Sunday, March 1, 2020

Deploying playing cards to troops to raise cultural awareness

I intended to write this post about six weeks ago, but life comes at you fast. Especially here in 2020.

I've written about playing cards before. They're a ubiquitous subcategory of ephemera — everyone has a deck or three in the house. My great-grandfather had a deck personalized with his initials (which I should write about some day). Single cards might be tucked inside a book, as detailed in this 2012 post and this 2018 post. Some have amusing vintage designs, as I wrote about in 2013.

But some decks of playing cards have much more importance and historical weight. They can convey the values we wish to encourage and reflect.

I originally hoped to bring this up when it was more timely, at the start of the year, because the president of the United States, amid an inflamed moment in the United States' ongoing conflict with Iran, tweeted a seeming threat toward sites of cultural importance to the Iranian people.

The president reiterated his threat the next day, January 5, according to NPR, stating: "They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to torture and maim our people. They're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way."

But it does work that way. That same NPR article notes this: "The targeting of cultural properties by the U.S. is indeed not allowed. The U.S. is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention, which requires 'refraining from any act of hostility' directed against cultural property."

And in recent years, the United States miltary has worked to reinforce the importance of leaving cultural sites in foreign countries alone — partly through the use of playing cards. And that brings us to today's ephemera.

In the summer of 2007, the U.S. Defense Department began issuing decks of playing cards to troops. "The cards are training aids designed to help the servicemembers understand the archaeological significance of their deployed locations," wrote Meghan Vittrup of American Forces Press Service.

According to the Fall 2010 "Product Catalog for Cultural Property Protection Planning and Training in the Department of Defense," there were three different decks of cultural awareness playing cards: a combined deck for Iraq and Afghanistan (that's the one I have and am featuring in these photos), one for Egypt, and one specifically for Afghanistan. The catalog indicates that the cards were printed by the U.S. Playing Card Company. Each suit has a theme. Diamonds focused on saving precious artifacts; clubs focused on raising awareness on heritage preservation issues; spades cautioned agianst digging and site destruction; and hearts focused on "winning hearts and minds."

A 2012 article by the German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) discussed how archaeologist Dr. Laurie Rush, the Cultural Resources Program Manager at Fort Drum, helped to create the 2007 playing card deck:
"Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, US Marines set up a camp in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, with Polish troops following months later. There, the troops inadvertently crushed 2,600-year-old brick pavement and used soil containing artifacts for sandbags.

"After learning of the damage, Rush volunteered her services. 'It immediately occurred to me that a better educated force would not have made those kinds of mistakes,' she said.

"In a creative effort to inform, Rush and her colleagues designed ordinary playing cards with a special purpose: Each card contains a fact about cultural heritage in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt.

"Deployed forces from the US and other countries can pass the idle hours playing poker and looking at photos of ancient minarets in Iraq, the Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan and inscribed bricks and tablets. They shuffle, deal and read the messages on the cards, which indicate, for example, that they should stop digging if they find ancient artifacts and turn to local elders for archeological information.

"'Without question, the five of hearts is my favorite,' said Rush, while flipping through the cards. 'The caption is "protecting archeologist sites helps preserve them for future generations." It's an image of a soldier holding hands with a tiny Iraqi child ... and it's clear this soldier and this child have a very positive relationship.'

"One sergeant told Rush that through these simple cards he was able to learn about Iraq's cultural heritage, a subject that he later used to forge stronger bonds with the locals. Rush's cards spurred another soldier to sound the alert that digging was taking place at a Mesopotamian city site east of Baghdad. The site was saved."

A 2014 article by Jennifer Dimas of Colorado State University noted that interest in the Heritage Resource Preservation playing cards was further spurred by the 2014 George Clooney film Monuments Men (even if the movie itself got middling reviews). "Written at the top of each card are the words 'ROE First,' which reminds the soldiers that the military's Rules of Engagement should precede all other considerations," Dimas wrote.

Indeed, the Rules of Engagement should supercede any unlawful orders, even from those in the highest levels of the military chain of command. The aforementioned NPR article notes that "the Department of Defense's Law of War manual mentions cultural property 625 times, repeatedly citing the Hague Convention" and that "the U.S. military educates its soldiers about their responsibilities not to target or destroy cultural property."

Asked about the president's threat in January to "HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD" against "Iranian culture" targets, it was heartening to see the response of the United States' top defense officials. Again according to NPR, Defense Secretary Mark Esper indicated that U.S. forces wouldn't carry out Trump's threat, saying, "We will follow the laws of armed conflict." And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "We'll behave lawfully. We'll behave inside the system. We always have, and we always will."

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