Anyone who’s ever sat down at a Blackjack table or passed a friendly and endless game of War has seen a deck of cards. 54 cards, with 4 suits and 2 optional Jokers is the standard makeup, and it includes all the usual playing card celebrities like the Suicide King and the One-Eyed Jacks (or the knaves if you prefer). However, perhaps the most famous playing card in the entire deck is the Ace of Spades. However, the infamy presented by this card is a relatively recent phenomenon, as the history of playing cards goes.
The original fame of the Ace of Spades came because in games like Poker, where you can assign a value to a suit so that you know which hand beats which if there are duplicates, the Spades were considered the highest suit. The Ace, though originally the lowest card in value, was switched to the highest value in many decks. Some have used the example that the Ace represents God, and thus the high card. Others have claimed that the Ace represents the people, the peasantry, and during the French Revolution it became a popular notion to show the revolt by placing the Ace as the high card over the royalty.
However, the Ace of Spades is also associated with death. This is both in the sense of tarot card reading (since the origin of tarot cards is muddled with the time frame of the adoption of regular playing cards), and in the sense that the Ace represented a mark. This second point is a uniquely American tradition because, during the Vietnam War, American GIs began a tradition of placing the ace on a dead body, or leaving it in a village. Thus ideas like “being aced” were linked to death and dying. GIs would even sometimes wear the Ace of Spades in their helmets as a sign that death was coming with them as a fear tactic.
Ever since Vietnam, the use of the Ace of Spades as a symbol of power and death has been a permanent link in the minds of many Americans. The use of the card in tattoos, and even in music such as Motor Head’s famous “Ace of Spades,” has only made the notorious associations even harder to ignore. However, the card is just one more in the deck… though it still sits pretty in one of the most powerful places in the cards.
The ace of spades, the so-called “death card” is featured in many movies about the Vietnam War. The symbol is also depicted on various unit crests, special operations privately-made patches, collar insignia, and on flags and painted vignettes on military aircraft and gun trucks.
The ace of spades was also featured in many movies about the Vietnam War. Who could forget the scene in Apocalypse Now where a young sailor sees soldiers throwing cards on the bodies of dead Viet Cong:
Lance: “Hey Captain, what’s that?”
Willard: “Death card.”
Willard: “Death card. Letting Charlie know who did this.”
What does the ace of spades represent on the infantry helmets?
A quick Google search on the subject reveals a site that tells about the use of the ace of spades in Vietnam. Apparently in fortune telling, the spades suit represents death or suffering, and thousands of ace of spades (spadeses?) were dropped over the jungles of Vietnam to assist in the psychological warfare aspect of the war.
The ace of spades is placed on the first person that the soldier kills. If a soldier has his ace of spades, he has not killed anybody yet.
It also stood for -DEATH-. During the Vietnam War, it was a common misconception among US soldiers that the Vietnamese believed the ACE OF SPADES stood for DEATH.
Which is WHY American troops would distribute ACE OF SPADES playing cards on dead VC bodies. While the Vietnamese did not originally associate the ACE OF SPADES with DEATH, the card did become an effective weapon in the psychological battle with the Viet Cong. As a symbol it was also a very effective tool in the maintenance of moral among US fighting men. In fact, leaving the card on the bodies of dead Vietnamese soldiers became such a popular practice among G.I.’s that the BICYCLE playing card company was asked to manufacture that single card and ship it to Vietnam by the crate. These crates where often marked with the label “BICYCLE SECRET WEAPON.” The card could also often be spotted tucked into the helmet webbing of American Infantry and Marines.
A self-proclaimed witch from Britain has a historical explanation. Perhaps it will shed some light on the mysterious history of the ace of spades:
There are 52 cards. Each card stands for a week in the year. The thirteen cards in each suit also stand for the thirteen lunar months in the year. The suits stand for the seasons. The red suits are feminine, warm, positive, upward looking, etc. The black ones are masculine, cold, negative, regressive, etc.
There are four main Sabbats – the Ace of Spades relates to the week of Yule. Yule, at the beginning of winter was a date dreaded by the old peasantry – the beginning of winter heralded a time of famine, or a Time of the Wolf. The Ace of Spades stands for the first week of winter, beginning 21 December. Supplies would be running low, and the last of the meat would be slaughtered and cured to eat in the months ahead. Offerings would be made to the dead, and the elderly would be sure that their last wishes were known, in case it was their turn.
The Ace of Spades represents the Death of the Year and the start of a new one, when the wheel turns again. The reason why it is a trump card is that Death comes for all of us in the end, and there is no escape – even for kings. The spade is also known in the Tarot as the sword – a symbol of war. The symbol could represent a heart with a spike in it, a severed head on a spike, a cowled head, an evergreen yew, or a dead leaf – all emblems of Death.
So why was the ace of spades so popular that some individuals or units actually ordered them from playing card manufacturers to place on the bodies of dead Viet Cong and NVA? The answer seems to be, because the American troops just loved them. Although the cards were allegedly anti-Communist PSYOP, in fact they were really pro-American PSYOP. U.S. troops got a kick out of them and loved the idea of leaving them on bodies. Like wolves, it was a way to mark their territory. It proclaimed them the biggest and “baddest” varmints in the valley of death. The cards motivated and encouraged American troops far more than they terrified the enemy.
The ace of spades has been employed, on numerous occasions, in the theater of war. In the Second World War, the soldiers of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the American 101st Airborne Division were marked with the spades symbol painted on the sides of their helmets. In this capacity, it was used to represent good luck, due to its fortunate connotations in card playing. All four card suits were used for ease of identification of regiments within the airborne division following the confusion of a large scale combat airborne operation. Battalions within the regiments were denoted with tic marks or dots, marked from top clockwise; Headquarters at the twelve o’clock position, 1st Battalion at the three o’clock, etc.
Some twenty years later, the ace of spades was again used by American soldiers—this time as a psychological weapon in the Vietnam War. US troops believed that Vietnamese traditions held the symbolism of the spade to mean death and ill-fortune and in a bid to scare away NLF (Viet Cong) soldiers without a firefight, it was common practice to leave an ace of spades on the bodies of killed Vietnamese and even to litter the forested grounds and fields with the card. This custom was believed to be so effective, that the United States Playing Card Company was asked by Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, to supply crates of that single card in bulk. The crates were often marked with “Bicycle Secret Weapon”. (The Bicycle was the style of card reverse pattern).
The ace of spades, while not a symbol of superstitious fear to the NLF (VC), did help the morale of American soldiers. It was not unheard of for US soldiers and Marines to stick this card in their helmet band as a sort of anti-peace sign.
More recently, in 2003 a deck of most-wanted Iraqi playing cards issued to US soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom, each card had the picture of a wanted Iraqi official on it. Saddam Hussein got the nickname “Ace of Spades” as his was the face which adorned that card.