangular-folded flag and a box of decorations in exchange for the loss of their loved one ... who will never return to recount tales or explain deeds, who will live only in continuing memory, and who will embody these otherwise meaningless objects.

Sometimes objects are all we have of someone or someplace, to remind us of the way things truly were, and of how we've changed. These mundane objects get imbued with sacred significance, and often acquire fetishistic powers ... that lucky pocket knife not only sustained life in peril, but enabled a career, so it must never get lost! An adolescent cannot imagine that any of us was once young and vigorous, with distinctive markings apart from checkered age, and the next generation will be unable to picture us as vital warriors, so this detritus of antiques or agglomeration of disparate objects is just a curiosity without context. As the value of allegiance and the meaning of intent changes, those associated objects are often derogated, diminished, and dismissed. Their meaning is not intrinsic, but extrinsically permeated by the marvelous acts of ordinary men in uncommon situations. When our most private thoughts cannot be otherwise expressed and our intense feelings cannot be adequately represented, we invest symbols with this surpassing significance; and we remind ourselves of their valid importance by revisiting such inviolate touchstones whenever necessary.

For those who've endured the crucible of combat, a gallows humor pervades most events and taints most objects. A noble lineage or proud heritage is ironically reduced to Poison Ivy or Psychedelic Cookie, to Dancing Pony or Burning Worm, to Electric Strawberry or Electric Butter Knife, to Ace of Diamonds or Lonely Hearts, to Leaning Shithouse or Puking Buzzards as irreverent unit designations, without any particular loss of esteem. The winter soldiers of Vietnam extended the official psy-op propaganda leaflet program by privately printing their own unit death cards to be left on the enemy corpses as a warning and affront. Novelty cards of exaggerated prowess and ridiculous testimony, purporting to perform valuable services, such as taming tigers and deflowering virgins, were widely personalized. Certificates for members of the Mushroom Club, who were kept in the dark and fed on horse shit, and the Loyal Order of the Aching Foot and Exhausted Rope (LOAFER), who were to be hung by a snap-link until tired or retired, were also circulated. The mountaineering snap-link, that's widely used in rappelling, is properly called a carabiner, which derives from a hook used to attach a carbine to the bandoleer. For many soldiers, a carabiner signifies their competence and proficiency in military skill crafts. And upon completion of one's tour, some compatriot would bribe a clerk into typing a precautionary DEROS notice to be sent as a warning to an unsuspecting family, saying that a thoroughly demoralized and uncivilized person, at risk of losing his native language to pidgin, and needing to again be house-trained, would shortly return to their exotic world ... the land of the big PX!

Vietnam was the time when one of the oblong metal identification tags was displaced down to the grunt's foot to help relate dismembered body parts. These days, outdoorsmen have a special two-hole dog-tag for lacing flat against their ergonomic waffle-stompers as an emergency medical or identification label. Vietnam was the time when real men unapologetically wore earrings, as criminal bands or aberrant cliques have long done. The practice originated with reconnaissance teams, such as Project Omega, which commissioned custom Greek-letter jewelry for its teammates, and the fashion eventually spread to other units. This practice reminded me of the novice starship trooper that Robert A. Heinlein portrayed as asking where to buy those attractive skull earrings, and being told that they weren't for sale ... they had to be earned! Now, of course, in our devalued hyperbolic society, everything is for sale, including fake memorabilia, phony documentation, and replica medals. A little authenticity goes a long way.

collection of Montagnard bracelets
flanked by POW/MIA and KIA bracelets
Montagnard bracelets flanked
by POW/MIA and KIA bracelets

Vietnam was also the time when bracelets became popular. World War One moved the pocket watch onto the wrist for practicality, and World War Two popularized the loose-link sweetheart or slave bracelet as a personal connection, but Vietnam brought everything to a productive art form. Designer watches and watch-bands became status symbols, and a few soldiers regarded their solid-gold link-bracelets as convertible cash or portable wealth. Vietnam was the time when helicopter crewmen would cannibalize a cable conversion into a unique wrist-band that forged a link with all other prop-heads. Advisors to indigenous partisans were often assimilated into the particular subculture in their area of operations. The symbol of this adoption was the unique circlet (kong), bearing the identifying tribe's stylized markings, handcrafted for intrasocial rites. These mountain peoples would rework available metals, so the bracelets not only varied between tribes, but within a tribe from year to year ... sometimes brass or copper, sometimes tin or aluminum. This loop-bracelet was presented in a solemn animistic ceremony of public affirmation. Several advisors thought enough of their filial bonding to adopt their own stateside wives into the tribe by uttering mutual vows and exchanging bracelets for wedding bands. As time passed, and events changed circumstances, the Montagnard refugees needed a livelihood, so beautiful bronze and sterling silver reproductions were offered commercially, with a pamphlet explaining the significance of the object, the meaning of the symbolic signs, and the plight of these dislocated peoples. These handsome facsimiles weren't made in the old way, and their quality is much improved by the marketing, but they lack the power (yang) that gave them meaning, so these artifacts have become just another trinket. This loss of spirit begins the decline of heritage for a besieged ethnic group. There will always be a profound difference between spending blood and wasting money.

Vietnam was also the time of another unique bracelet. What most people don't know about that war is that it remained popular with the American public until the piecemeal troop withdrawals, and even then, most people blamed politicians more than soldiers. It was possible in those chaotic times to find a peace demonstrator or a war protestor wearing a Prisoner-Of-War / Missing-In-Action bracelet. Unlike the controversial peace symbol, which often implied crypto-abetment of the enemy, the POW/MIA bracelet was never a litmus-test of loyalty, but it was a declaration of solidarity. As a result of some regulatory complications, the families of captured or missing servicemen were suffering isolation, alienation, and financial distresses. A coalition was formed to assist these families, with non-profit funds raised by the sale of POW/MIA bracelets. Being originally a plain aluminum cuff, engraved with the vital statistics of one of the hundreds of men who were unaccounted, the bracelet evolved into red-enamel, copper, brass, and stainless-steel versions. In that halcyon age of naive idealism, the purchasers pledged to wear their distinctive bracelet until the name it bore was accounted for, or the person returned. Subsequent to the accord protocols, the remaining prisoners were released from North Vietnam, and many persons mailed their bracelets to the repatriated servicemen to demonstrate the faithful keeping of traditional virtues. The POW/MIA bracelet became so popular that it spawned a blue-enamel version for the thousands of Korean War servicemen who still remain unaccounted. There is no World War Two version, not only because it was the good war that was decisively won, but because the MIA count is remarkably high ... Operation Torch alone, when the Allies first invaded Axis territory, had more MIAs than either Korea or Vietnam. A black-enamel KIA version exists for the remembrance of anyone Killed-In-Action.

After the return of American prisoners and the end of the Second Indochina War, the POW/MIA bracelets became politicized because one faction wanted a progressive normalization with Southeast Asia, and another faction of true believers sought complete accountability in a region that lost millions of Asian dead to privation, famine, disease, and violence. Allegations of bad faith and cover-up plagued every expeditious negotiation, and cohesive fusion devolved into ulterior convictions. The question of complicity or conspiracy was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as one more divisive issue in the endless Vietnam quagmire; and the bracelets became tainted. There was a brief half-hearted effort to revive them for the Persian Gulf War, but yellow ribbons, which have a pioneer legacy unbeknownst by many adherents, captured the popular mood as declarative favors ... those tokens of loyalty displayed by knights that later evolved into award ribbons and decorative medallions. The War on Terror has spawned a sand- or khaki-colored cuff known as a deployment bracelet, which bears the personal particulars of a loved one serving in the Mid-East theater, in the Afghanistan or Iraq war zones.

A friend of mine, who's also a multiple-tour advisor veteran, recently made a mid-life career change into teaching. Although hired to instruct math and coach wrestling, he's found himself tutoring his colleagues in political science and his pupils in civics. Not only have the students been curious about his bracelet, but so has the faculty. He's transitioned from polite explanations to defensive apologia. For the staff, the issue escalates from the unobtrusive bracelet to the ethics of war, in general, and the immorality of the Vietnam conflict, in particular. He finds himself teaching history to his misinformed peers, attempting to dispel dogmatic myths and revisionistic stereotypes, without condoning the war's flagrant errors. For the students, the issue de-escalates from a symbolic object to a deviant affectation, in particular, and an abnormal trend, in general. He finds his attempts to socialize and acculturate his charges is somewhat compromised by their perception of his difference. His commitment to a principle is judged cool, and his belief that those lost in war's maelstrom should be remembered is pronounced neat. Because they lack the aptitude and insight, he cannot inform them that the world is diminished by the loss of good and decent people. They do not understand that the name on this simple bracelet should be a name in some telephone book, a name on a work schedule, a name on a tax-roll, and, most of all, a name on a gift list with other relatives and friends.

When dressing to go out for meetings or other occasions, it has been my habit to emplace two yard bracelets and three KIA bracelets on my left wrist ... just below my patriotic tattoo. I'm not as caring and considerate as my teacher friend, so I'm indifferent to anyone else's understanding, and I'm resigned to the inevitability of an inaccurate history. One of the ugly truths about mind-sets is that some people actually want to be brain-washed, so their skepticism only reinforces their prejudiced conclusions. What's important is that I sustain a cogent integrity. It's like the difference between someone doing something for credit or a reward, and someone just getting it done because it's necessary ... regardless of whether it's public altruism or private worship, whether it's public civility or private abstinence. The objective is that I remain faithful, so it's immaterial if someone thinks that my ostentatious display of gaudy jewelry is garish, or thinks my exaggerated indulgence is grandiose exhibitionism. Like the mendicant accused of making a virtue of poverty, I cannot prevent fallacious deductions. Because the wearing of the bracelets is not about me, and I do not benefit from its ancillary implications, I've attempted to devise a way of destigmatizing the act.

four excellent post-war versions of the
SOG bowie
excellent post-war versions
of the SOG bowie

Since Montagnard bracelets can be mistaken for bangle adornment, and since POW/MIA bracelets are imbued with a mystique, the solution I devised involved changing the form to restore the function. While the yard bracelets implied the advisory role, they didn't identify the deceased advisor confreres. And while the KIA bracelets specified the casualties, they didn't entail the advisory experience. I needed an object that was common to both, and I settled upon the renown (and even notorious) knife commonly known as the SOG bowie. This unusual knife was originally designed as an issue item for special operations personnel, but was so poorly made that its distribution was refused by team members, who preferred the higher quality but equally inexpensive Pilot's Survival knife. Despite the fact that the so-called SOG bowie would rust before your eyes, would break at the first resistance, would lose its leather haft to torrid rot before the end of the patrol, and was duller than elephant grass, it had considerable cachet ... derived from the prestige of the stipulated units. Unlike the utilitarian banana bolo or the effective Mark-2 (generic KaBar) fighting knife, the SOG bowie, which was also known as the sexy Japanese Randall[†] was not in operational demand ... after all, a bamboo punji stake would make a better knife ... so it naturally became a presentation item! This was also the fate of the equally notorious Fairbairn/Sykes commando dagger during World War Two, which also makes a much better trophy than fighter. The honor graduates from the in-country training centers operated by special forcemen, such as the MACV Recondo School, were presented with this prized knife ... as many others were at the completion of their assigned tours of duty. Since all of these men worked within the counterpart system, this object would satisfy both symbolic requirements. After the war, this clipped-back bowie design proliferated, and numerous examples of excellent quality, both custom and factory versions, now exist. However, a knife, whatever its features, can send some unwanted messages and is most certainly not a bracelet.

I contacted a friend, who's a professional knifemaker, to inquire about the possibility of commissioning a custom cuff-bracelet in the profile of the SOG bowie. We discussed the options and problems, and settled on extremely thin titanium-sheet stock that would be cut, engraved, and shaped. The profile had to be slightly blunted or blurred to prevent inadvertent injury, but dramatic enough to be readily recognizable. The knife bracelet was reverse-side marked in keeping with the sinister heraldic representation of the unit's clandestine mission. I declined the option of anodizing the bracelet a deep dark gray, which would've resembled the standard black enamel, and kept it as unpolished raw metal. Since I'd already rationalized the over-kill situation of excessive display, I decided to put all the vital statistics from three KIA bracelets onto only one knife bracelet. At a distance, the new bracelet might appear to be a watch-band ... nearer, a piece of etched jewelry, and up-close, a strange totem. There would be no more knee-jerk reactions to politically incorrect stimuli, because this object was unassimilated into anyone's litany. They would either have to figure it out for themselves, and live with the consequences of their inference, or ask an impolite and ignorant question ... to which I wouldn't deign an informative response. So far, no one's done either, and I've been left alone to keep the faith.

custom tiger-striped SOG bowie
version by Kevin L. Hoffman
custom tiger-striped SOG bowie version
by artist Kevin Hoffman

One of the things that has been repeatedly learned throughout history, and seemingly must be eternally re-learned, is that despite all of our differences, we have more in common with each other than not. The proximity melting-pot may never homogenize us into indistinguishable clones, but society certainly evolves a hybridized admixture. Such heterogeneity may create unusual composites, such as the respect which converts former adversaries into allies, or the spirituality that bridges stratifications, but they only prove our essential commonality anew. The symbolic objects which serve to define us as separate and different also prove our connectivity. As unique cells work together in bodily processes, so people find some level of cooperation and coordination essential for body-politic or environmental processes. There is nothing wrong with group affinity, as long as everyone remembers their greater context and complete unity. There is no good reason to fill the canton of our national ensign with so many separate stars, except for the inexorable fact that we are a whole comprised of numerous indivisible parts. And least we become hostages to inconstancy, these simple objects of allegiance remind us to keep faith with every precious thing.

[†] : the origin of the so-called SOG bowie was generally unknown for many years, due to rigorous obfuscation and classification criteria, which obscurity spawned a plethora of speculative fiction. In spite of obvious qualitative defects, the knife was often purportedly made (allegedly under top-secret contract) by the world-famous knife-innovator W.D. Bo Randall at his small forging manufactory for benchmade cutlery. Despite numerous denials of association or credit for the SOG bowie, and despite the long history of excellent military productions, from the model 1 All-Purpose Fighter and model 2 Stiletto to the model 14 Attack and model 17 Astro, the rumor persisted. Best evidence indicates that the SOG bowie was produced under contract by the Counter Insurgency Support Office (CISO, MACSOG-40) on Okinawa, as a nominal logistical unit operated under the U.S. Army Pacific command, which was acquired from the Central Intelligence Agency during Operation Switchback in 1964.
[return to text]

by Paul Brubaker
... who is retired from the U.S. Army, has since been a counselor, artisan, and writer, with numerous essays published in chapbooks and magazines.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones