7 June 2003

A Game of Hearts

Iraqi Most Wanted Playing CardsOn April 11, 2003 the U.S. military released their list of most-wanted senior Iraqi government in the form of a deck of playing cards.

The cards were designed by staff of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the 3401st and 3418th Military Intelligence Detachments. One of the designers, Sergeant Scott Boehmler, 27, an Army reservist from Hazleton, Pennsylvania reports, “We understood what guys like to do on their downtime. This is an effective way of getting these images in the soldiers’ minds.”

Images can be downloaded from the Department of Defense Web site in HTML or PDF.

Production of the cards was widely covered in the U.S. mainstream media and treated as a significant event in the war. Subsequent reports of the arrest of Iraqi officials frequently refer to the list, even noting when an arrested official is not on the list. The reports are occasionally illustrated with an image of said official’s playing card.

The decks have also become enormously popular with the public. Web sites have sold hundreds of thousands of decks. As of May, one company reported $1.5 million in sales. It’s one thing to sell a war to the public. It’s whole other matter for them to buy it themselves in droves. I’ve even seen street vendors in NYC selling the decks alongside the knockoff sun glasses and watches and received a couple of unsolicited email messages offering the decks for sale.

U.S. military personnel are the world’s largest consumers of playing cards, according to Cincinnati-based United States Playing Card Company, the world’s largest playing card manufacturer. According to Time (May 12, 2003) the extreme popularity of the most-wanted cards prompted the distributor to reissue cards created for the military in earlier wars. During World War II “spotter decks” were produced for troops to distinguish between Allied and enemy aircraft. During the Vietnam War “decks containing only the ace of spades were passed out to U.S. troops, who would display a card on their helmets to scare away the Viet Cong — supposedly superstitious about the card, which fortune tellers considered a harbinger of suffering and death.”


The cards have inspired a genre of spinoffs.

GreatUSAflags.com has followed up with U.S. Military Heroes playing cards “honoring America’s servicemen and women involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The deck also features images of aircraft, ships, submarines, aircraft carriers, vehicles and missiles deployed in battle.

On April 25, global justice group, the “Trade Regulation Organization,” released their U.S. Regime Change cards [image, PDF 6MB]. The group, “estimating that the U.S. governing regime is no longer consistent with world peace or prosperity, hopes that the playing cards will show the way to regime change and, eventually, large-scale war crimes proceedings.”

On May 1, Greenpeace International released a deck of “most wanted” cards depicting the nuclear powers of the world. [PDF, 96K] “This deck is designed to help delegates to the Non-proliferation Treaty meeting recognise owners of weapons of mass destruction. Packed with nuclear weapons of mass destruction facts. Fun for the whole family.” Says Tom Clements, senior campaigner with Greenpeace, “It ties the anti-war message together with the disarmament message.”

Weasel CardOn May 7, the conservative Web site NewsMax announced the Deck of Weasels [image] which features images of anti-war celebrities and politicians includes Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Jacques Chirac, Barbara Streisand, Teddy Kennedy, Kofi Annan, Vicente Fox, Jean Chretien, War Profiteers CardsSenator Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd. Each card features a quote by the celeb opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Each of the photographs has been altered so each figure wears the beret of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.

On May 15, the Ruckus Society released America’s War Profiteers, a deck of cards identifying 53 individuals and institutions in the oil, military, government, media, and policy sectors. “The groups’ aim is to expose, ‘The links among corporations, institutions, and government officials that profit from endless war.’” The site also features a good set of links to articles and campaign pages.

On May 23, Nitestar Productions released “The Deck of Republican Chickenhawks,” depicting the 54 Republican officials, congressmen, politicians and pundits who avoided serving their country through connections, deferments, or other excuses.” Needless to say, many of the officials vigorously supported the U.S. war on Iraq. The deck was inspired by a list maintained by the New Hampshire Gazette of Republican politicians and pundits who have never served in armed combat.

Still other decks reported in the May 18 Washington Post:

“Republicans in the Texas legislature had cards made depicting the state’s ‘most-wanted Democrats’ — the lawmakers who fled to Oklahoma to scuttle a vote on a bitterly contested Republican redistricting plan....

Inspired by the Pentagon’s cards, Frances Gomez, 23, decided to print up card sets featuring her top 55 Cuban villains. But just before the printing order was sent out, Gomez tweaked her plan in hopes of really sticking it to Fidel Castro. She decided to make the cards look like dominoes, the real king of the board games in Little Havana and just about anywhere else that Cubans gather.

So, instead of being the ace of spades — the card reserved for Saddam Hussein in the Pentagon’s deck — Fidel is the Double Nine, the domino tile that no player wants to hold at the end of a game. Gomez needed help from Cuban American groups in Miami to compile her list. She was born in the United States and says, like many Cuban Americans her age, that she knew little about the details behind the deep animosity felt toward Castro and his allies by older generations that fled the island nation.

‘It’s important to learn who these people are,’ Gomez said.”


In addition to the playing cards are recent political trading cards.

Operation Enduring Freedom CardsIn 1991, trading card publisher Topps (coordinating with the Pentagon and Navy Department) published 3 sets of Desert Storm Trading Cards. In 2001, they published a series of Operation Enduring Freedom Trading Cards.

An article in the Guardian notes:

“90 glossy cards featuring US political and military leaders, the patriotic response to the September 11 attacks, and military hardware.... The series also features a photograph of flowers laid outside the US embassy in Pakistan in the aftermath of the September 11 atrocities. No corresponding card shows the subsequent angry demonstrations against the US bombing campaign.... Topps would not directly respond to charges that the cards promoted an unquestioning view of the war to children.”

Kingsley Barham, publisher of marijuana trading cards that cover hemp history, politics, types, and uses, developed a set of trading cards about the September 11 attacks, Heroes of the World Trade Center. Despite approval from families of victims whose portraits are on the cards, the cards were met with outrage by politicians and the media. The New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg urged lawyers to find ways to prevent the sale of the cards.


Enduring Freedom CardsSatire decks of the U.S. “war on terrorism” include American Crusade 2001+, Unofficial Iraqi Freedom Action Cards, and the images of Playing the Hitler Card, a small collection of cards with images of dictators and links to pages were they have recently been compared to Hitler.

In September, 2002 Slate published the Flash animation Corporate Scandal Trading Cards, “the fastest guide to America’s top 10 business crackups” with names and photos of CEO’s along with some statistics and a brief description of the crimes and frauds of WorldCom, Enron, Global Crossing, Adelphia, Tyco, ImClone, Halliburton, Harken, Qwest, and Andersen Consulting.

In April 2000, Texans for Public Justice produced a set of Bush League trading cards. The 20 cards feature statistics and a profile of a Bush “Pioneer” who has raised at least $100,000 for Bush’s presidential election. The profiles are drawn from TPJ’s investigation into the 212 announced Bush “Pioneers.”

Friendly Dictator CardsOn the heels of their 1989 comic book “Brought to Light: Thirty Years of Drug Smuggling, Arms Deals, & Covert Action,” in 1990 Eclipse published the original Friendly Dictator Trading Cards. The hallucinogenic artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz illustrates “three dozen of America’s most embarrassing ‘friends’, a cunning crew of tyrants and corrupt puppet-presidents who have been rewarded handsomely for their loyalty to U.S. interests.” Other political trading card sets published by Eclipse include “Drug Wars,” “The Iran Contra Scandal,” and “Rotten to the Core - New York Political Scandal,” and “Coup D’etat,” which presents theories pertaining to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Douglas Rushkoff’s 1994 book Media Virus quotes journalist and Eclipse editor Catherine Yronwode:

“Our trading cards are designed so they read like Hypercard stacks. Each cross-references to other cards... They all connect, and you can rearrange them in chains of interconnectivity. Or chronologically. You can find out who someone’s boss was, how different people moved around, that this guy was in Vietnam at the same time as this guy, and then that they were both in Nicaragua at the same time, too.”

Eclipse’s “Crime and Punishment” and “True Crime” cards, which present information about serial killers and gangsters, prompted the Board of Supervisors of Nassau County to pass Local Law 11-1992 which made it illegal to disseminate “indecent crime material to minors.” From the Friendly Dictators site:

“In 1997... a U.S. federal appeals court struck down a Nassau County, New York law banning the sale of trading cards depicting ‘any heinous crime". The court found for Eclipse who had challenged the law on First Amendment grounds - cf: Eclipse Enterprises, Inc. v. Gulotta (U.S. Federal Court of Appeal, 2nd Circuit, December 1997). The expense of this court case seems to have bankrupted them - at any rate, for whatever reason, Eclipse appears to have folded. There are no web entries for the company, no listing in any of the Publishing Indexes I’ve been able to find, and all its products are out of print, as far as the big web booksellers are concerned.”

Details of the case and proceedings can be found here.

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