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!

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!”

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.

The Wisdom of Our Fathers (pt. 2): French Surplus Shorts

These guys aren’t wearing short shorts because the weather is hot. They’re the only way to guarantee complete freedom of movement for your thighs.

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.

Part of our continuing series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.”

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.

Eighties-era F1 shorts. Note the GAO shirt and Palladium boots as well. Illustration by Kevin Lyles, in M. Windrow & W. Braby, French Foreign Legion Paratroops (1985), reproduced by kind permission of Osprey Publishing (London).

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.

You can get away with a lot on a European beach, but in the more puritanical US, you can only go so short without creating a spectacle. The F1 shorts snuggle up to that line without crossing it.

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.

A Ruck Full of Smurfs: Sgt. Šileika on Third-Line Gear

Scenario 2: Pack on pack. In the background, a Pattern 64 pack (Canada’s answer to the ALICE) with a Camelbak pack added on top.

Lean Solid Dogs is honored to present our first guest post by Sgt. Šileika, a kindred “marching philosopher” and my oldest and most reliable mentor in everything related to rucking. I dearly hope that one day he will write a whole autobiography, but the part of his resume that concerns us here is that the good sergeant has logged many, many, many miles on his feet, first as a vagabond-adventurer-pilgrim, then as an infantryman of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada serving overseas, and later as a reservist in his homeland of Lithuania.

Sgt. Šileika sent this advice to Lean Solid HQ in response to my recent curiosity about the idea of “third-line” equipment, items that you don’t need to carry attached to your person (the absolutely essential “first-line” gear) or in your ruck (“second-line”) but would still be nice to stash somewhere in the field.

The info is too good to keep to myself, so with the Baltic trail Yoda’s permission, we are publishing it here for the benefit of lean, solid dogs everywhere.

Over years of experimenting with “third line” equipment, I’ve come up with my own “formula” designed for the three most common scenarios:

Scenario 1) You will operate out of a vehicle. In this case, you have lucked out. You can bring all the third-line equipment you want. Pack it in a duffel and leave it in the vehicle. In fact, go ahead and pack a huge steamer trunk if you want. When Theodore Roosevelt embarked on his African safari, he brought leather-bound editions of Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible, Milton, Dante, and 54 other volumes. It didn’t matter, because he wasn’t carrying them all. Personally, I’d have skipped Walter Scott’s sentimental Victorian genre fiction to make room for Carl Jung’s Red Book and a modest kettlebell instead, but it’s immaterial: you can go bonkers on third-line gear provided you’re leaving it in a vehicle. 

Scenario 2) You will carry everything into the field on foot, set up your own base camp/staging area, and operate from there. When I was in recce platoon, usually there would be an ORV (objective rendez-vous) prior to the objective itself, and that was where we’d drop kit, and some would stay to man the radios and others of us would continue on to patrol, man the vantage point, or hunt for chantarelles and catch butterflies. 

I would carry third-line kit in an ALICE pack or Canadian Pattern 64 pack, and to the top of that I would lash a small pack containing second-line gear. (See image above. It’s grainy, but in the background you can just make out a Pattern 64 with a small Camelbak pack on top.) That way, when we hit the base camp, I could shed the main pack and continue on with the small pack. When we returned, I simply attached the small pack back onto the ALICE/64 pack and carried on. That saved me from repacking things hurriedly, which usually devolved into a frantic goat rope. 

Here the general principle is modular packing, so you can shed gear and pick it back up quickly, without fuss. You can drop it and go, then recover it and go, with just one or two clicks of a buckle.

The Pattern 64 and ALICE packs are great for modular packing because of their big external frames: they’re perfect for lashing stuff to. But if you don’t have one, you can just attach your small pack under the bottom of your larger back, where you would traditionally strap your sleeping bag, or you can attach it under the floating lid of a modern pack. 

Scenario 3) Surprise! You have to carry extra things! Sometimes you’re just on foot and there won’t be any further base camp/staging area. You’ll be carrying everything, so you’re not bringing any third-line gear to stash along the way. If you’re bringing it at all, you’ll be carrying it the whole time. 

But now—surprise!!—you stumble across a pot of leprechaun gold. Are you just going to leave it there and hike back to look for a truck? Hell, no. You have to carry it.

The worst way to haul something heavy or awkward is to actually carry it in your hands. It’s slow, uncomfortable, and fatiguing. And carrying it on your shoulder like a stevedore isn’t much nicer. Instead, if you can somehow put it on your back, the difference will be like night and day. 

To prepare for this possibility, you have two options, which I call “pack in a pack” or “partly empty pack.” I go with the first option: inside my small pack, I keep an empty “crunch pack,” some sort of satchel or other carrying device that scrunches down to 1L or less. If I discover buried pirate treasure (which used to happen all the time in Quebec), I fill the satchel and lash it to the top or bottom of my pack.

The second option is cheaper: you just carry an oversized pack, with more room than you need for your gear. If you meet a village full of Smurfs who want to stow away with you, you just expand your pack to its full size and then dump them in on top your field stove. Close up the pack and no one will be the wiser, unless they burst into song.

Use discretion. In some environments, if you are caught with a rucksack full of Smurfs, questions will be asked.

Notes From 48 Hours in the Field (part 1)

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.)

The Unglamorous Favorite: La Musette F1/F2

Part II in our series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus”

Can you call something your “favorite” if you find it uninteresting and humdrum but you still choose it over most other things? If so, meet my favorite daypack, the French “musette F1/F2.”

This particular F1 has endured 40 years of people doing stupid things to it, like loading it with 50 lbs. (23kg) of bricks, and it’s still as strong as the day it was made.

I guess I love this thing. It’s basic and boring, but based on my actual behavior, it must be my favorite, because I use it literally every day and take it into the field several times a month.

My SAR pack, a tricked out F2

In about the Seventies, the French army replaced their simple canvas modèle 50, which they’d carried through their Indochina and Algeria campaigns, with the musette F1, made of a clever rubberized fabric to keep water out. In the late Eighties they issued a slightly enlarged version, the F2.

You can find both on the surplus market for a little as $20. Also available but far less common are Austrian rucks that seem clearly like improved homages to the F2.

For a 1970s design, these bomb-proof French packs ride pretty comfortably, sitting nice and high on the back. I can pack almost 40# (18kg) of bricks into an unmodified F1 before it grinds against my low back.

Though the straps can scarcely be adjusted, they have the golden ingredient for comfort: they are broad. Not padded, but broad. (I owe this discovery to Sgt. Šileika, the Lithuanian trail Yoda.)

Broad straps are comfortable. Not padded, but broad.

All I can criticize the straps for is that you cannot adjust them for length. However, we fix that in just a few minutes. We just need to replace the original “quick” attach hook.

This “quick” attach hook is anything but quick. It also leaves no way to adjust the strap length.

See, the pack was designed with the idea that first you’d put your right arm through the strap and then, instead of awkwardly slipping your left through another tight strap, you would just have that left strap flopping free and then re-attach it to the pack with a hook near your left hip. (This may even have been necessary to make it fit with the FAMAS rifle’s unusual sling.)

But that hook is impossibly clumsy and slow (at least for me), and you can’t shorten or lengthen the strap to cinch it up to your body.

Happily, you can change all that for $1. Cut that hook off and replace it with a “G hook” and a short length of 1″ (25mm) webbing. And, regardez! You have an adjustable strap. (Believe me, if I can do this, you can do this.)

Replace it with a little webbing and a G hook. They’re $1 apiece. (You could also use a new spring hook or a spring bolt, but this cheap, faster to use, and adjustable.)

While you’re at it, replace the buckles, which as one commenter writes at La Tranchée Militaire, “… are almost impossible to use because they give you so little room to pass the straps through,” and you have to thread/unthread two long straps through two slots each.

The original buckles are slow and clumsy, but you can replace them.

Instead, buy a pair of 25mm “split-bar” buckles. You can slip them right on and you don’t even have to remove the original buckles.

Finally, take my advice and get six “web dominators,” which are basically little bungee spools for loose straps flapping all over. You’ll want them because this thing has about 2m of extra straps, and unless you’re currently using them all to strap stuff all over the outside of your pack, you’ll want them out of the way.