The Things We Wrote

The military called it the M-1 helmet; the troops called it a “steel pot.” The damn thing felt like it weighed half a ton when you first put it on your newly shaved head in basic training or boot camp. It’s a sure bet that not long after the U.S. military introduced the steel pot (with its fiber glass shell liner) in 1941, some GI or Marine scribbled “Kilroy was here” or some other oddball or ironic saying on his helmet. Until the Vietnam War, though, what you most commonly saw on helmets were rank insignia and unit designations.

As is the case with so many other things, the conflict in Vietnam put its own unique stamp on the things we wrote on our helmets.

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All manner of iconoclastic stuff found its way onto our steel pots. By far, the most popular were peace signs and short-timer calendars. Ironically, the most reproduced helmet graffito to emerge from the Vietnam War is a fictitious one, although it is based on reality: the “Born to Kill” that Private Joker wrote on his steel pot in the movie Full Metal Jacket, which is based on former Marine Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel, The Short-Timers.

The iconoclastic Joker’s helmet message is central to the surreal “duality of man” dialogue in the movie, in which a hard-core colonel chews out Private Joker for his peace symbol button. “You write ‘Born to Kill’ on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?” the colonel harrumphs. To which Joker replies: “I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir, the Jungian thing, sir.” To which, the colonel replies: “Whose side are you on, son?”

The troops in Vietnam were the children of the ’60s, and like their cohorts back home, even in a war zone they found a way to express themselves.