On May 10, 1967 a certain, strange document was prepared for the U.S. military, one that really stands out when it comes to matters of a controversial and alternative nature. Its title was The Use of Superstitions in Psychological Operations in Vietnam. In part, it revealed a very weird story of how U.S. servicemen were trying to frighten North Vietnamese soldiers with nothing stranger than the Ace of Spades from a pack of cards. Yes, really.
According to the document: “A strong superstition or a deeply-held belief shared by a substantial number of the enemy target audience can be used as a psychological weapon because it permits with some degree of probability the prediction of individual or group behavior under a given set of conditions. To use an enemy superstition as a starting point for psychological operations, however, one must be sure of the conditions and control the stimuli that trigger the desired behavior.”
From there, we’re provided with the following: “The first step in the manipulation of a superstition as an enemy vulnerability is its exact identification and detailed definition of its spread and intensity among the target audience. The second step is to insure friendly control of the stimuli and the capability to create a situation that will trigger the desired superstitious behavior. Both conditions must be met or the psyops effort will not yield the desired results; it might even backfire.”
The document continues: “As an illustration, one can cite the recent notion spread among combat troops in the First Corps area that VC and NVN troops were deathly afraid of the ‘Ace of Spades’ as an omen of death. In consequence soldiers, turned psy-warriors with the assistance of playing card manufacturers, began leaving the ominous card in battle areas and on patrols into enemy-held territory. The notion was based on isolated instances of behavior among Montagnard tribesmen familiar from French days with the Western deck of cards. A subsequent survey determined that the ace of spades does not trigger substantial fear reactions among most Vietnamese because the various local playing cards have their own set of symbols, generally of Chinese derivation. Here then was an incorrect identification of a superstition coupled with a friendly capability to exploit the presumed condition. It did not work.”
And, finally, we have this extract: “In summary, the manipulation of superstitions is a delicate affair. Tampering with deeply-held beliefs, seeking to turn them to your advantage means in effect playing God and it should only be attempted if one can get away with it and the game is indeed worth the candle. Failure can lead to ridicule, charges of clumsiness and callousness that can blacken the reputation of psychological operations in general. It is a weapon to be employed selectively and with utmost skill and deftness. There can be no excuse for failure.”
Although, as the document makes clear, the careful placing of Ace of Spades cards by groups of U.S. military personnel did not have the desired effect, it does demonstrate the very weird ways in which war has been fought. And just perhaps, in some parts of the world, is still being fought to this day. Maybe one day we’ll find out.