Liberation Shoes: China’s Revolutionary Footwear

You pay a steep price for being first. You put in the effort and expense of inventing something, only for interlopers to copy your invention, improve it, and net better results on the back of your effort. In the 20th century, China’s People’s Liberation Army has usually been the parvenu who wisely refines others’ innovations on the cheap.

When they did pioneer something zany and new, you could expect two things for certain: it would be ingeniously economical, and it would lean heavily on the PLA’s genius for putting the “light” back in “light infantry.”

But that combination could go either of two ways, “cost-effective and nimble” or “cheap and flimsy.” They mean exactly the same thing, except one is brilliant and the other is merely good enough.

When the PLA invented its awesome chest rig, it was quickly recognized as China’s greatest invention since paper, printing, gunpowder, and compasses and spread to all the armies of the earth. But when the PLA invented the “liberation shoe,” it gave a fifth of humanity foot fungus.

The shoes ran me about $10, because I blew a little extra on the de luxe package, which included shoe laces.

Still, I had to try liberation shoes. Lean Solid Dogs is a laboratory not just of surplus gear but also of the human spirit! We do not shy away from a momentous and outrageously cheap item of Communist Bloc outdoor gear, even at the cost of discomfort and skin disease. (Besides, I’m already afflicted with a wicked foot fungus from my misspent youth in Red China. There’s nothing more they can do to me.)

Liberation shoes are as bound up with the founding of the People’s Republic as Betsy Ross, muskets, and sticking a feather in your hat and calling it macaroni. In 1950, China marched off to war in Korea just a year after completing their Communist revolution. As befit a New China, they shod their “volunteer” soldiers in a revolutionary new footwear that symbolized perfectly the difference between the Western way of war and the new Maoist way–cheap, flexible, expendable, and nimble.

The PLA turned its back on over a century of modern military science, wherein quartermasters sought to shod their infantry in a strong pair of boots. High or low, jackboots or lace-ups, leather or ersatz, with socks or foot wraps, puttees or gaiters or nothing–this was as far as they differed. Each infantryman represented just a rifle with feet, and the army meant to protect their investment with something stout.

But the leaders of China’s light infantry were not as concerned with protecting their feet as moving them, as quickly as possible and over terrain so broken that the UN troops would think it impassable.

They were equipped accordingly with New China’s first great military invention: the combat sneaker. Technically the “Type 50” shoes, but no one calls them that. They are known as “liberation shoes.”

“The American and South Korean armies wore … American-style combat boots, which were warm and durable but also cloddishly heavy,” reads a typical Chinese account. “… In contrast, the [Chinese] soldiers had grown up wearing grass or cloth shoes and were unaccustomed to heavy combat boots. … For summer wear, Liberation Shoes proved themselves light and well suited to long-distance marches” and climbing the Korean peninsula’s rocky terrain. In fact, the sneakers worked so well for climbing that the Chinese stuck with the sneakers even in the howling Korean winters!

The PLA was so thrilled with the performance of the liberation sneakers that it kept them in service for six decades. Just as you might expect of a country where “the army and the people were as close as fish and water” and the military enjoyed terrific prestige, the liberation shoe became a standard item for civilian laborers and farmers, appreciated for their affordability, comfort, and nice, grippy rubber sole.

What Rhymes With “Jungle?” (Hint: Think Ringworm)

But apparently some People’s Republics are never happy. (Yes, Vietnam, that side-eye is for you.) China started sending their “socialist younger brothers” in Hanoi tons of gear even before the French were driven out, including liberation shoes. Mao was sending trainloads of aid long before Stalin even condescended to like Ho Chi Minh’s new Facebook profile photo.

The Vietnamese disliked the Chinese, and if the two sides could only have been brought together on the Dr. Phil Show, they might have been able to talk out their toxic relationship. China played the patronizing and controlling philanthropist, and Vietnam was the sullen beneficiary who resented the strings attached but still wanted the gifts. And PLA leaders felt hurt by the favoritism shown by Mao, who was acting like a stingy old woman who neglects her own family only to lavish love on a hissing feral cat.

China annoyed the Soviets and Czechs with their whinging entitlement, only to complain about mooching, ungrateful Albanians and Vietnamese. 

So it must have stung that Vietnam didn’t like China’s remarkable liberation shoes. Sure, they stank. And the more you wore them, the funkier they got. But don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Vietnam, especially when your war economy can’t even make its own toothpaste! And OK, the liberation shoes weren’t so durable either. If you worked hard and played hard, the shoes wore in just two months. But who cares? They’re cheap and replaceable. Heck, in the Communist world, “shoddy and expendable” is almost a feature, not a bug!

The problem was that liberation shoes were waterproof…but only kinda waterproof.

For long-distance running or walking, your prime directive is “keep your feet dry.” That means that shoes can choose from two basic strategies: (1) keep water out completely, like a jackboot, or (2) admit water and then expel it, like US jungle boots or French pataugas.

The Chinese liberation shoe tried half-heartedly to split the difference and failed. It floods and then traps water in the sealed, rubber bottom. Then your foot stews all day in a hot, soggy package that breeds malodorous funk and ringworm. And even when you take the liberation shoes off, they take a long time to dry. Too often, the shoes wouldn’t be completely dry before the soldiers had to put them back on.

So imagine that you go hiking for a couple days, and you carry a hunk of cheese in a damp Ziploc bag. That’s your foot.

I lived in China many a long year, and I’ve smelled a few things. So I know that when a Chinese infantry soldier, a man who can march for days on 1000 calories without complaint and link arms to walk through a field acting as a human mine detector–when that man admits that a shoe “smells terrible,” it means that “dogs would faint.”

In China that was still just a minor shortcoming–God bless the morale of the Chinese squaddie. But in the unremitting murk of the Laotian jungle, it was a deal-breaker. For the North Vietnamese draftee sent on the one-way journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the only blessing of his Chinese combat sneakers was that they would probably fall apart before they could give him trench foot. At the first opportunity, he would exchange them for the famous “Ho Chi Minh sandals” made from old tires.

Still, since the PLA saw fit to keep liberation shoes until just a decade ago, and they’re still bought and sold, I tried them out. Ten dollars and a day of sweaty feet are a small price to pay for Science.

My conclusion was that, unless you’re especially attracted to the color, you can ALL the benefits–the light weight, flexible sole, and low cost–with none of the athlete’s foot and odor just by buying a $10 pair of water shoes. If you’ve got actual capitalist money, try Palladiums or the imitations thereof. You’ll get the liberation shoe concept–light, flexible, and fleet of foot–just executed better, and “debugged” to keep you fungus free.

From Fourth Republic to Banana Republic: France’s Bush Hat

A further installment in our series on Hats of Defeat and the charms of French surplus gear.

Not even a quagmire. France’s Fourth Republic didn’t survive this, but its bush hat became a favorite with American yuppies.
(AP, 1951. CC)

It’s 1949. France grasps at torn shreds of empire like a gut-shot man clutches spilled entrails. In Hanoi, a French quartermaster designs the hat that will go on to symbolize this war. Someone needs to tell him gently, “This war might go aubergine-shaped and abandon thousands to death or slavery, so I’d avoid the whole ‘icon of infamous military incompetence and betrayal’ vibe.” 

Legionnaire of the 2e BEP keeping the Hanoi-Haiphong road open (1954).

But such is French exceptionalism that even though their empire dried and shriveled in Vietnam and Algeria, its hat lived on. For once in history, the losing side’s hat didn’t get chucked into ignominy but survived, spread its wings, and arose into an American yuppy fashion phenom. Yes, it was clunky, impractical, and kind of ugly, but so were go-go boots, and France made those a hit too. How does France always pull this off?

The Beret For the Bush Hat

In 1954, moments the French defenders were overrun at Dien Bien Phu, Col. Pierre Langlais burned the “hallowed red beret” of the paratroopers, to save it from desecration, and met his Viet Minh captors in the French colonial infantry’s plain old bush hat. 

Pierre Langlais (right), de facto commander at Dien Bien Phu, and his bush hat.
https://www.mofo-fdc.com/t53-le-general-marcel-bigeard

The berets had always been a problem, to tell the truth.

Hats are mostly symbolic, as we’ve noted before. That’s especially true of a red beret in a tropical war zone. It’s not protecting you from heat or sun, and it sure isn’t hiding you from the enemy. French paratroops actually wore these things in combat, which struck journalist Bernard Fall as fool-hardy because, well, what’s the French for “target on your head?” But that is how much the paratroops treasured the status conferred by their hard-won beret. 

The chapeau de brousse in Algeria.
The ANZACs’ famous slouch hat debuted at Gallipoli. A bad omen for France’s new hat, like naming it “bush hat, modèle de disaster of military incompetence that haunts a nation for generations.”
(Note that the brim is turned up on the left side. We’ll come to that in a moment.)

But on days when soldiers didn’t want their heads blown off, France needed practical headgear that wasn’t bright red. That was how the French Army developed the “chapeau de brousse, modèle 1949.” They were trying to improve on the wide-brimmed Australian slouch hats worn by their WWII allies in Burma, those famous ones that are pinned up on one side. 

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Australians were absolute hell on wheels in both world wars, fighting alongside France on the western front, in North Africa, and in Burma. I can see why the French command looked to their tropical headgear expertise.

But symbols are tricky, and the French generals got their jobs by escaping from German POW camps and driving tanks for de Gaulle, not PR. Otherwise they might have thought it a bad omen to model the hat for their underfunded, half-hearted national effort in Vietnam on an icon of the infamous Gallipoli campaign, remembered as a national betrayal in which Britain abandoned the troops of its Australian dominion to fend for themselves against an underestimated enemy, unsupported by the mother country. The French Union troops who wore the hat–many of them Moroccan, Algerian, Senegalese, central and eastern European, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Tai, and Hmong–would be able to say similar things later.

Two future Banana Republic catalog favorites in a French colonial outpost near Hanoi. The man on the right is wearing the French Army bush hat. The seated officer is wearing the awesome chaussures de brousse that Banana Republic would later reproduce as “Foreign Legion boots.” (Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, 1951. CC)

For its time, the modèle 1949 was innovative. It took the old slouch hat–hardly a new invention–and tried making it from cotton. (The Ozzie versions are felt.) With plain old cotton, the hat endured rougher handling in the field than felt, which deserves to be maintained nicely.

Legionnaires in Indochina.

Of course, the hat still needed some stiffness, or else it would droop in your face. And there’s no point in trading out your bright red “shoot me” beret for a hat that blinds you. At least in berets you might see your assassin! 

So the French did something clever: they stiffened the cotton cloth with lots of extra seams. (We’ll see them do that again later.) Now you had an inexpensive semi-stiff cotton hat that you could shape like more expensive felt or leather. 

The incredible profusion of stitching is how you can tell the French bush hat from the boonie hats that Americans started improvising in Vietnam. See that fingerprint pattern on the crown of the hat? That’s what the French hats do to give body to the material (though it also adds weight). American boonie hats have a flat tops instead of the “dented dome” of the French hat.

Importantly, it was cheap: in the whole Indochina theater, France barely had two helicopters to rub together. They had lots of men to clothe but little materiel except what they could get from the Americans.

Americans know this is the South Vietnamese army’s “cowboy hat.” To store away the obnoxiously long neck strap, you could secure it on top of the hat. This pulled up both sides of the hat and made it look something like a cowboy hat. (Photo Carl Evers, 1967-68. CC)

After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the French Army left remnants of its presence in Southeast Asian material culture, including their bush hat, for American arrivals to puzzle over years later. The hats were worn by South Vietnamese and Laotian forces (both of which originated as French colonial forces) and seemed to American incongruously like attempts at cowboy hats.

New inductees into the South Vietnamese army! They look thrilled.
Note their hats are turned up on the right, not the left (as on the Australian officer above). Like its French founders, the South Vietnamese army used French drill and slung the rifle on the right shoulder, rather than on the left as in British and Commonwealth drill.
If you’re American and you recognize the French bush hat, you probably know it from American war-time pictures of South Vietnamese soldiers. Other than a képi and an Inspector Clouseau mustache, it’s the French Army’s deepest imprint on the late modern American visual imaginaire.
American advisor talking to South Vietnamese Regional Forces soldiers, who are a virtual exhibit of the broad range of ARVN headwear. From left to right, the French bush hat, the ARVN fatigue cap, the ARVN camo fedora (yes!!), and a pith helmet. To that man’s right is someone wearing a beret.

Then Americans began to wear the French hats.

Pilots at US air base in Thailand during Vietnam war. The two on the right and left are Americans wearing the French bush hats. The Anzac in the middle is wearing the original slouch hat on which they’re based. (Military Times) (Why is his hat turned up on the right, not the left? From what I’ve read, units from different states had different drill and uniform standards, with some turning up the left, for the rifle, and others the right, for the “eyes right” command.)

USAF personnel based in Thailand adopted them as regional uniform items and tricked them out with unit bling. 

USAF in Thailand. (Military Times)

They’ve even made a comeback recently. The American 25th Fighter Squadron attended joint war games in Thailand, where their unit was based during the war, and they marked the occasion with retro “Saigon Cowboy” hats as a nod to tradition.

In addition to turning up both sides, many Americans in Thailand furthered the “cowboy” look by creasing down the crown all the way around (instead of denting it in a lengthwise furrow, as was common with the French.) The man in the foreground has done that with his; the man behind him has left his au naturel.

Once even the Americans got hip to French bush hats, it was time for France to move on to something cooler.

Supposedly the paratroop battalions found the standard bush hat too heavy and too clumsy in, well, actual bush; what’s the point of a bush hat if it keeps getting knocked off your head by branches when you’re whacking through the jungle? So the paratroopers developed their own, alternate jungle hat (stay tuned for that), which only they were allowed to wear.

I kind of wondered whether that wasn’t really the main point all along. The paratroopers were the big swinging you-know-whats of the French Army, and if they were vain enough to want their own proprietary, elite berets, even if it meant a bullet in the old melon, maybe they would just invent reasons why they absolutely, positively had to have special hats.

Turns out, I was wrong. First, the paratroopers were totally NOT shy about their vanity. They flat-out admitted they wanted special hats, pardieu!

Second, I tried this hat out myself and, though I really wanted to like it, I hated it too. First, it really is heavy. At 170g, it’s 70% heavier than a baseball cap or boonie hat. And that’s just its dry weight. Add rainwater and you’ll be wearing well over one pound on top of your head.

I’ll keep the nifty chèche, thanks, but this hat is pour les oiseaux.

And it sits annoyingly *high* on your head, with little purchase. Up there, it really is begging to come off in wind or foliage.

And though I don’t think it’s downright ugly, it’s at least “overbuilt.” I’d rather saw off the top of an umbrella, attach a chin strap, and be done with it. 

Again With the French Exceptionalism

If this were any other empire, that would be the end of the story. We would say, “They had a good run, they invented a couple hats that were decent for their time, and then they were left behind by history.” And that would be all for the clunky bush hat. But French colonial headwear wasn’t finished just yet! It just migrated, shape-shifted, and found a new role in…

… American consumerism! I won’t try to settle a weighty question like whether American commerce deserves to be called “Coca Cola colonialism” or “cultural imperialism.” I’ll just say that, where we must apologize for sins of cultural commission, omission, transmission, or superimposition, sometimes we were led astray. Specifically, France made us do it! 

For around 1981, as Ronald Reagan was settling into the White House, the old French bush hat found a new outpost of empire at a new store in San Francisco called Banana Republic. Originally just a couple of intellectuals with witty, hand-drawn catalog, they took exotic-looking military surplus, gave it a good wash and a really cool story, and made it a sensation. (Abandoned Republic has an awesome FB page and blog that is a kind of cultural archive and museum of the phenomenon that was Banana Republic in its zany startup years.)

Banana Republic’s catalog boasts the hat “100% water repellant cotton,” but that sounds as likely as “weight-loss birthday cake,” which is just the sort of cheek that you used to find in Banana Republic catalogs. (Photo courtesy of Abandoned Republic)

I checked, and the catalog was actually telling the truth about Jerusalem: none other than the Israeli army thought well enough of the French bush hat to adopt it. Maybe it was a sweetener in some arms negotiation: “I’ll make you deal, monsieur le ministre,” said a French official. “I’ll throw in a nuclear reactor with those Mirage fighter jets if you’ll take these clunky hats off our hands. Make your guys wear them.”

Because I can’t see what anyone wants with these antiquated hats. I tried to fob mine off on Lean Solid Wife. It looks fairly unisex, as Banana Republic advertised, and I hoped maybe madame would be intrigued by the “piece of Eighties material culture history” angle. But the instant I placed it on her head, she shook her head non: “Too heavy, too clumsy and unstable. And it’s kind of ugly.” I’m disappointed, but at least I’m vindicated!

Hats Of Defeat

A further installment in our series on French gear.

Some people deal better than others with losing.   

France doesn’t like to lose, but for a great power, it’s endured a tough couple of centuries. It lost its bid for global hegemony to Britain, and it lost Paris three times to Germans (twice before Germany was even a country). Then it lost Indochina and Algeria, and it was humiliated by the Suez Crisis. And yet, like a buccaneering tycoon, though France lost two empires, it bounced back both times.

In popular career books, they say you should embrace your failures. Learn from them, see them as stepping stones in your growth, and rather than feeling shame, look on them with fond compassion, like a photo of yourself as a cute, gap-toothed kid smiling to show where your front baby teeth fell out. And remember not just went wrong in those failures but also the things you did well, the good qualities you showed, the new skills that you used (however imperfectly) for the very first time.

In this, the French Army leads the way! Other militaries only like to talk about their signal victories—Midway, Kursk, Stalingrad, El Alamein—but the French Army famously makes cult out of the defeats where French troops stood out nevertheless by their fortitude: Waterloo, Camérone, Bazeilles, Dien Bien Phu.

The French Troupes de Marine commemorate their Alamo moment at the Battle of Sedan (1870), when a small unit of holdouts covered their parent unit’s retreat by sacrificing itself in Bazeilles at the “house of the last cartridges.” (Alphonse de Neuville, Les Dernières Cartouches, 1873.)

The French celebrate these noble defeats and commemorate them like other armies celebrate victories. Where the US Marines celebrate the Corps’ birthday with a ball each year, the French Foreign Legion celebrates Camerone Day, when a platoon sent to Mexico for stupid reasons was surrounded and made a suicidal banzai charge. (Some were spared by the Mexicans, though, in admiration for their bravery.)

This brings us to another instance of French exceptionalism: their attitude toward the hats that they wore in defeat. And for that, I must detour for a moment into (appropriately Gallic) literary theory.

The first casualty of war is the losing hat

Hats are symbols; they’re extra visible, and we wear them as as clothing first and only second as protection against sun, rain, and cold. 

Even in work uniforms, hats are mostly symbols. Why do McDonalds crew members wear a hat? As a branding symbol. Yes, it serves a hygienic need too, but so would a hair net. Why do police officers wear those brimmed, quasi-military hats? Why not golf visors or tiaras? Official symbolism. 

I won’t go “full semiotic” here, because literary theory is like men’s cologne—a little bit is usually too much. But one last point about symbols: they never stop taking on more meaning, like your leftover honey-glazed tofu keeps absorbing fridge odors. Today’s sharp-looking hat might smell like freezer-burned carrots tomorrow, and even your BPA-free Pyrex can’t protect it.

For practical purposes, this gives us the Lean Solid Dogs Law of Surplus Hats: if someone loses a war badly, it’s his hat that will suffer. The losing side will hate their uniform hat and drop it into a black hole ASAP because it conjures unhappy memories directly into their brain stems.

The Soviets went to Afghanistan with a pretty decent boonie hat.

Sure, it was heavy and featured “typical Soviet construction – meaning basic and barebones,” but it kept the sun off your head. And yes, the “afghanka” looks quaint, with its funny cone-headed top, but it scored alright in the (admittedly uncompetitive) category of “Soviet fashions.” It was definitely more dignified than this:

Soviet hat fashion prized qualities other than visual appeal. Or comfort. Or quality. Or simplicity of design.

But when the Soviets lost in Afghanistan, their populace was so demoralized and poisoned that their government paid with its life. But first, their hat paid for the sins of the government. The afghanka was pulled from service even before the last tank returned home, tainted by the USSR’s terminal ordeal.

A Soviet unit just returned from its tour in 1986. By this point the war had gone full quagmire, and linguistic historians believe this photo captured the last time that anyone with a St. Petersburg accent said the sentence, “I’m overjoyed to be back in Tajikistan!”

Of course, some “hats of defeat” were hated even before their surrounding politics went pear-shaped. The green baseball-style “field cap, hot weather” was hated by US Army troops even before they could mispronounce “Vietnam.” It made them sweat under its polyester material, having been categorized by the Pentagon as a “hot weather” cap only because it lacked ear flaps. But above all, it made them feel dorky.

IMHO, this hat would still have screamed, “Abandon all hope, draftees! We are SOOO out of our depth,” even if Gen. Westmoreland had been the love child of Joan of Arc with Sun Tzu.

Soldiers care how they look. They are young men, after all, and they’re carrying out a rite of passage, thousands of years old and extremely difficult, and important to the social “homework” of a new adult man: finding your place in male hierarchy and showing that you can be entrusted with responsibilities to other men and maybe to a woman too.

Developmentally, this is all HUGE, the stuff of myths and archetypes–matters like this are why cultures have symbols. So it’s small wonder that soldiers care how they look in their uniforms. In the darkest days of World War II, Stalin’s Red Army suffered terrible defeatism. So at Stalin’s personal order, they eliminated their infamously dowdy, shapeless, socialist uniforms that made every man equal in proletarian ugliness. From their grand imperial past, they resurrected smart uniforms, shoulder boards, medals, and ranks–all previously abolished by the Revolution. Soldiers’ spirits soared. They felt like men, heroes. From memoirs and letters home, we have abundant documentation of Red Army soldiers saying (and I’m paraphrasing): I feel like a million bucks! We even walk differently. We feel like real fighters now! We’re still as good as dead, but darnit, we feel like heroes now.

Now completely doomed WITH SHOULDER BOARDS!
(Photo courtesy of Za Rodinu)

So it was a big deal that the iconic Vietnam hat was hated by the guys wearing it, even before Vietnam was Vietnam. Ironically, the hat was actually chosen by the Pentagon because the old guys there because it seemed squared away and soldierly to the aging staff officers. (Apparently the Sixties had this thing called a “generation gap.”) Troops tried to make the hat less dumb by crushing the crown down on top of the head, even putting cardboard inside the front to keep it neat. But sometimes they were actually forced by their commanders to stop, even though Gen. Westmoreland himself wore it that way. Eventually the hat was so tainted by US failure in Vietnam that it was abandoned and replaced with the same hat that the Army wore in Korea(!).

But there should be no misunderstanding: the unpopular Vietnam hat was objectively ugly even when it was still a gleam in the eye of a hung-over RISD grad on their first day as a government fashion designer.

Embrace Your Failures, Double Down On Your Hats

In keeping with France’s age as a civilization, she regards highly the due place of tradition. So coupled with her healthy, mature attitude toward failures and setbacks, France lives out this appreciation of tradition in her headgear. Where other armies lose one little hopeless counter-insurgency and bury their hat in shame in the same closet as their teenage poetry journal, France rises from the canvas, forthrightly summarizes her lessons in a new marching song, and then throws her same old well-loved chapeau in the ring once more.

Next time, the hat that only a patriot could love: the Bigeard cap.

Nutria Brown

Part IV of our series South African on surplus gear for arid climates. Please find the previous parts here, here, and here.

In America, we’d see someone dressed head to toe in a brown uniform and guess “UPS delivery driver.” But if you put him in southern Africa, maybe with a gun as a hint, “browns” would connect him with the South African Defense Force (SADF), South Africa’s pre-1994 army.

The SADF stood out among Western-style militaries of the Cold War, differing from everyone else in little details. One was their unusual brown uniform, which now is coveted on the surplus market. South Africa began the Sixties dressed in impractical, smart-looking British-type uniforms but knowing they needed something they could move around and get dirty in. And by the end of the decade, the troepies were spending a lot of their time in the field, preparing for a conventional war against Soviet proxies but also running around in the bush looking for Chinese-backed guerrilla forces too.

So in 1971, they adopted what became their trademark, the “nutria brown” color. Nutria sounds like the brand-name for a hippy protein powder made from brewer’s yeast and algae, but it’s actually the name of a cute (but invasive) rodent. However, that maligned rodent had the honor of lending its name to some of the best surplus of the Seventies.

Why monochrome?

Earth tones conceal stuff incredibly well. In search and rescue, it’s shocking how effectively plain colors conceal people in nature. I’ve searched a pine forest next to a man in a light tan uniform, and he completely disappeared from view just 10 yards away in moderate foliage. That makes khaki a terrible field uniform for SAR—orange or red is the way to go—but if you want to vanish in a forest, you can get there in chinos, loafers, and a tan button-down.

With just a couple branches between you and a searcher, they will have trouble picking out your shape, criss-crossed by a couple lines, from the chaotic background clutter. They might also miss you even if you just stand under overhanging branches, provided you are crossed by a couple shadows of branches.

Of course, if you want to hide on purpose, then you’re even better off with a darker color. Armies experimented after the 1860s with dull grays, yellows, and greens so soldiers wouldn’t get them shot from afar by the new, high-powered ammunition. Over the next century, they progressed toward steadily darker hues. The Russians didn’t settle on one standard color, retaining a mix of yellows, greens, and browns that nevertheless all looked like they issued from some part of a baby. But everyone else converged on nearly the same color, just described with different names.

In American English, this is the color I’d label “khaki.” But in the British and French armies, they kept the name “khaki” even as the actual hue got darker and greener, to the point of being indistinguishable (to my eye) from what Americans called “olive green” and Germanic armies called “field gray” or “stone gray.”

British Commonwealth armies still called that color “khaki,” though it no longer matched its Urdu meaning of “soil-colored.” The Germanic armies all called theirs “field gray” (Feldgrau), and the Americans named theirs “olive green.”

Olive Green 107, the pukey color of *MASH*, Platoon, and everything else set in the US Army of the Korea and Vietnam eras.

Olive, gray, even (super-dark) khaki—all justifiable descriptions of pretty much the same, hard-to-define color. We do know one thing. It is officially Proven By Science that it’s the ugliest color in the world. When Australia ordered tobacco companies to redesign their cigarette packages so as to “minimize appeal,” government researchers identified this very color in experiments as the most morbid and depressing. The Australian olive lobby begged the officials not to call the villainous color “olive” and besmirch their fruit’s good name, so the government accommodated them and dubbed it “drab dark brown.”

What’s Hebrew for “If it ain’t broke…?” The IDF still wears solid OD green.

In tests, plain old olive drab (OD) camouflages people in a forest almost as effectively as a well-designed camo pattern. So olive is still the standard in tropical Venezuela and Cuba, temperate Austria, and the mixed terrain of India. And amazingly, it actually works well in a desert too! The Israelis found it worked there almost as well as purpose-made desert camo, reportedly, so the IDF still wears olive. Maybe olive really is the closest thing to a “universal camouflage!”

For a given environment, a solid earth tone gives up a little to the right camouflage pattern, but it finishes miles ahead of the wrong pattern. The US Army’s disastrous “UCP” made soldiers glow, owing to an extreme case of color merging or “blobbing out.” When you look at almost any pattern from a great distance, the variegated colors blend into a single color. For the UCP, which was adopted with zero testing(!), the “blobbing” started at ping pong distance and yielded a color like a lighthouse beacon.

South Africa had roughly the same idea. They needed a single uniform for forests and mountains and deserts, so they tried olive. But there was a twist: those varied southern African landscapes did share one commonality–they were all very dry. So when the South African army experimented in Namibia, olive was edged out by “nutria brown” in the parched landscape. (For the same landscape, the Kaiser’s short-lived colony of “South-West Africa” chose a lighter brown they called “sand color.” Probably not a coincidence.)

The French kept their “khaki green” tenue F1 until 2000. Other countries who hung on late to monochrome included China and Israel, as well as South Africa–curiously, all shared economic, military, and political peculiarities that made them global military oddballs. That is a subject for another day.

When South Africa adopted their signature nutria browns in 1971, most major armies were still uniformed in monochrome too, including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and West Germany. But South Africa retained theirs longer than most, economically sapped by war and inflation. It is telling that, when finally adopting camouflage uniforms in 1993, the army’s chief felt he needed to justify the slight cost increase of just US $24 worth per uniform of his country’s falling currency.

For our purposes, South African nutria and other monochrome surplus is also attractively economical, even if we do enjoy a hard currency. It’s cheap and indestructible, and it’s extra versatile because, lacking a camo pattern, it doesn’t make you look like Mall Rambo. Even though that doesn’t matter when you’re out hiking and camping, afterward you might want to stop at the grocery store and not sow terror of a rebel attack on the frozen aisle.

“This is an act of revolutionary expropriation! I demand safe passage to Cuba and the release of all your freezer case’s single-serving containers of Haagen-Dasz!”

Becoming Durable With Tom “The Truth” Furman

“Most people are highly skilled at self-deception.”
–Tom “The Truth” Furman of Physical Strategies, at 60+

Successful people have a trusted someone who tells them truths that they’d rather avoid. When a conquering Roman general paraded in triumph, decked out as the god Jupiter, a veteran next to him would murmur in his ear, under the crowd’s cheers, “Remember you are mortal.” Modern generals and leaders employ a “red team” or some kind of “loyal opposition” to pick holes in their plans. 

This is because, as Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” So sometimes I think master trainer Tom Furman’s greatest talent is just that he confronts me with truths that are good for me.

Yes, it runs deeper than that: he reads all the journals, attends the workshops, follows the new trends, and then filters them through his bullsh** detector that’s five decades thick. Sober people like Tom are the reason that I survived the early 2000s without severing my spinal cord or blowing tendons by following stupid trends like high-rep timed barbell snatches or back squats on a wobble board.

But above all, Tom keeps the truth the truth. I owe him a report every Monday on the week’s eating, exercise, weight, and waist. And when I delude myself about the tale of the tape, “Tom the Truth” tells me what I’m choosing not to know. 

If the most effective way to lie is to change definitions, Tom guards them from me. If the sneakiest way to subvert success is to move goalposts on the sly, Tom fixes them in concrete. The blue collar fighter from Pittsburgh tore up the “Everyone’s a Winner!” memo and crumbled it up between his thumb and pinky to train grip strength.

In a year of family trials, there was one huge joy too! Lean Solid Girl got promoted to Lean Solid Wife.

Hence I could have had no better coach during this past year of family troubles than Tom, to help me self-arrest before I slid down a mountain of travails and into a Himalayan crevasse of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Tom gently but firmly kept me pointed upward and didn’t entertain my self-accommodating illusions that maybe faeries were causing me mysteriously to hold water temporarily-for-months-at-a-time.

Now that I’ve climbed back out of the Valley of the Shadow, I’m still on track. Under Tom’s wholesome influence, I’ve regained lost ground and also shaken nagging mobility limitations and periodic joint issues too.

This Summer’s Game

This summer I’ve been ordered by the doctor to lay off serious training for a couple months following a small (but perfectly benign) surgery. I’m prohibited from anything to raise intra-abdominal pressure, which is tantamount to a prohibition against doing anything. 

That means no running, kettlebells, backpacks, pullups, presses, or punching bags. Barbells are banned; dumbbells are disallowed, except those tiny ones coated in neoprene. 

Athletically, this sounded worse than a jail sentence, since even in lockup I could maybe pump out hours of bodyweight convict workouts. Instead, it’s more like three months in a nursing home, shuffling slowly and doing water aerobics.

But you can make a game of most anything. After all, what are strictures except rules of a game that you haven’t invented yet? So this summer’s game has been, “Doing something, anything, to move around that won’t get me in trouble with the doctor. My score is total minutes per day. Bonus points if it improves something that I’ve neglected.”

To my surprise, this has been fun and productive! Aside from walking modest but growing distances, I’ve found ways to say occupied with light Indian clubs, dumbbells, and bands; rubber tubing to do I, T, Y, and W pulls to prehab the shoulders; modified pushup and crawling variations; the few stretches that don’t violate the surgeon’s rules; and easy static holds in one- and two-legged squat positions, up high with no abdominal bracing.

Particularly fun have been wall pushup variations to strengthen finger and forearm extensors. Whenever I get sore elbows, I’ve learned, it means I need to work those extensors, which are always too weak to match the flexors. 

Calorie Balance and Deficit

“If you want to tell people the truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

To my great surprise, I’m staying in a small calorie deficit without trouble. I feared that I’d be consigned to the couch all summer, with no ruck on my back and a spoon in each hand. 

Tom had a simple preventive medicine for this: Eat less. Tom subscribes to the school of “Calories in, calories out. You can’t deny physics and chemistry, and you can’t outrun a donut.” It’s a simple truth, an unpopular one, and it survives perennial attempts at hand-waving circumvention. You have entered “The Tom Furman Zone.”

Fortunately, if you accept that an unwelcome truth is, well, true, life gets much simpler! When I had to get much less active and scale down my calorie intake, I learned that Tom really has been speaking the truth when he tells me, “You need less food than you think.” There’s plenty of utility in hacks like volumetrics, where you fill up on foods high in fiber and water content, but I always take a good idea too far. In my case, that looks like me compulsively eating horse-sized bulk meals out of with a family-sized salad bowl, trying to satisfy myself on sheer poundage. 

But when I have a normal, low level of activity, I’m okay eating normal (and measured) servings of food. (And for tracking food, Noom is a gift from the heavens. It makes logging and budgeting calories supremely easy.)

I’m even leaning vegetarian again, which is a balm to my conscience, and my body isn’t objecting. Maybe this is an upside of getting being lean and light, not carrying extra weight (fat or muscle), and going light on the exercise. 

Next stop on the Tom Train is to trim off a final six or seven pounds, two more inches of waist, and get to a good fighting weight in the 150s. (Call it 70kg and change.)

At that point, I’ll want to reward myself with something I hope to write about soon, the “Skinny Cat Challenge!”

Chat maigre: French for “lean, solid dog”

National Commando Training Center in Coullioure. Photo courtesy of Romain Mielcarek (http://www.guerres-influences.com/romain-mielcarek/)

The Cult of Light Infantry?

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we maintain a special interest in light infantry because we love to romp around the outdoors carrying heavy things. And there’s a whole profession dedicated to that! They’re called light infantry and they work for the government, which does research for them and gives it away for free. It also sells off their old gear almost as cheaply.

Of course, they’re not a perfect model for us. For the sake of joint health, no one should ruck more than 30 lbs. (14kg) habitually unless they make their living by carrying a mortar. And some of us need to unlearn some of the “push, push, push!” mentality. Nevertheless, lean solid dogs can pick up a lot from light infantry.

But first, a word from our sponsor … me!

What is light infantry? Roughly, they’re soldiers who walk a lot. They’re not armored, not mechanized. Maybe they catch a ride when possible, but they’re capable of transporting themselves and their gear around on foot. (Above, French Moroccan troops decamp from Hanoi in 1954.)

In the 20th century, light infantry seemed like a specialty mostly for East Asians: the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) worked stunning miracles, like Michael Jordan defying the laws of gravity and reinventing the game of basketball.

Even when I’m sitting at a desk, I’m writing a novel this year about the People’s Liberation Army, so I constantly have light infantry on the brain. When it overflows, I dump it out on this blog.

The Imperial Japanese Army’s staff would have loved more heavy equipment, but it was absolutely out of the question. They had the know-how in spades–a deep talent pool of engineers and military professionals–but they lacked requisites like manufacturing capacity, sealift, and oil and they knew it. The slender resources they did have, they wisely earmarked for the Navy and air arms, and that was that. PFC Yamada would get some puttees, a bolt-action rifle, and a really huge bayonet.

Those East Asian armies specialized in light infantry because they had to: It’s all they had. They couldn’t support highly mechanized armies with their limited industrial bases. The Japanese and the PLA rationalized their reliance on light infantry in ideology: superior courage, commitment, and the spirit of the bayonet would prevail over firepower and technology. They were helped by existing cultural ingredients–for example, the IJA taught conscripts to revere their bayonets as latter-day samurai swords–but they were making a virtue of necessity. Their armies would have liked to be heavier, but then, I’d like be taller. Too bad.

But the French Army is different. They chose their own “cult of light infantry” freely, despite having other options, because they love the light fighter as an idea.

The Feline Fighter

Wolves. Bears. Sharks. Tigers. Lions. Wildcats and hellcats. Falcons. “Screaming Eagles.” “Devil dogs.” How many badass animals have been adopted as names and similes for history’s warriors?

But domestic cats? How many armies psyche up the young heroes-in-training with thoughts of elegant Siamese cats? Languid Persians?

The Armée Francaise, that’s who! Go ahead, make your silly jokes! The Fighting Calicoes! The Battling Marmalades! Maybe a parachute regiment called “The Finicky Persians.” Or “Hell’s Turkish Angoras.” Oh yes, quel drôle!

Go ahead, make your silly jokes! Anyone who rocks this hat is clearly broadcasting, “I don’t care what you think.”

The French Army likes its soldiers agile, flexible, and nimble: in French, chats maigres, “skinny cats.” Not emaciated, of course, but rangy and optimized for endurance. And not lacking strength, to be sure–there are lots of ropes for you to climb, soldat de France, and pullups too! But excess muscle would weight you down, when we want you light and quick. In a word, feline!

That means no protein powder for you, légionnaire! It’s forbidden. In fact, not too much food for you either! In memoir accounts of new trainees in the Foreign Legion, being constantly hungry is almost as much of a trope as “march or die” in old movies. American servicemen who train with French units remark on how much running they do and their level of endurance. And among visiting French troops, a common refrain is to exclaim about the American troops’ huge breakfasts of eggs, potatoes, and sausage. 

The Foreign Legion has a reputation for devoting a lot of training time to ironing clothes and distance running. At the Legion’s annual half-marathon, winning times are about 80 minutes

Why this cult of the skinny cat? It’s what academics like me call “overdetermined,” which is short-hand for “lots of reasons, any one of which would have been enough.”

One is that France is drawn to the “cult of light forces” ideologically, writes Benoist Bihan, because it happens to fit well with France’s untidy heritage of mixed of aristocratic and republican ideals. On one hand, the French army drew most of its officers from old military families, some with traditions of service stretching from the ancien régime through the 20th century, that formed a sort of aristocratic caste. On the other hand, they served a republic, the birthplace of Enlightenment egalitarianism, officially hostile to class difference and aristocracy. You can’t fit just any ideal into the narrow middle ground on that Venn diagram. But you actually can fit the “quick, nimble light fighter!”

It fits OK with aristocratic heroism: The light infantry officer is a figure of daring, dash, and élan. His battle is won or lost by the wiles, daring, and fortitude of identifiable individuals, not a superpower’s vast, hemispheric system, where whole divisions are just components and the individual man counts for nothing except a nameless cog in a clanking machine.  In other words, in the light infantry officer’s war, there’s lots of room for conspicuous heroism. He may distinguish himself individually and re-inscribe his ancient family name with glory in the annals of French arms. Vive le roi! Vive l’empereur! Vive la France!

But also, the light infantryman’s heroism is open to any son of the Republic, irrespective of birth or even education. He need not be bred as a chevalier right from his gilded cradle, nor need he even spend his whole youth studying military science. Yes, a talented boy will be educated at the public expense at the military academy of Saint-Cyr if only he show a clever mind and firm spirit, but even that is not necessary. France’s greatest paratroop officer, the patron saint in the “cult of light forces,” Marcel Bigeard, rose from an ordinary soldat de deuxième classe with an 8th grade education! In the warfare of agility, daring, and maneuver it is enough for any French conscript to show resolution and aggressiveness. L’esprit de l’attaque! Vive la République!

In a word, goes the thinking, light infantry were satisfyingly French as few other options could be.

Add to this that the French Army has been doing this for two centuries. Napoleon knew a thing or two about maneuver warfare, and his famous light infantry chasseurs fought in Spain against the world’s first “guerillas.” So France failed against an agrarian irregular resistance before it was cool!

France’s 19th century African and Asian colonies have been called “a gigantic system of outdoor relief for army officers … designed to give them something to do.” Whatever the French Army thought they were accomplishing out there, they gained tons of experience at maneuvering light, nimble bodies of infantry and marines around vast spaces and tight spots. And along the way, they contributed a lot to the military art and science of light forces.

France was at the bleeding edge of things like rifle technology. The French Navy actually gets credit for this immediate predecessor to the first modern military bolt-action rifle (also French). They adopted this early bolt-action repeater that fed metal cartridges (also invented by…guess who!!).

Just as important, their officers were honing the subtle, soft skills of military diplomacy and local politics that turn out to be everything in what are now called “small wars.”

This points to an another important ingredient in the French cult of light infantry: unofficially, France had two parallel armies, a heavy one for the defense of Europe, and a light one for overseas, and the two grew apart culturally and eventually politically.

Even after the whole “collaborate with Nazis?” quarrel, the Army faced a dilemma with its overseas commitments. Like the British Army, they were tied down in Europe with NATO and struggled to protect their overseas colonies, but the French Army had it worse: they were constrained by a French law that forbade deploying French conscripts (i.e. most of the army) outside of France or Algeria. For colonial garrisons—in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, South America, and all over Africa—they were limited to using units from the Foreign Legion, regular units of French professionals, and the Troupes coloniales. (These sound like “indigenous forces,” but not really: the enlisted ranks were about half Arab, African, or Asian and half French volunteers). Diverse in origins and unit designators, what these overseas forces had in common was that they were light fighters. And collectively, these overseas forces came to feel unsupported and estranged, like the Breakfast Club of the French Army, and developed an “outsider” identity as square pegs, the misunderstood streetfighting punks to the rich preppies of Big Army and its heavy divisions back in Europe. From their perspective, these colonial paratroopers and legionnaires were doing France’s actual gutter fighting, unloved and half-disavowed by Paris and the respectable general staff officers who enjoyed clean kepis, starched tablecloths, and sherry with dinner. They fought dirty little wars in dirty places with dirty tactics, but that was how they got results—c’est la guerre.   

Just imagine Jack Nicholson with a képi and a cigarette doing the scene in French and you’ve got the idea.

The dynamic is dramatized in Jean Lartéguy’s novel The Centurions (1960), in which paratroop officers in Vietnam and Algeria come feel more kinship with their revolutionary enemies than their estranged countrymen in anti-military France and even from the army’s own respectable but clueless mainstream. Taking seriously the Maoist doctrine that war is a political struggle much more than a military one, they organize themselves in effect as a radical Maoist insurgency and influence French and Algerian politics in their own right. In real life, some of the paratroop officers then attempted a putsch in 1961, briefly seizing control of Algiers in hopes of thwarting Algerian independence. (Lartéguy wrote that up in a hasty sequel, the aptly named Praetorians.)

Bigeard was the (very obvious) model for characters in both the left-leaning film The Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo,1966) and Jean Lartéguy’s rightist novel The Centurions (1960).

The icon of these real and fictional paratroopers was the aforementioned Marcel Bigeard, the working class conscript who rose to general and later Minister of Defense. If the “skinny cat” is the spirit animal of the French light fighter, Bigeard was their their exemplar, prophet, and patron saint. He preached a holy trinity that became paratrooper gospel and a French Army mantra: “flexible, feline, and mobile” (souple, félin et manœuvrier). The skinny cat also had nine lives in each sweaty running shoe. His whole resume of tough guy stuff is way too long, so I’ll skip all of WWII and his first eight years in Vietnam (!) and just mention that he parachuted into Dien Bien Phu twice, suffered 90% losses in his battalion, survived the subsequent death march and prison camp (which killed another 50%), and just a couple years later was shot in the chest in Algeria. Three months after that, he was jogging(!!) and was shot in the chest twice more in a failed attempt at assassination. (He kept working too, chest wounds be damned.)

Chest wound? Pas de probléme–that’s no reason to take medical leave. There’ll be rest enough in the grave! Keep up the old morning run (in French, le footing) and don’t make excuses every time you’re shot by assassins.

There are even more reasons for the French cult of the “skinny cat”–see, I told you this was overdetermined–but that is a subject for another day. I grow tired, and I haven’t even been shot once today!

For now, let it be known henceforth that there are no “dog people” and “cat people.” The lean, solid dog shall lie down with the skinny cat, and the beasts from the wild / Shall be lit by a child / And all do bear walks and lizard crawls.

“Attention, Walmart Shoppers: You Already Have a Prize-Winning Physique For 1900”

Part II of “Before Buff.” (Please find Part I here.)

Bare-knuckle champ John L. Sullivan, gushed over by sports writers as a “beautiful specimen of manhood” on account of his plump good health and energy. (However, he often “took ill” with a pathogen transmitted in oak barrels that disparately afflicted the Irish community.)

You travel back to 1900 and ask Americans, “Show me your most splendid specimen of manhood!” Beaming, they present John L. Sullivan, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. “Behold!” they exclaim, beaming. “The newspapers proclaim him ‘the physical superior of all men!’”

Stripped to the waist, you reckon, the Gilded Age’s greatest GigaChad and physique star would tie for fourth place in a beauty contest for Walmart shoppers at the superstore in Fort Wayne.

What excites men’s admiration, you see, is his energy–he exudes vigor and hardihood like a scentless musk. It’s contagious. He makes you feel sanguine and strong! Again you consider taking up wet shaving, with a strop and a horsehair brush.

*          *          *          *

Around 1900, America’s muscle men were boxers and wrestlers. Americans didn’t yet lift barbells and dumbbells, which were bleeding-edge imports from Germany, the ground zero and mecca for “heavy gymnastics.”  

Outside of German enclaves, few Americans even had access to gymnastic apparatus or coaching, which was in German anyway. (Sorry, kein Englisch!)

For rough-and-tumble fun, Americans took after the British cousins, who enjoyed wrestling and led the world in pugilism. So when they talked of “fine athletic physiques,” they thought of wrestlers and boxers.

And what kind of physical development did wrestling and boxing create? Well first we have to distinguish look from feel from ability.

“Um, I’m more of, like, a tactile learner?”

It’s a funny thing about men: In my experience, when you hug a dude, you have no idea what’s coming. He might feel like he’s carved out of wood, made of ground beef, or big as two gorillas. Sometimes you put your arm around a lanky guy and he feels like a washer-drier combo wearing a t-shirt. (Straight women, gay men, massage therapists: am I right about this?)

For some reason, it’s hard to know what any given man is “made of” until you clap hands on him. Trainer Rory Miller writes somewhere about his first tussle as a young corrections officer with an intimidating inmate. The guy looked tough as a bowl of razors, but when Miller grabbed him, “the guy felt like he was made out of cheese.” Beneath appearances, the man was crumbling from a lifetime of drugs and hard living and he’d been all hollowed out.

As a lousy high school wrestler, I wrestled a kid from the neighboring industrial town whose arms looked no different from mine, but they felt like steel cables. He pushed me so hard that I tumbled into the wall. If we’d been cartoon characters, I would have flown right through it and left a boy-shaped hole.

Competition kettlebells are color-coded by weight. Since I’m habituated, I feel their different weights in my body with a casual look. In fact, I’m straining in my midsection because the left side of the image “weighs” three times too much for the right side. Apparently my body thinks the picture will collapse if I don’t brace and hold it up with my eyes!

In English the word physique skews visual. We borrowed it from French, the language of Descartes, where it just meant “the body, as opposed to the soul.” But in English it connotes “how fit a body looks.

But I’ll bet that, before modern people got our brains rewired as image-sophisticates, when people did more physical labor, they felt a physique as much as saw it. If not by actually touching it, I bet they “felt” with their eyes. (Think of the way you can look at sandpaper or ice cubes and feel their texture in your fingers.)

I think we need a word for what a thing visually feels like. Heck, I’m inventing that word right now: I’m calling it “look-feel.”

So after just a little first-hand trauma experience, you too may “look-feel” what I look-feel in this wrestler’s photo: me getting double-legged and dumped on the ground. Because as an under-athletic 14-year old, this sight was often followed by the rapid acceleration of my butt toward the mat, hard enough to crater it.

“At sparring tonight, I ate so many jabs, I’m not hungry for dinner! Ba-dum-bum, tss!”

I’ve only sparred in boxing gloves a tiny bit, but I cover myself worse than a blind man addicted to codeine. That’s enough operant conditioning that I see this other picture and feel my left eye stinging. Seriously, I can feel the disinfectant from his glove in my cornea right now, because I backstop a lot of light jabs with my face.

Some guys my same size and age can clinch me casually and I’ll feel like I’m being rag-dolled by a chimpanzee. But when I clinch my teacher back, he feels absurdly wide, like an inverted pyramid that you can’t get your arms round.

Fistic philosopher and inverted pyramid Jason Korol at the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts.

So around 1900, I’m guessing, men rough-housed more than enough to look at these boxers and wrestlers and light up with kinesthetic memories right down in their brain stems.

As for “physique,” i.e. buffness, they ran the gamut from fatback to beef jerky, though not too much prime rib. That is, there were more plump guys and wiry guys than buff ones. There are lots of reasons, and they’re all highly instructive.

Buffness: The Anatomy of a Rare Bird

What ingredients make for a buff physique? It’s a very specific formula of just two ingredients:

buffness = muscular hypertrophy + low bodyfat

It’s tricky to combine the two. For muscular size (hypertrophy), your body must build tissue up, but for leanness, it must pare tissue down. Your body can’t do either one without some effort, and doing both together is much harder.

When does buffness help a lot athletically? Only in those few events that reward high endurance right around the anaerobic threshold and high “relative strength” in the whole body. In short, you benefit from a jacked physique in sports where you must (1) outmuscle somebody, (2) at a fast pace, (3) using all the big muscle groups, (4) for about 2-5 minutes, (5) at a low bodyweight.

In other words, certain gymnastic events (e.g. rings and pommel horse) and some combat sports, especially modern wrestling and (to a lesser extent) modern boxing.

Tyson’s strategy called for short, sharp fights. His movement style–quick lateral shifts, turning blows that started down in his toes–capitalized on “relative strength” (i.e. the most force for the least bodyweight). His tactics–essentially “massed artillery from a broad front”–required huge anaerobic endurance. And often his high tempo could end a contest within a couple rounds. To top it off, Tyson was shorter than other heavyweights, so he looked extra broad-shouldered. Raytheon couldn’t engineer a boxer better designed to make use of the traits that create the jacked and shredded look.

Even then, there are still plenty of variables. As fighters say, “styles make fights,” and some athletes’ styles and game plans benefit more than others from the jacked athlete’s capacity to a unleash few short minutes of Tasmanian devil. Muscly Mike Tyson excelled at terrifying power output that KO’d people in the first round or two. That’s our formula, right there. But Muhammad Ali frequently fought for an hour and his physique matched his style: light for his weight class and height, with no use for excess muscle, because it’s exhausting to dance on your toes in tropical heat for an hour. The worst thing would be to add on the equivalent of a weighted vest. So it’s not even all boxers who gain by being jacked. Tyson was like “the perfect storm” that way.

Weightier still are your sport’s rules. Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s rule set doesn’t reward power and strength as much as wrestling’s rules, so BJJ players sensibly devote less training to them and are less jacked. Sumo rules reward huge bodyweight and absolute strength, and they don’t incentivize even short-term endurance, so sumo physiques reflect that.

And as it happened, around 1900, wrestling and boxing followed pre-modern rules that selected less for the peculiar combo of attributes that make men look jacked.

Wrestling grows more muscle than boxing, as a rule. It generates more power (i.e. foot-pounds per unit of time) and more time under tension, and therefore more hypertrophy. In other words, boxers throw hands, but wrestlers throw bodies, and that makes bigger muscles.

Wrestling champion George Hackenschmidt adopted dumbbells and barbells early. Nowadays he’s remembered less as a wrestling star than as a pioneering ironhead.
For building big muscles, wrestling is missing one huge factor: squatting. Despite tons of posterior chain work (think “deadlift”), the activity of wrestling doesn’t much mimic the king of whole-body hypertrophy, the heavy back squat. In 1900, no one trained heavy barbell squats much, neither wrestlers nor even weightlifters, and that helped limit athletes’ muscle size. (The limiting factor was just squat stands, like the ones above. To squat a heavy barbell, you must get under the bar somehow. After some handy ironhead invented special furniture for that purpose, people started back-squatting and thighs, hips, waists, and chests swelled like sausages!

However, a century ago, wrestling matches lasted far longer than under modern rules. In the 1896 Olympics, the final bout lasted 40 minutes, was suspended at nightfall, and continued the following day. At the 1912 Olympics, two middleweights set an unusual record when their match dragged on nearly 12 hours! And the light heavyweight finalists lasted nine hours with no winner and both got sent home with silver medals.

If you train for events lasting even 15 minutes, you’re already well past the sweet spot for the fickle, elusive combination of mass and leanness. Don’t fret, you can still rock a great mankini, but face it: you’re an aerobic athlete.

Never mind the bodice. This is more intrinsically hypertrophic than punching.

As an activity, boxing stimulates less muscle growth than wrestling. Once again, think of it as “throwing hands vs. throwing bodies.” I’ll skip the meathead physics and physiology, but it’s the same reason you can’t grow huge biceps throwing javelins or baseballs, things of scant heft that fly away too fast to load all your strength into them. To throw them fast, you depend WAY less on muscle than on speed and coordination. In boxing, you’re slinging just 16oz. of leather (450g). Add the weight of your hands themselves and that’s still 50 times less than an ice dancer doing one of those overhead crotch lifts. Don’t get me wrong, boxing blowtorches the lungs and tires the muscles! But in terms of hypertrophy, you’re basically in Jazzercise class.

Hands low to attack and protect the solar plexus. Posture upright to guard against headlocks and rabbit punches. (And eye gouges. They weren’t allowed, but they still happened.)

Furthermore, old-time boxers fought under older rules that slowed down the action and didn’t favor the tornado-like attributes of a buff physique.

To begin with, prize fighters fought without time limits. They also fought without gloves, which meant they actually had to slow way down. They couldn’t throw many hard head shots, lest they break their unprotected hands on somebody’s dome.

So instead of head-hunting, they went for the body. The old-time prize fighter wore you down slowly, in a long stalking match. He might beat on your arms, head-lock or hip toss you (legally!), and whale on soft targets until you tired and ached enough to expose your solar plexus carelessly. And then THUMP!

Against a competent opponent, such a bout was a long, tiring grind. In his 1889 title defense, John L. Sullivan savaged his rival handily in 100-degree heat, but it still took over two hours. That was only a little longer than average.

We’ll speak again of Sullivan, the “beautiful specimen of manhood” who looks to our Instagram brains like an East German factory manager enjoying the beach in exotic Poland. Because believe it or not, his training methods will make you wish you were a bare-knuckle prize-fighter!

Before Buff: Why Were Dad Bods Admired In the Early 1900s?

Ever look at old-time photos showing paragons of manliness? Ever notice how many turn-of-the-century sex symbols are proudly repping dad bods?

It gets stranger: other models from the period look every bit as sculpted and Grecian as Brad Pitt in Troy, but no one seems to care. There’s no indication that anyone in 1900–the photographers, the models, or the audiences–preferred the buff guys to the dad bods.

What changed?

The Modern Aesthetic Is Weird

For modern Americans, living in the age of images, we’re fixated visually on proportions and textures. Without being aware of it, we’re checking out the relative girth or narrowness of waists, thighs, upper arms, and maybe necks.

As bodybuilding superfans know, the athlete who “looks biggest” might not actually be the heaviest or thickest guy on stage, but he at least looks that way because of his proportions. For example, he might measure smaller in the chest and shoulders than his competitor but appear broader owing to a narrower waist. His biceps will look bigger if he’s thinner at the elbow joint, and delts look more massive if they’re more defined. Cut, striated muscles capture the modern eye better than smooth ones because of their striking visual texture. Bodybuilding competitors look far bigger after dieting for a contest, when they’re at their leanest and smallest, than in the off-season with 20 or 30 extra pounds of subcutaneous fat and water.

Competitive bodybuilders can look big as Godzilla on stage but small in street clothes that obscure their proportions or definition. Bodybuilding immortal Clarence Bass weighs only 159 lbs. here (72kg). In a polo shirt you’d mistake him for just a serious golfer or a UPS man.

So why our fixation on these proportions and textures? It wasn’t always like this. Sure, it’s not all culturally dependent: I’m told that humans are wired to find proxies for fighting prowess and fertility in a man’s height and a woman’s hip-waist ratio. But those aren’t the proportions I’m talking about: I mean the modern American man’s wish for big muscles around the shoulder girdle, a narrow waist, and a finely etched abdomen. And yes, modern tastes do shift over time, like clothing fashions: today’s “yoked” look is different from the Arnold look, which differed from the Sixties look, which was WAY different from the Fifties look (owing to “vitamin S”), and the post-war Fifties look differed from the Depression-ear Thirties look.

However, before about 1920, we cross an uncanny valley into an America whose physique photos mark it as almost a different country, with physique ideals that are all over the place.

Some of these guys could succeed in 2022 as fitness models or amateur bodybuilders. But others look like they developed their physiques playing Starcraft II in an eSports league. Yet in 1900, there’s no sign that they’re considered less dreamy.

For example, France’s leading physical culturist made this full-page ad, and the longer I stare, that more disturbingly feminine it seems. To me he looks like a candidate for estrogen blockers and no more soy. But in 1908, people in three countries were paying him for lessons.

In the budding physique industry of 1908, these were beefcake shots. Today they’d almost be blackmail material.

So why didn’t the public of 1900 care whether a guys was cut to ribbons or looked like Captain Cookie Dough? What rewired our brains and created our modern aesthetic?

It’s the Photography, Stupid

If you were born before photography, you seldom saw bodies as still images. Excepting some mostly inaccessible statues and paintings, there were no frozen images of people’s bodies that you could study closely, at length and without staring impolitely. The only way to view people’s appearance was in real time, in real space and real life, with no mediation and no way to capture their image. You saw them in motion, in three dimensions, from all angles and distances, and mostly unposed, without special lighting, and wearing clothes.

Thank goodness the industry discarded the fig leaf trope quickly. Give this man a tiger skin loincloth. Or just release the kraken. But you can’t go “classical Athens” on top and “Book of Genesis” on bottom.

Only after photographs were invented did ordinary people slowly learn to appraise physiques in still images, where the subject bared his body and exhibited it in athletic trunks, a leopard skin, or (heaven help us) a fig leaf.

That was completely foreign to most humans until photos were invented.

Only after mass-market photography saturated America, I think, did we very slowly start to prefer muscular separation.

Of course, we kept tweaking physique ideals after that, but only concerning what kind of muscular separation we most admired–which muscles, what proportions, what visual texture.

Outright “definition.” Muscle Beach pro George Eiferman is lit to maximize his visual texture. We can see individual muscle heads, some striation in his midsection and thighs, deep shadows between muscle groups, and even some vascular “ripping” in his arms. Though Eiferman still looks smooth by standards of the coming steroid era, this image (1950) shows exactly where the industry is headed.

What Came Before Buff?

Now we can answer the question “What the heck was the standard of male physical excellence around 1900 that accounts for the array of physiques?” I think the answer is, they weren’t admiring physiques with a certain look, they were admiring what they looked like they could do.

I’m sure he has great abs, but that’s not really the point here.
(www.rarehistoricalphotos.com)

Before photos, what people saw of a man’s virility would mostly be his activity—you saw him working, hunting, fighting, or playing sports—or something impressive that he made by his activity: lumber that he cut, earth or ore that he dug, a structure he built, an animal he hunted, a person he defeated, a product he made.

Even a carnival strongman’s job was to amaze customers with his actions, not his physique. He performed feats–toying with an anvil, holding aloft a dancing ballerina in each hand–instead of poses.

What made this a “physique photo” circa 1900? What did Québecois strongman Louis Cyr and the photographer want to display for our admiration? In this case, it was “just” Cyr’s terrific girth. His arms, legs, chest, shoulders don’t look particularly shapely or hypertrophied (except maybe those big endomorphic calves), but they are all just huge. There’s nothing small on this guy: he’s uniformly enormous. If you lived a life of manual toil, when you looked at Cyr, you pictured the extraordinary ways such a human Clydesdale could help or harm you.

Try looking at 19th century strongman Louis Cyr with 19th century eyes. With your modern Instagram consciousness, you wouldn’t tag him as “sex symbol.” But imagine you live without power tools or Home Depot. You need to build a barn or unload a freight car: anything painful, heavy, and fatiguing. Now imagine you can use a lifeline and call anyone in the world to help you. Presto! Against a backdrop of daily toil, this guy starts to look beautiful. Seriously, if you labored all your days at mining, moving steel beams, butchering cattle, or hauling lumber, you would dream about befriending such men.

As your enemy, Cyr would look terrible and awesome. Look at him again, and imagine that you and your union brothers are striking. A truck rolls up and unloads goons hired by the bosses. Rough stuff is coming. Bones will get broken, maybe yours. Nearby you spot an ox-man like Louis Cyr. Is he with you or with the goons? In this situation, no one can be emotionally neutral about someone Cyr’s size. Either your monkey brain is flooded with love and gratitude for his gigantic presence, or your veins feel electrified with fear.

Just as “there are no atheists in foxholes,” I’d guess were no aesthetes in turn-of-the-century mining towns, or farm settlements, or saw mills or iron works.

Or rather, they were all aesthetes and appraised human forms by various standards (that’s just a fact of our primate nature), but they derived those standards less from seeing than doing.    

Strength performer Eugen Sandow and his manager pretty much invented the modern physique industry on the day in 1893 that they noticed that audiences at their strongman shows seemed curious about his peculiar, corrugated flesh. While Sandow was juggling sledgehammers or whatever, some spectators paid more attention to the workings of his sharply defined, anatomy-chart musculature. They decided to try adding another segment to the show: Sandow would take a few minutes off from bending horseshoes and flex his bare muscles for the audience to look at. People liked it! The canny entrepreneur helped invent the new art of physique photography, and much they way Edison and Bell grand-sired your local power company and phone provider, Sandow hacked a path through the early photographic era for the future muscle industry of physique photos, magazines, studios, and mail-order courses.

Next time, in “Before Buff: Boxing and Wrestling,” I speculate, meditate, and bloviate about when America gathered its ideas about manly physical development mostly from boxing and wrestling instead of weightlifting, and the difference it made when your experience of physiques was as much tactile and kinesthetic as visual, when physiques weren’t just objects of vision but also grabbed or punched each other.

General Disservice: The Comedy of Britain’s Lost Generation of Personal Gear

Part II of our series, “Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking in Dry Heat.”

Imagine your daughter is a figure skater with Olympic potential. She needs new skates. Should you spend money now on a good pair that she will outgrow? Or should you gamble for now on budget skates while you save money?

Now imagine you’re also worried that, with the right skates, your daughter might overthrow the British government and declare martial law.

This was the predicament that Britain faced with its load-carrying gear and mishandled farcically. And here we will begin our story of South Africa’s contrasting success in developing its really ingenious gear. Because South Africa made it look so easy, we can only appreciate their achievement by comparing it to the contemporaneous British effort, which advanced as quickly and decisively as an elderly person working at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles while also having a stroke.

This guy is wearing a shovel from his head to his bum, so he’s only smiling because he was ordered to. The Brits still had some people wearing this stuff right into the Seventies.

Britain in the Seventies was less a land of hope and glory than one of stagflation and dinginess, and its standard of living had fallen to the second-lowest in Europe.

The British government was slashing its military in size and kind. They scaled down their commitments and forces, closed bases, withdrew garrisons, and shrank the order of battle. The Navy was even made to auction off its two remaining aircraft carriers.

And to the forces that survived the cuts, the government also gave less of everything: less materiel, less training time, and less new equipment.

And quite apart from the bad budgetary climate, the Army was suspected and feared by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, who sincerely thought it might be plotting to depose him in a military coup. He was not in a mood to strengthen their hand any further.

Another R&D fiasco from austerity Britain, “a scandal of plastic and metal” and “perhaps the worst modern military rifle.”

In this atmosphere of desperation, like a drought in which gaunt, delirious animals gather round the shrinking water hole, you did not have to look far for quixotic absurdities of governance and management. The Army badly needed to replace its huge main battle rifle with a smaller, modern gun, but it was condemned to wait for a slow-growing monstrosity designed by engineers who (and this is true) had never even fired a rifle before, much less engineered one from scratch. After a decade, what they finally got was the L85A1, widely deemed “perhaps worst modern military rifle” and “a scandal of plastic and metal.”

In the Fifties, the British Army stole this kid’s knapsack and made their poor soldiers wear it for the next 30 years.

But for us, dear reader, what’s relevant is that the Brits needed better load-carrying gear, but they weren’t getting it. During this period, they probably cared less about rucksacks than almost anything else on their very long list of problems. Certainly nobody in the Ministry of Defence was having urgent meetings about backpacks.

So some British soldiers were still stuck with gear from the 1930s. Even Britain’s “newest” gear, adopted in 1958, still hadn’t changed much from World War II. Made of heavy, uncomfortable canvas, it gave soldiers two inconveniently-shaped “kidney pouches” and a 3’ shovel running between them down their backs, and perched atop this awkward Tin Man suit was a small haversack that looks like the ones in mawkish Norman Rockwell paintings of Boy Scouts.

If ever there was a thankless task, this was it. It fell to the “Stores and Clothing Research & Development Establishment” (SCRDE) to consult all the many, many, many stakeholders around Britain’s disintegrating planet-wide empire and get them all to agree on one set of equipment.

Many Masters, Many Disasters: The Problem With Committees

Compromising between just two things is pretty do-able. The Kalashnikov successfully combined the roles of the sub gun and rifle. In PLA nomenclature, it was actually classified as a submachine gun (冲锋枪).

Committees suck. It’s possible for two people to compromise and balance two competing interests. Three is a lot harder. And at four or more, you start getting “solutions” that are nothing of the sort. Everyone sacrifices and dislikes the end product. 

And when bosses try to devise something “universal” for all use-cases, it is easy to fail at all of them. The famous US example is the M14 rifle, which tried to do the work of a submachine gun, a rifle, and a light machine gun (!) and ended up sucking at all of them. 

(The Communist Bloc did much better with the Kalashnikov, where the undisputed masters of “satis-ficing” and economizing combined the roles of rifle and submachine gun only. And very successfully.)


The US Army’s infamous “universal camouflage pattern” (UCP). Meant to camouflage people in any environment, it actually made them glow in all environments.

And as anyone knows who has served on a large enough committee, institutions can be very dumb, even ones comprising only exceptional people, when they are thrust into absurd circumstances. And certainly, if you were made responsible for the suffering British military’s rucksacks and load-carrying gear in this period, you were definitely dropped into the soup.

The poor British designers were pulled in a half-dozen directions by different constituencies. The lightly equipped foot patrols in Northern Ireland needed something different than the heavy, mechanized infantry defending Germany. Then there were the jungle fighters in the Far Eastern Land Forces, who wanted smaller packs that could fit through brush and foliage lining a narrow trail in the bush. And the Arctic fighters wanted much bigger packs for all their bulky cold weather gear. But the parachutists wanted packs short enough to jump with, which militated against the long, tall design favored by the Arctic guys. 

US Army researchers offered some decent, scientifically tested options. But instead, the Army adopted an untested fourth suited only to operating in strip mall furniture showrooms offering easy credit.

And that was just the infantry! There were all the other branches like armor, artillery, and signals. They would have to use this “general service” stuff too, and they didn’t want all the attention going to the infantry, since they had needs of their own. For instance, the one thing that pretty much all the infantry guys agreed on was that they loved framed packs. Finally, some consensus! But then the tankers weighed in: they hated frames. They wanted a pack they could cram into a Challenger tank’s few empty nooks.   

Starting in the Middle

Worse still, the designers at SCRDE weren’t told quite what they were designing for. They needed to allow for future developments in body armor, but no one could predict what those would be. Same for “NBC” equipment, protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. How were they supposed to design equipment to hold other equipment that was still TBD and also not get in the way of the hypothetical future body armor that also didn’t exist yet?

Worse still, they knew the Army was changing rifles in a few years, meaning different ammunition, magazines, tactics, and heaven-knows-what else. So the designers knew that whatever load-carrying gear they made now would soon be obsolescent.

Variously called the Pattern 58 Mk II or the experimental 1975 pattern, this was the same 50s design with better fabric. In the end, the troops didn’t even get this consolation prize, because #budget.

So after years of temporizing, the developers decided to forget about anything ambitious. Instead they proposed a temporary measure. In the terms of the figure skating analogy, they proposed a cheap pair of temporary skates.

For web gear–the belts and suspenders that hold the most important items–they whipped up a batch of their same old 1950s gear, but in place of the old heavy duck canvas they substituted modern materials like nylon. In this way, the designers hoped they could help the squaddies through the next few years. The guys in the field would still be saddled with the weird kidney pouches and shrimpy knapsack, but at least it wouldn’t be made of smelly, waterlogged cotton. And sure enough, even though it was  a consolation prize, in trials the squaddies in the field appreciated that at least it was lighter, more waterproof, and cooler than their sweaty canvas.

But the Ministry’s money people still said no. Try to guess the reason … It was just a temporary measure and didn’t improve much on the old design! So now, after ten years of research and development, there was still no tangible progress, nor even any decisive choices. Back to another ten years of smelly, wet canvas for Tommy and the squaddies.

The Rucksack War

Hilarity ensued over the issue of rucksacks in particular. The plucky designers bravely threw themselves at their task, which was essentially “design a rucksack to unknown specifications so that it costs virtually nothing and pleases everyone.”

Despite the farcical constraints, the designers gamely accomplished as much as human ingenuity could. They trialed a compromise “general service” or “GS” rucksack for the entire British Army, and they answer they got was, “Hey, good enough! It’s better than our skimpy 1950s Boy Scout haversack.” The designers must have been rightfully proud of themselves, because it was one of those rare moments in a big organization when you offer a one-size-fits-most solution that draws at least a resigned shrug from everyone.

Almost everyone, that is. Only the Royal Marines complained. A lot.

The GS rucksack was the one good thing to come out of this fandango. However, even though it was already an economy/compromise design, the Ministry still balked at the cost. At first they only issued it to the Royal Marines, the one group who really didn’t like it, and sat on the design for the next 10 years. They only issued it for “general service” in the mid-80s, after a change of government and the embarrassing questions they received after the Falklands War.

The Royal Marines were high-speed Arctic warfare studs, specialist troops with specialist needs. They did not like the one-size-fits-most “general service” ruck because it was too small. They had a mountain of bulky Arctic gear and they needed a huge, specialized rucksack to carry it. Arguably they were among the only soldiers who really relied every day on their rucksacks. However, they had to “lump it” and make do with what they were given, because Big Army needed to settle on just one general service rucksack.

But in the end, the Ministry decided not to issue the “general service” pack to everyone because it was too expensive, just the specialists. So now the high-speed Royal Marines got the very pack that they never liked and the “general service” got nothing!

In other words, the Royal Marines compromised in vain. It was like when you order a pizza and reluctantly settle for crappy vegetarian toppings so your friends can have some, but then they bail on you and now you’re still stuck with a pineapple and onion pizza.

If this were a movie, a corpulent supply officer with a plummy accent would now say acidly, “Really! As if the honor of British arms will ever depend on Arctic rucksacks!” Then in the very next scene, a Whitehall mandarin picks up an ornate phone and says, “I say, we’re about to fight an Arctic war out of our carry-on luggage. How are we sorted for rucksacks?”

For the Royal Marines, “The Great Yomp” as it came to be known was perhaps the proudest moment in their modern history, and the ultimate “I told you so.” Suffice it to say, after that they got their huge specialist rucksacks, and the rest of the Army finally got their General Service rucks.

For apparently the Ruck Gods were miffed at being slighted. In 1982 Britain found itself pitched almost overnight into … an Arctic war! And by incredible mischance, they lost most of their helicopters and had to hike in their materiel by rucksack.

The supply people were caught with their pants down. “Serious clothing deficiencies for soldiers were corrected only after the intervention of an officer’s father in the House of Lords,” writes Kenneth Privratsky. “Eventually, the [Ministry of Defence] scoured civilian shops to obtain bergens [rucksacks] for the soldiers, but supply still fell short…”

Media showed troops boarding ships with blue packs that were obviously not military, and the Ministry began to be asked embarrassing questions, like “What have you people been doing for twelve years?” and “Don’t we have more sophisticated war plans than just ‘send an intern to Target with a credit card?'”

The Ministry assured Parliament and the public that they had things well in hand, but that is a matter of interpretation. Even after that scandal, they still took another seven years more to begin issuing replacement for the old 1958 pattern webbing, with the troops receiving it in the 1990s, just in time for Operation Desert Storm.

What they eventually received–a system called “PLCE” (Personal Load-Carrying Equipment)–was and is superb stuff. But some of the troops who received it where teenagers conceived after their equipment was! And a whole “lost generation” of British troops before them were left to schlep around heavy wet canvas with shovels attached to their backs.

* * * *

South Africa started their own saga with almost the same equipment as Britain, but it ended up with stuff far better, partly through good luck, partly desperation, and partly by being the outsider who must make its own way and ends up with something unique and brilliant. We will continue our series there, with the reasons that where Britain flopped, South Africa shone.