The Death Card

myth and meme month

September is Myth and Meme month, where I look at obscure myths or folklore/social memes that are currently making their way through social media. I have decided this year to also look at things as I find them, themes that I don’t normally write about or have encountered in the past. That will include a certain amount of weird history.

This is a story that I suppose that I did know in passing, but without the history to root it into, I assumed it was a plot point and nothing much else. This symbol shows up in Apocalypse Now, when the soldiers leave behind death cards to prove that they were there.

The Ace of Spades has become the death card in modern symbolism over time-the image is used to suggest a character is about to die or that the card in itself is just plain bad luck. The logic that seems to make the most sense to me is that the spade is a shovel and a shovel digs graves, therefore the card is associated with death. There are more complicated logics than that, but that is the one that in its simplicity strikes me as most likely closest to the truth.

There appears to have been a habit among American troops fighting in Vietnam of dropping the ace of spades behind them after leaving battlefields, or leaving them on corpses, or in other high visibility areas. Part of the logic of the act presumes that the Vietnamese fear the death card more than the Americans, so the card would function as a form of emotional weapon. But that connection seems vague at best, and assumes a certain level of familiarity with folkloric imagery. Many of the theories that I came across surrouding both the start and usage of the cards really does read like stereotypical urban legend development-I didn’t see anything, but I knew a guy who…

It might be that the actual ‘start’ of the act will never be identified fully and something about the image struck so hard and fast that it became a symbol to the Americans more than anything else. It might also not be a terribly common or widespread act, but the wearing of the card-or other usage of the symbol- happened frequently enough to enter into military urban legend.


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