A few times in my life, I’ve been ahead of the curve on something, like kettlebells and kombucha. But this is the first time that Lean Solid Dogs has scooped the Style page of the New York Times. Here at LSD we’ve been writing for a lot longer (and better, if I may say) about chaussures de brousse (“bush shoes”), the rubber-soled, canvas/jungle boots of the French Foreign Legion.
Style reporters, if you’re reading this, then (1) I weep for you, and (2) pick up jackboots with foot wraps for a future piece. (Also, schedule a story for January on slip-on shoes with German-style foot wraps. I’ll write the story for you in a few days and you can just rewrite it 😉
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then Americans began to wear the French hats.
USAF personnel based in Thailand adopted them as regional uniform items and tricked them out with unit bling.
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.
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.)
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!
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.”
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!”
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 catalso 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.)
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.
Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we think a lot about backpacking in hot, arid landscapes, and we’re always seeking wisdom for dry heat from neglected corners of world.
Why? Because of a cosmic joke. Even though my ancestors and I lived in foggy, damp, northerly climes ever since hominids left Africa, fate has resettled me in the bone dry, scorching hot western US interior. My genes think we’re wearing bear skins in a German forest, but my ass is cooking in sun-baked chaparral.
But what am I going to do, waste my life playing video games in the A/C? Hell no, I must romp around outdoors—rucking is not optional for me.
So I learn from people with experience in hot savannas and arid hills. Especially relative late-comers who adapted successfully. Americans and Brits have learned a lot about deserts in the last 80 years. But we also have some other teachers out there too, who have worked within their own distinct traditions.
Certainly Israel qualifies. Half of their country is desert. ‘Nuff said. Besides, despite close ties with the US, the Israeli army is absolutely unique in many ways and the very opposite of an epigone of any foreign military advisors.
Then comes France. Though the Land of the Gauls is not a desert environment, since Napoleon’s time French troops have romped very actively around North Africa, and even today they are intimately involved in Djibouti and Chad. With a distinct military tradition of her own, France diverged from Anglo-American practice almost as sharply as it is possible for a Western European country to do. (OK, Switzerland and Sweden diverged even more, but they are not exactly princes of the desert.) And France invented the awesome, light canvas boots that Israel later adopted!
And the Chinese can probably offer lessons about desert operations. Their military interest in “the Great Northwest” (e.g. Xinjiang) and Inner Mongolia goes back several continuous centuries, and the PLA has been upgrading its desert forces. And it exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make for ingenuity, like outsider independence.
And then there’s … South Africa?
I never associated South Africa with “desert warfare”—a phrase that conjures images of T.E. Lawrence with Bedouins and scimitars in the shifting Arabian sands. But South Africa includes three deserts and plenty of other arid terrain that many groups have trekked and fought over. Moreover, in the 20thcentury alone, South Africans found themselves fighting the Boer War, both World Wars, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Natal Civil War, and the South African Border War (plus some others) and operated on desert/arid terrain in the Cape, Natal, Botswana, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Namibia, and also in Egypt and Libya against the Axis.
Those are some dry places, my friends. South Africa itself gets only half the global average of rainfall, and the main theater for the Border War, Namibia, is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa.
Even better for us, South Africa remained unique. It never assimilated much into the Anglosphere (at least not for a British dominion) and because it was ostracized for much of the Cold War, it was left to innovate in relative seclusion.
And it did so among a shocking variety of influences: the SADF itself had a British heritage institutionally, but culturally it was overwhelmingly Afrikaans. Though mostly white, it also accepted non-white volunteers. The SADF interacted with its counterparts in Rhodesia and Israel, and it had some support from the US. And it operated in a theater crowded with more players than a Bollywood dance number: not just the immediate neighbors–Angolans, Namibians, Zambians, and Mozambicans–but also their foreign sponsors: the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, China, and North Korea. At one point the SADF even fought head to head against a division-strength Cuban enemy.
That meant that Seventies and Eighties southern Africa became a kind of melting pot and R&D lab for many of the features of 21st-century “small wars” and insurgencies: the rise of roadside bombs; the drawing in of foreign volunteers; the high importance of informants and police work; three-sided wars with multiple insurgencies who also fought each other. South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia became the early experts in counterinsurgency, developing the “fireforce” concept and new vehicles for traveling vast distances with little in the way of secure roads. Mine-resistant troop carriers that can thwart IEDs? South Africa invented those. All those new tanks-on-wheels? South Africa has done that for decades.
And we care about this … why?
Sorry for the history lesson. I’m a professor by trade…
None of this would matter to us at Lean Solid Dogs, where we just ruck and rarely hit IEDs or parachute into gunfights, except for one pivotal trick of fate. South Africa was unique in a very consequential way: They could not rely on air power so they had to start walking a lot.
See, other countries in a predicament like South Africa’s, outnumbered and isolated among hostile neighbors, all do the same thing: they rely on their aircraft. The French did it in Indochina. Israel did it in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and the Americans in Vietnam, and the Soviet and Western forces again in Afghanistan. Since I don’t have a helicopter, that doesn’t do anything for me.
But unlike those others, South Africa could barely supply its aging air force with spare parts because of the UN embargo, so they flew very sparingly. Lacking the plentiful air support of other Western-style armies, they were forced to compensate with very, very long foot patrols, in dry country under a bright sun.
Paratroopers might walk a parched, sandy Namibian or Angolan landscape for a week or more, carrying all their necessities on their backs. AJ Venter describes 7- to 11-day patrols in Ovamboland (northern Namibia), walking 12+ hours per day in sand and packing about 40kg (88 lbs.). Granger Korff writes of similar patrols in Angola lasting for several weeks with resupply only every five days.
The SADF adapted impressively to this unexpected new reality and changed out a lot of its “soldier systems,” the kit for the individual guys.
For our purposes, what they did was to figure out the bestsystems for their guys to carry stuff on their bodies. With a special view to arid climates. What Sherpas are to high altitude, the SADF made themselves to dry heat.
They proudly filched ideas from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and they invented another so outlandish that it became a science fiction icon.
This is the story of South Africa’s “Pattern 83,” and this is the subject of our new series. Watch this space.
Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we have previously lamented the problem of finding pants that do not bind active, thick, “plus-sized thighs.” When buying pants off the rack, unless you are shopping for BDUs, then often you must choose between too much room in the waist and not enough room in the thighs.
But it was not always thus. Another, better way was once known to our hardier, more vigorous, manlier forefathers: short shorts. Thirty to forty years ago, when men had over twice the grip strength and sperm count of men today, men had bigger thighs and had the good sense not to cover them with baggy, oversized shorts. It was understood that the proper length of shorts was roughly like so:
If you wear shorts that stop above the swell of your thighs, they can’t bind your thighs, even if they get wet, and no matter how big your thighs are.
This truth was once known to every man in America and informed the design of basketball shorts, wrestling and weightlifting singlets, and military shorts like UDTs and ranger panties.
However, practical is not always presentable. The shorts that work great in a hot yoga class can get you the wrong sort of attention on the street (especially if you’re near sketchy public men’s rooms in municipal parks). You will need something just a little longer if you don’t want to be mistaken for a pride marcher or a catamite.
If you are a thickly thighed outdoorsman who gravitates to cheap surplus gear, you already have ample reason to be thankful to France. With its “almost Juche-like self-reliance” in design and “riens a foudre” (“zero f***s given”) attitude of indifference, France was unafraid to try ideas that looked weird. That’s how we got the GAO shirt, the most underrated hot weather garment in existence, and the stupendously light but tough “bush shoes.”
But wait, because only now do we come to the greatest of France’s gifts. Voilà! The “F1” tropical/desert shorts! These are truly the perfect “dual-purpose” shorts for athletic use and social wear. They are equally at home rucking around in the desert propping up a neo-colonial strongman regime and making droll conversation at the yacht club.
What is so great about F1 shorts? First, they keep you cool. With a 4″ inseam, they are the perfect length: just long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing each other raw when you run, but short enough to vent body heat without looking like a banana hammock.
Second, they are tough. I have surplus pairs made over 30 years ago, and they still look ageless. And though hard to find in the US, if you’re persistent you can find them for $20. And being a plain OD serge herringbone, they do not look military. You can wear them in polite company and not look like a Three Percenter.
The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.
If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.
But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.
The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.
To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.
French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you with one.
Part 3 in our series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus”
In the 1940s, the world was still enamored with rubber-soled canvas sneakers. It might be too much to say sneakers were glamorous, but they were still modern and cool. In America, Converse All-Stars gained popularity in the Twenties and Thirties and broke through to celebrity as the shoe of the US Olympic team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. And they won adoption by the US Army as their PT shoe during World War II.
While American servicemen only wore their All-Stars while exercising, other countries actually tried marching and fighting in sneakers. And they loved it! China fought the whole Korean War in the cheap green sneakers they called “Liberation Shoes” (解放鞋), and they thought they were much, much better shod than their Allied foes in leather boots.
In footwear, as in many things, France was somewhere between the Americans and the Chinese. Strange as that sounds, France shared some important things in common with China. They had a relatively low-budget military, indebted to but aloof from their nearest superpower, and they were very interested in low-intensity insurgent warfare in agrarian societies. Accordingly, both countries prized light infantry who could move themselves quickly around austere environments.
That meant being scrappy and fit so they could travel light. Where Americans might tackle a problem with machinery, materiel, and vehicles–which is great if you have them!–both the French and the Chinese could be pretty sure they wouldn’t have that luxury. The solution? Easy, just be ready to walk everywhere and carry everything!
As I repeat here often, you can carry a lot more weight in your pack if you wear less weight on your feet. As one Chinese source puts it, “The Chinese army had what many foreign researchers considered ‘the best light infantry’ of the 20th century,” and their canvas sneakers “played an important role.”
Of course, the French were not crazy enough to wear sneakers in the Alpine snows–to make that kind of sacrifice you have to be a Communist. But they did dream up a lightweight canvas-and-rubber boot for hot weather. The French Foreign Legion knew a thing or two about hot weather. For decades they had been marching long distances around North Africa in leather boots, but in 1947 they began also to issue canvas “bush shoes” (chaussures de brousse).
Think of French “bush shoes” as the lost twin of Chinese army sneakers, raised in a country with more money and fashion sense and a very serious commitment to walking long distances under load in the desert.
The shoes were supplied by at least two firms. From what I can tell, the first was a tire manufacturer called Palladium. In 1947 they created the “Pampa” model, which resembled a Converse high-top with the sole of a hiking boot. Two years later they added the “Pallabrousse.” In 1950 another supplier entered the game, a company named Pataugas, and it became common in French to refer to all bush shoes generically as pataugas.
What’s special about French “bush shoes?”
They’re fast. At just 500g each, the Palladium boots are far lighter than my beloved Rocky S2Vs (850g) and wicked fast. I tried them on two of my benchmark hikes, one on flat ground and the other on slopes of unpleasant igneous rock, and I smoked them. In both cases, I was almost 14% faster in the light Palladiums.
The Mil-Tec clones are heavier (650g each), stiffer, and hence not as fast. But they have other virtues, as we will see below.
They grip well. This is huge, because it doesn’t matter if your boots are lighter than helium if you slip and fall on rocks. Happily, the bush shoes have giant treads that dig in and keep me on my feet on steep, crumbly slopes, even if I’m unusually top-heavy with an 80# (36kg) load.
They are cheap. My cherished Rockies cost about $165. Not bad! They served me through almost a year of heavy use. But Palladium Pampas and Pallabrousses run less than half that, and the stiff-soled Pampa clones made by Mil-Tec can be found for under $40. (Apparently they look chic too. The first time I wore them, I actually received a compliment. From a woman. On my shoes. Incroyable! That was before I wore them to clamber through timber slash–I don’t get compliments anymore.)
How long will they last? I’ll let you know in a year.
They dry fast. To handle sweat, modern hot weather boots add ventilation holes or mesh panels. But these old-school canvas boots dry your foot differently. Instead of holes or mesh, you just have, well, the canvas. When your feet sweat, it soaks right through the canvas and evaporates in the sun. After a serious hike, your boots will be as wet with sweat as your shirt, and when they dry, you might find faint white streaks of dried salt.
The Palladiums demand a more active foot. With a flexible sole and no shank, your foot muscles have to work hard. This is probably a good thing for your performance and podiatric health in the medium and long term, but I needed a couple days to get used to it. And on rock terrain, I need to place my feet more carefully than usual. When I walk on a nasty surface in heavy boots, I can bulldoze over sharp rocks and pebbles and let my feet fall where they will. But in these light shoes, there is little padding for the bones in the ball of my foot, so either I need to take sharp rocks on the meat of the mid foot or step between them entirely, especially when traveling downhill. That means that I have to walk very actively on bad terrain, and after 10 miles on intensely undulating volcanic rock, I trashed my gluteus medius, the under-appreciated muscle that shifts your hips side to side when you’re on one foot.
Because the Mil-Tecs have stiffer soles, they feel much harder and more nearly permit you to “steamroll” obstacles like you would in a traditional hiking boot. You still have to provide your own ankle stability, but you can easily walk over rocks and dead fall.
An unresolved concern is whether I trip on rocks more in the Palladiums. When I blew away my old PR on the volcanic slopes, which were littered with loose stones, several times I caught the Palladium’s long toe against a trip hazard, twice even really unbalancing me. I would like to blame that on nothing more than the fatigue involved in a mad dash for a PR, but I will need to assess this honestly over time.
Without meaning to, this weekend I got to spend 48 hours in the field. A buddy and I planned a weighted ruck and gear test in the mountains, and we came home gloriously delirious and trashed, and just as I planned to slip into a hot bath, I got an opportunity to join a major search operation elsewhere in the mountains. So instead of a lavender-scented bath, I got a hasty resupply and a 3:00am departure. It was awesome!
Did it really count as being “in the field” for 48 hours, given that I made it home between the hike and the search? Not precisely, but my inner lawyer argues thus: “Yes, your honor, I did get one hot meal. But it was week-old ravioli re-heated in a microwave and eating standing up at 2am. And granted, I did sleep in a bed with sheets. But it was only for 2.5 hours and I was wearing dirty BDUs. And if the court will allow me to approach the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, they will find in my favor just based on how I smell.”
It was paradise, or some near-synonym that means “something gloriously horrible that you would like to do again soon.” And I learned tons, which I will dump out into print here:
1) Options for dressing for high heat
How should you dress for prolonged exercise in high heat? One school of thought says you should wear shorts and a tank top, like a marathoner, and be cooled by sweat and breezes. The other school says to protect yourself from radiant heat by covering up, like a farmer. Both philosophies make intelligent points and science has tried to adjudicate between the two philosophies. But the results are inconclusive.
So my hiking buddy and I ran an unscientific test of our own. We were the perfect pair of subjects: I like to hike in short shorts (though normally I wear long sleeves on top) and he is farmer and works every day covered up in hot sun. So I wore French surplus, which is the ideal type of the “sweat and breeze” approach, and he wore inexpensive technical pants and shirt, ably representing the “block the rays” approach.
On this particular hike, I was the lucky one. We walked in shade for much of the way, sparing me from a lot of radiant heat. And we were carrying moderately heavy weight (45 lbs./20kg for each) with significant climb, generating lots of body heat. We both agreed that I got the better bargain that day. Even with all of our huffing puffing, my body heat dissipated right away, his did not. And despite my exposed skin, I had the luxury of intermittent, partial shade; I did not have to provide all my own shade with my clothing.
Though I lucked out that day, I could also have lost under some circumstances. It is hard to be certain of the conditions you will find in an unfamiliar environment, and as Goggins says of environmental stress, “…more than any other variable [it] can break a motherfucker down fast.” From what I’ve experienced, people can compensate for heat and cold for a long time, but once we cross some threshold, we collapse suddenly and badly. Once that happens, we are so compromised that it’s extremely difficult to save the situation by our own actions.
So on training hikes like this, I might as well carry more gear. After all, once I’ve decided to haul 45# for the hell of it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t trade some of the steel plates or bricks for clothes, shelter-building supplies, batteries, tools, and three days of food instead. So my next experiment in romping will be to devise an easy on/easy off weight so that I can do my weighted rucks with my regular, homely, lovable, eminently useful SAR pack.
2) Map is not territory: On the search, I got lucky and was placed with one of our team’s “tribal elders,” so to speak, who has half a lifetime of lessons to teach about searching. She pointed out how wrong the topographic lines on our maps were. The maps were composed from aerial photographs of the tree tops, she explained, and the cartographers’ (highly) educated guesses about the ground below. But they might have had no way to know about some deep, narrow fold in the earth that we were struggling across where the map showed no obstacle.
3) The compass is king: All of our search teachers emphasized map and compass skills, and early on they told us that the compass isn’t just an analog backup in case your GPS breaks. But only now have I come to understand why. First, my GPS is great at telling my location and my track, but it sucks at telling my direction. Even more importantly, if I’m staring at my GPS unit, I’m not searching, I’m just walking. With a compass, I can set a heading, find a landmark to walk toward, and then keep my eyes up and moving. (Uncle Ron, one of our nav gurus, even teaches a clever, quick trick for laying your compass on top of your GPS screen and getting map bearings to a distant objective. Then you can put your GPS away, glance down at your compass only occasionally, and still arrive at your destination.)