Helmet Graffiti of Vietnam

The content below is the script/notes from Season 2 Episode 10 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.

Weekly Recommendation: I just started digging in to the Jack Reacher book series. I watched the Tom Cruise movies that started to come out in 2012 and thought they were OK movies… but the books are pretty cool. Plus there are a ton of Jack Reacher novels and novellas, so if you are like me and have tons of time on your hands, that is a definite plus.

Breaking the mold of what a writer should write in a novel, Lee Childs often writes “Reacher said nothing,” in his books. Where most authors would give a better description of the characters reaction to let the reader know what kind of person the character is, Lee Childs writes Reacher in this way so the reader can project whatever reaction they see fit on to Jack Reacher. It is a writing style that shouldn’t work… but it does.
  • Government Property
    • This past Sunday I played a friendly poker game with a couple college buddies and my soon-to-be Father In-Law
      • Side note: I am now engaged to be married.
    • In between hands we were all drinking brewskies and drinking whiskey, so you know there was good machismo banter going around the poker table.
    • At one point my Fiance’s dad said “You know what happens if you get sunburned in the Navy while on duty?”
    • We all looked at him blankly.
    • “You get court marshalled for destruction of government property!”
    • I later looked this up and while I’m sure soldiers have been threatened in this manner, it would not hold up in military court. Threatening soldiers with legal repercussions if they get sunburned is nothing more than a scare tactic used by NCO’s.
      • “You are not government property,” said James Klimaski, a civilian attorney who practices military law. “You’re still a human being. You still have free will, even in the military.” -Interview from
    • However, Article 15 (damaging government property) is a real offense. In this episode of Who’d a Thunk It? I’ll be talking about a very public defacing of government propery that occurred back in the 60’s and early 70’s. This episode is about Helmet Graffiti during the Vietnam War.
  • We’re people, not machines
    • It is a common misconception that in order for a team to operate as a cohesive unit, there must be uniformity throughout.
      • For example: My high school football coaches forbid us from having any article of clothing out of the ordinary and punished players for wearing their socks too high or too low.
      • Psychology suggests that too much uniformity is actually detrimental to a teams ability to perform and that diversification, when kept in check, is the way to go.
    • Most modern militaries side with discipline and uniformity. They make their soldiers wear uniforms that all look the same and strictly forbid them from altering their uniforms.
    • The Vietnam war is really the first time soldiers were documented putting graffiti on their helmets.
      • Of course this was technically NOT allowed as it is defacing government property. Not to mention the camo on modern military uniforms is there for a reason: to help soldiers blend in to their surroundings. Altering that camo increases a soldier’s likelihood of being spotted by the enemy.
      • So why did Vietnam soldiers do it?
    • In 1879 the American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman addressed to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy with the following speech.
      • “I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
      • Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
    • It seems the men who fought in Vietnam shared a similar mentality as General Sherman. The Vietnam war was notoriously gruesome.
      • The Americans were a large military force in a country on the other side of the world fighting in a war they didn’t want to be in. Drafted soldiers made up 25% of the American soldiers in Vietnam.
      • The terrain made tanks useless and strategic bombing ineffective.
      • The US Soldiers, although backed by a technologically superior world super power, had to resort to gritty guerilla warfare.
      • The collective psyche of the troops sort of shed the rigidness of their military training and discipline. They started to break the rules.
      • The mentality as far as corrective repercussions from their superiors when they did things like Defacing their Helmets was “What are they going to do, punish me by sending me to Vietnam?”
John Wayne signed helmets during his visit to the 7th Marines at Chu Lai in June of 1966 (SSG Fleetwood/Marine Corps/National Archives).
  • Individuals
    • The helmet graffiti allowed the troops to take back some semblance of individual self through this unique expression.
    • After all, America’s society does value the individual much more than most Asian cultures.
    • Putting Graffiti was a form of rebellion against the war.
      • They wrote “Born to Die,” “I’m not a tourist, I live here,” and “Where is Lee Harvey Oswald now that we really need him.”
      • Personally, I equate this helmet graffiti to the rebellious and often lude cartoons and doodles my elementary school buddies and I drew. We vandalized our school books in a very similar fashion.
      • Of course we hadn’t been subjected to the horrors of war, so there is that major difference. But the crude style and sense of humor of the Vietnam War Helmet Graffiti, to me, is very much like the doodling of boys going through pubescence.
      • Perhaps that is because, like boys going through the existential transformation of puberty, these Vietnam soldiers were men going through an existential transformation in to something entirely different. Perhaps the crucible of warfare changed them and this helmet graffiti was a way to express that.
Pretty self explanatory
  • How it was seen
    • The commanding officers tried their best to keep this crude helmet graffiti out of the public eye as a majority of it was Anti-War. With all the protests back in the states, the American Military industrial complex was losing favor from its public.
    • Vietnam had a LOT of journalists covering the carnage. Whenever one was spotted, officers attempted to keep all helmet graffiti away from the cameras.
    • But as all the images on the blog post will attest, they were not very successful.
    • Journalist Horst Faas took a photograph of 19 year old Larry Wayne Chaffin of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The headband on Chaffin’s helmet read “WAR IS HELL.” Horst Faas would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
  • Today
    • Although it was almost unheard of before the Vietnam war, soldiers are still caught putting graffiti on their helmets today.
    • Perhaps the soldiers of today also feel they don’t belong at war.
    • Maybe that makes sense in a world that has progressively been trending toward peace for centuries.


If you are like me and prefer to listen instead of read, then you are in luck. Everything above is read aloud by me for the Who’d a Thunk it? Podcast. By now the Who’d a Thunk It has reached people in 38 countries. It is hosted by but you can also find Who’d a Thunk It on:

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One reply on “Helmet Graffiti of Vietnam”

It fascinates me where your mind takes you, Zeb. Interesting segway from sunburn to helmet graffiti…xoSent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S9.

Liked by 1 person

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