Bulletproof Vest (2020): Kenneth R. Rosen


Bloomsbury Object Lessons

After Coffee, I decided to try another of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons books, to see whether I’d misunderstood the gist of the series. Fortunately, Bulletproof Vest was a better fit for my expectations: a moving personal story woven around the object’s history. It’s a tale, first and foremost, of the human desire to both destroy and protect. Rosen experiences the former in a cataclysm of depression when, with his self-worth shredded and with years of self-loathing behind him, he comes within a hair’s breadth of suicide. Ironically, for what follows, his weapon of choice is a gun. Later, having clawed his way out of the depths, he channels his self-destructive instincts in a new direction, thanks to his work as a journalist. ‘Pointing the lens outward,’ he writes, ‘would allow me to heal my inner disruption‘. And so he signs up for work as a war correspondent in Iraq, a job which will bring him face to face with the innate human desire to conquer and kill, but which will also require him to take concrete, proactive steps to protect himself. Rosen buys his first bulletproof vest, and thus the story begins.

We’ve heard the words PPE (personal protective equipment) a lot in the last few weeks. In this context, however, they mean not the masks and gowns of a medical ward, but the helmets and flak jackets of front-line combat. Rosen finds his own PPE online, via the aptly-named website bulletproofme.com (who are, perhaps inevitably, based in Texas). There’s no doubt that he needs to take something with him to Iraq: being a war journalist is a dangerous job, after all (‘In 2015, 110 reporters were killed and nearly 200 were jailed worldwide‘). But, as Rosen prepares for his posting, he begins to wonder what the point is of such front-line PPE. Some doubts arise during an obligatory class in which journalists are taught how to deal with being kidnapped, beaten and jailed. What use would a bulletproof vest be in such circumstances? And what does it mean to place all your faith in a vest stuffed with ceramic panels? Even the best flak jacket isn’t bullet-proof, but only bullet resistant. There are some strikes that no amount of bullet-proofing can resist. As Rosen heads out to Mosul – the start of a journey that will take in visits to Syria and to numerous sites at which allied forces are struggling against those of Daesh – he begins to think more and more about what truly constitutes protection in war zones. A press badge? A bulletproof vest that marks you out as a foreigner – someone worthy of protection – perhaps, a target? Or should we instead choose to place our trust in people?

Rosen uses his bulletproof vest as a springboard for a brief history of the evolution of body-armour. That’s what the vest is, after all: the modern successor of the cuirasses and chain mail of the ancient and medieval worlds. He introduces us to the Dendra Panoply, the oldest known cuirass, made in Mycenean Greece between 1600 and 1100 BC (to my delight, he spared a nod for the classic boar’s-tusk helmet). There must have been earlier forms of body-armour unknown to us now, for helmets had been developed in Sumeria some 1,600 years earlier, and humans had been using offensive weaponry – spears, arrows, knives – for 60,000 years. As time passed, armour became ever more practical and sophisticated. The cumbersome body-sheaths of the Mycenean age gave way to the lighter bronze breastplates of Ancient Greece, and these in turn were adapted by the Romans, who switched bronze for iron, and added chain mail. I always think of Norman England when I think of chain mail, but according to Rosen chain mail was being used by Celtic tribes around 400 BC. I’ll have to do some more reading on the history of armour.

Athough Rosen mentions Eastern varieties of armour, such as scale and lamellar (i.e. samurai-style) armour, he focuses most on Western technologies. He speaks at some length about chain mail, making an interesting economic point that I hadn’t fully registered before. Chain male was relatively cheap and accessible, because it required comparatively unskilled labour. All a smith had to do was make a sequence of interlocking rings, which could be easily repaired if damaged. This was a far cry from the expert skills needed to forge plate-armour. Hence the knights of medieval and Renaissance Europe, with their splendid full-body suits of plate-armour – versus the ordinary fighting man, who more often than not wore a brigadine, a padded cloth jerkin, over a chain-mail shirt. When we see suits of armour in museums nowadays, it’s tempting to assume that they were all for much the same purpose, but Rosen points out that there was a crucial difference between jousting armour and battle armour. Jousting armour was much heavier, weighing as much as 50kg, presumably to help anchor the knight to his horse. (But, the poor horse!) Then of course there are ceremonial armours, which were expensive not just for the amount of metal involved, but for the elaborate decoration – often engraved or inlaid with gold.

There was much to learn here. I read with fascination that the Aztecs used cotton for armour, soaked in ‘saltwater brine, which crystallized when dried‘, and which afforded protection from the obsidian blades and spearheads used by rival warriors. And Rosen also opened my eyes to the way that armour became less important as offensive weaponry became more lethal. Compare the men of a medieval army, with their chain mail and brigadines, with a troop of First World War soldiers, in their cloth uniforms, perhaps with a small area of chain mail to protect the heart. What was the point in spending vast amounts of money on armour for soldiers whom it couldn’t possibly protect? Nothing was going to stand up to machine gun fire and, later, to bombs, missiles and mines. (You can understand why Rosen concludes that bulletproof vests are primarily psychological comfort-blankets, giving the impression rather than the assurance of safety.)

One final very interesting section recounted the developments in textile technology that led to the modern bulletproof vest. Rosen introduced me to Stephanie Kwolek, a remarkable chemist and inventor who developed Kevlar, the fabric now used for such vests. Kwolek benefitted from the greater opportunities available to women during the Second World War, enrolling in 1942 at Margaret Morrison Carnegie College to read chemistry, and graduating in 1946. She went on to work at Dupont, a research company which counted Spandex among its products, and which finally patented her synthetic fabric Kevlar in 1974. What’s so interesting is that Kevlar was never meant to protect people, although it’s now most famous for this. It was originally designed as a covering for aircraft wheels, to make them more resilient and thereby to help conserve petrol use. Nowadays it’s been added into all sorts of products, so that we often use Kevlar in our everyday lives and leisure without even realising it. An extraordinary discovery, and a brilliant inventor.

But the question remains for Rosen. What is the purpose of bulletproof material? As a war correspondent, what does it mean to be seen wearing a bulletproof vest? Does it show your value, or does it create a PPE divide between you and the people you’re interviewing, who don’t have the luxury of expensive kit? When our lives are on the line, do we cling to our precious vests, or do we have to learn to trust those around us? Rosen is sensitive, thoughtful and reflective about such questions:

Bulletproof material is only so flexible as to allow fewer thoughts of worry to permeate one’s deliberations. Bulletproofing does not protect against backstabbers or fixers and translators who may sell you out to the highest bidder. Bulletproofing is in fact impersonal and rigid, reserved only for the indifference of a bullet.

One of the most enjoyable instalments in this series so far – at least, among those I’ve read. I think it’s helped by the fact that Rosen’s personal story really is directly relevant to the object he’s chosen. I never had the feeling with this, as I did with Coffee, that it was just a bit of an excuse for stream-of-consciousness. On the contrary, Rosen weaves together personal testimony and historical fact in a concise, pacy and engaging story which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Buy the book

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

Stephanie Kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014), inventor of Kevlar

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