Liberation Shoes: China’s Revolutionary Footwear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beret For the Bush Hat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Careful What You Wish For

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

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

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

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

Legionnaires in Indochina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Americans began to wear the French hats.

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

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

USAF in Thailand. (Military Times)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again With the French Exceptionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hats Of Defeat

A further installment in our series on French gear.

Some people deal better than others with losing.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first casualty of war is the losing hat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace Your Failures, Double Down On Your Hats

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

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

Nutria Brown

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

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

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

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

Why monochrome?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking In Dry Heat

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. 

Lean Solid Girl says I’m really a springer spaniel. If stuck indoors, I chew on the woodwork. Better to have me wrecking things outdoors.

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!


China excels in that old Second World genius for “low cost, high concept” design. On their long border with Mongolia, for example, troops traded their vehicles for camels. In a featureless landscape plagued by sandstorms, drivers have trouble seeing roads, but the camels have an unerring internal compass.

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. 

The South African Defense Force (SADF) in Namibia, in the last of the great East-West proxy wars. This is also what it looks like a stone’s throw over my back fence.

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.

Not the Anglosphere. Only one South African in 10 speaks English as their first language. For most, it’s Zulu, Xhosa, or Afrikaans, or another of their eleven (!!) official languages. The culture of the SADF was overwhelmingly Afrikaans, not English.

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.

Today’s US mine-resistant vehicles are descended from the South African Buffel (“Buffalo”). Happily, my town is largely free of mines so I drive a Honda.

And we care about this … why?

Like the American military after the Cold War, the SADF of 1980 was orienting itself more to the desert. Where before they thought of themselves as a conventional mechanized army defending against Soviet-style armored formations, now their enemies were increasingly conducting a Maoist insurgency along their long borders, and that meant foot-mobile desert warfare.

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 best systems 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.

The GAO Shirt

A repost as part of our current series, “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.” See our previous installments on French design idiosyncrasies, French day packs, and bush shoes. Amusez-vous bien!

The débardeur GAO or chemise GAO. Quintessentially French, this man’s expression says it all: “With shirts like these, we are the masters of every hot climate we deign to visit. En fait, we would be the envy of the world if only we had ditched these hats, which apparently were designed as a team-building exercise between a Soviet puppet government and Japanese war criminals.”

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.

Call me an insufferable American chauvinist, but I rejoice that my ancestors left Strasbourg for a new land where they would be free to have short shorts with proper back pockets.

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.

Beau travail (1999)

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.

The Swedish “Moose Sack”

I have lots of surplus packs, but there are two that I love and cherish. For big jobs, I have a version of the legendary Swedish LK-35. For everything else, I carry the nimble, gorgeous Swedish M39, the “Moose Sack.”

Like in Switzerland, Sweden’s neutrality is very much an armed neutrality. Even though Sweden did not fight WWII, they kept over half a million men under arms. And since the Swedes knew a thing or two about the outdoors, Erik and Oskar were issued a rucksack that is a work of genius. You can recognize it anywhere by the strange, perforated, leather-covered crescent shape at the top, which is a godsend for comfort.

At almost 80 years old and heavily used, this pack is so bomb-proof that you’d think it was Soviet if it weren’t also attractive and comfortable.

As its backbone it has a peculiar X-shaped frame. It holds the pack close to your back without quite touching, and the top of the pack moulds itself over your shoulders, so it is pleasant to carry and makes you feel quick and light. In addition, the pack “grabs” the body firmly and stays put, with minimal slipping, flopping, or bouncing. On a heavy march, that saves energy because you don’t have to hold the pack still. And it feels more ergonomic and somehow more agile than something with a rectangular frame. You can also adjust the ride height and even the spacing of the straps on your shoulders!

Retro in the Snow

When Lars Grebnev at Survival Russia talks, I listen.

First he got me into jackboots, which I like more all the time because they’re weather- and terrain-proof. On slippery rocks, in muck, over a gravelly boulder-scape, in a calf-high stream, the jackboots keep you stable and dry. This time I tried them with snowshoes. My cheapo, old-fashioned 1980s Swedish army snowshoes were not exactly high-performance dynamos, but the $20 East German jackboots kept me warm, dry, and comfortable all day.

Tip for you jackbooted thugs out there: boot grease really works. It’s cheap and takes two minutes to apply, and it makes these things truly waterproof.

Lars was also right about old Scandinavian wool. For cold weather, he’s remarked, you’d do very well to find Scandinavian surplus from the 1960s or before. It dates from a time when armies lived outdoors for long periods of time and they made clothes that were supremely warm and durable, in a way that isn’t true of modern stuff.

Through the awesome Surplus City, I found some old wool trousers that came along with me on the snowshoeing trip, and I think the world of them. Apparently these Nordic folks really know a thing or too about cold. I felt like I had a warm lamb wrapped around each leg.

They’re also very comfortable to wear with a pack because they’re high-waisted. My rucking guru Sgt. Šileika told me to expect this: the extra length of old-fashioned, high-waisted trousers protects you from chafing, and since they use suspenders rather than a belt, you don’t get flesh pinched between the top of your pants and the hip belt of your pack. Much more comfortable!

Let’s Sing the Surplus Song!

To the tune of “My Favorite Things”*

East German jackboots and green Czech suspenders,
Norwegian trousers for snowy weekenders,
Bundeswehr base layer, Steppentarn scarf,
On French army snow shoes I’ll hike til I barf!

Finnish boot grease!
Swedish rucksack!
From your grandfather’s day.
For ten lousy bucks you can buy it all up
And head for the hills to play!

*Acknowledgement to Tam at View From the Porch, who inspired me with her Gun Show Song. And additional thanks to Varusteleka and Surplus City—they are world class!–and to the Hungarian armed forces, the Austrian Bundesheer, British Army, and above all the Swedish Air Force for making awesome gear and then deciding they don’t want it!