As the notorious deck turns 15, an Iraq vet reveals the untold history behind it… and its impact on the American way of war.

I. ‘Don’t go too far off the reservation’

“I was on my way to the Pentagon that morning, meeting up with my business partner, Jay, and pitching the need for the defense industry to embrace unmanned systems. I was late. I’m never late. I arrived just minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the building.”

— Hans Mumm

Hans Mumm has a history of military service in his family, and although he was going to the Pentagon as a civilian on September 11, 2001, he also served weekends as a reservist just across the river. In fact, he was nearing the end of his eight-year reserve enlistment. But from the moment he smelled the burning jet fuel, he told me, his father’s words were a constant din: “You owe this country something. You must find a way to give back, to serve.” His father raised him to this standard because his father had narrowly escaped Hitler’s Germany in World War II.

Mumm was a seasoned non-commissioned officer, and his boss felt he would be more useful to the mission if he was a lieutenant. Within months, Mumm received a rare direct commission; by the beginning of the Iraq war, he had been activated to support the Defense Intelligence Agency. Mumm’s intellect and lively personality preceded him, as he was greeted with the warning by his new chain of command: “Don’t go too far off the reservation.”

Intelligence professionals are trained and pushed to think differently; it was no different with Mumm’s small team of Army reservists and one active-duty soldier. The team understood the goals of the Bush administration in Iraq: Locate weapons of mass destruction, ensure regime change, and stabilize the country.

Mumm’s team was told to focus on updating the database of the Saddam regime’s senior officials and influencers who would become high value targets. That wasn’t a problem: They had identified approximately 50 of Iraq’s “most wanted.” But that information was confined to the military’s classified intranet. It wasn’t in the hands of U.S. warfighters on the ground. It appeared that no one had formulated a plan on how to do this.

In time, their work would become a kitschy collector’s item whose biggest impact was on the American public, not the warfighter.

The war had already begun. Mumm’s team was behind. So, he told me, the members brainstormed: “How could we get this information downrange without requiring the warfighter to sit behind a classified computer?” Although young, the team’s members had all been around the block at least once — from Sgt. Scott Boehmler’s tour in the Balkans, where he was Gen. Wesley Clark’s favored targeting analyst, to the keen instincts and common sense Spc. Joseph Barrios brought from his day job as a Philadelphia police officer. The team didn’t want to push out another “bullshit intelligence product that nobody was going to read,” Mumm said.

It was during this ruminating that the conversation clambered back to the history of the U.S. military using playing cards to inform the troops.

This became the genesis of their big idea: an easily transportable intelligence product intended to educate the troops, in their leisure time, on their top military priorities. But in time, their work would become a kitschy collector’s item whose biggest impact was on the American public, not the warfighter. They would craft an accidental information operations campaign.

II. We won, right?

My pillow was a stiff green canvas bag that stored my gas mask. We had prepared for Saddam to use chemicals on us.

Also tucked inside that bag was my journal, where I had begun to write a final letter home to my parents — just in case. Nobody knew how things might go then, in the spring of 2003. But I kept that letter through two deployments and eight subsequent years of combat — which led to another seven years of ongoing operations in Iraq. I always returned home, even as 4,484 of my fellow service members lost their lives before combat operations ended in 2011; 60 more have died since that war ended, and this new mission began.

As an information operations analyst, the work I provided in the spring of 2003 emphasized messages and themes that purported liberation — not occupation. On that first deployment, several members of my unit were sent back home to Ft. Bragg after just a handful of months into the conflict because, well, the mission was accomplished. We won, right?

The prevailing view is that we lost. Last month marked the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. Much of the discussion centered around loss — of lives, money, stability in the region, and credibility as the world’s superpower. Those chemicals we’d feared Saddam might use on us in 2003 are the same chemicals being expended today on innocent men, women, and children in neighboring Syria.

Exploring these issues is essential, but so is not overlooking, and diminishing, how we talk about the war. In the past 15 years, one commander in chief dubbed Iraq the “bad” war, while the current one calls it the biggest mistake in our history. Other scholars have deemed it a foreign policy adventure, a gamble, or a game.

War is not a game. Those of us who went know this well. Yet our country latched on to this mindset early on — and one factor was the “Most Wanted Iraqis” deck: playing cards with the faces and names of high-ranking Iraq regime officials that U.S. forces were charged with capturing or killing.

U.S. Army/Sgt. Karen Sampson
Graduate students from University of New Orleans public history department tour the Louisiana National Guard Museum April 11. A stack of playing cards displaying Iraq War’s “most wanted” rests on a shelf in the museum’s archive department.

First publicized at an April 11, 2003, briefing by Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the cards quickly went viral: They were later reprinted and sold on eBay for outrageous prices, and they splashed across America’s televisions from the nightly news to Comedy Central.

I knew nothing of this furor at the time. I was wearing the same clothes and sweat that I’d had on for weeks, serving in the cauldron of the Middle East. And I was dutifully completing one of my tasks in a filthy tent held down by sand bags—which was printing, cutting, and rubber-banding the decks of cards so they could be disseminated to operators moving forward across Iraq.

In recent years, media have covered what happened to the Iraqis featured in the deck, as if measuring these outcomes will tell us something about our success or failure in this war. Much less has been written about the team that created the deck back in Washington, where the air is fusty in windowless offices.

I found this unique lens in looking back on the Iraq War — the creation of those cards — irresistible. It was a story that helped me better answer the questions we ask about our effort and the consequences of this sustained conflict. I discovered that how the deck came to exist provides a powerful metric that can help us define winning and losing.

III. Just make a field manual

Mumm’s team quickly grew enamored with the idea of a card deck, a tool troops might actually use in their down time. There’s a rich U.S. military history of cards used this way, from the Civil War to the Army Air Corps’ much-sought-after (and much-mimicked) World War II deck, whose cards feature silhouettes of German and Japanese fighter and bomber aircraft.

This was 2003, just before the dawn of social media. The team never anticipated its cards would be on the nightly news — or become a popular rallying point for the war. Their intended audience was, unequivocally, the warfighter. The team did not aim to minimize the gravity of war or perform information operations on the American public. Besides, they knew their doctrine: Targeting the American public is illegal. They weren’t opposed to pushing limits, but they respected sacrosanct boundaries like that.  

Mumm was slapped with a counseling statement and placed under investigation for the money he’d spent at the print shop.

When they raised their deck idea to their chain, they were told to go back to the office and make a field manual. “They said the cards would be ineffective,” Mumm told me. “One person said, ‘Stupid!’” But the team trusted its knowledge and the needs of the warfighters who were trekking vast deserts. Those troops, they knew, would simply “use another Army publication as toilet paper,” as Mumm put it. So without any authority, they decided to create a prototype deck.

Boehmler scanned Mumm’s basic Bicycle deck of cards from home, and before long, they were all downstairs in the DIA’s print shop, where they charged $78 dollars to their unit’s account and watched 200 decks roll off the printers.

Wikimedia Commons

Mumm was relentless in his belief that with a prototype in hand and perhaps some interested customers — forward deployed units who might like the idea — he could convince his leadership to adopt the deck.

Instead, he was slapped with a counseling statement and placed under investigation for the money he’d spent at the print shop without approval.

Things were looking extremely bleak for Hans. His team was harshly reprimanded, and the remaining decks were gathered up.

But just a few days later, Brig. Gen. Brooks would hold up one of the team’s card decks on live television. It is still a mystery to the team how Brooks got one. But the genie was out of the bottle, and calls for the cards immediately flooded the Pentagon. Even former President George H. W. Bush had wanted a deck, Mumm told me; he’d dialed in to request a set after watching the briefing on CSPAN.

IV. The hand you’re dealt

Demand for the cards became insatiable. Bicycle Playing Cards grossed tens of millions of dollars from sales, since the original cards the team scanned captured their trademarked Joker. In the first week alone, the company claims, it sold 750,000 decks. The Defense Department hastily posted a printable card-deck file on its website to accommodate the barrage of requests. That spawned a slew of opportunists selling the decks for profit.

Back in Iraq, my unit did not have time for the Pentagon to print and ship the decks, so to expedite copies downrange, we printed on our forward operations base. Instances where the cards led to a direct mission success are difficult to find, yet the novelty of the deck left its undeniable mark on the troops.

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
General Vincent Brooks holds up a deck of cards that bears the images of 55 regime leaders that are wanted by coalition forces during a briefing at the Coalition Media Center in Camp As Sayliyah in Doha, Qatar April 11, 2003.

The craze had other consequences. Mumm’s team, he said, recognized that putting Iraqi “HVTs” on cards would help dehumanize them. That could help the warfighter in battle; the team believed it would be better for the warfighter to know the cards’ faces by suit, not by name. “As people started to get captured, they wouldn’t say who the person was that got captured,” Mumm had explained to a defense reporter as the cards caught on in mid-2003. “They’d say, ‘They captured the 6 of diamonds out of the deck of cards.’”

They never anticipated that American news media would follow suit, often referring to the most wanted Iraqis by their card number; when the Associated Press reported on the deck’s existence in April 2003, its story began: “Odai Hussein is the ace of hearts. Qusai Hussein is the ace of clubs. The ace of spades, naturally, is their father, Saddam Hussein.”

This inadvertently trivialized the war effort in the minds of the American public. But the cards had also galvanized soldiers, as intended.

The team later created a similar flip-book and posters for use by warfighters. Every member of the team was promoted — except Mumm, who instead was rewarded by having his negative counseling statement ripped up. And before the team deployed into Iraq, a few weeks after the cards had gone viral, they were honored with a citation for the “most successful information operations campaign in the history of DIA.”

Every member of the team would go on to serve multiple deployments. They attended each other’s weddings, moonlit with different organizations in the intelligence community, and even survived enemy contact together. Hans Mumm eventually took a medical retirement and has served at the request of the Director of National Intelligence.

Boehmler just passed his 20-year mark in the military, and is en route for yet another deployment to Iraq this spring.

V. We will be in Iraq in 15 more years, too

Like the military more broadly, Hans Mumm’s team demonstrated its ability to be nimble in war, where an innovative spirit and irreverent pursuit to deliver carried them through — even when leadership, policy, or vision failed to keep pace with the action. They won their battle, even when a larger victory seemed elusive. And even then, their small win had big unintended consequences for the war in Americans’ minds.

We need to apply that unconventional ingenuity to notions of victory and loss, too. As we learned in counterinsurgency warfare, in order to win, you can’t focus exclusively on the enemy. Despite the “Most Wanted Iraqis” deck’s grip on the American collective psyche, winning or losing the Iraq War was not as simple as crossing off the people on playing cards. The Iraq War’s legacy cannot just be measured by WMDs, 50 enemy faces, or Iraqi elections. Understanding the story of the warfighters, and so many others affected by war, allows us to look over the horizon.

The war has now gone on long enough that American fighters have had to take Mosul — and plenty of other key terrains — twice. That fact invokes a visceral reaction among many of my fellow Iraq veterans. American commanders, policy makers, and voters are all responsible for that… but it’s a safe bet most Americans don’t even know we’ve had to do this, let alone understand the strategic significance of our do-overs. That is a measure of losing. It can’t be reversed by counting cards in a deck.

We will be in Iraq for 15 more years if we don’t address the troubling truth that less than 1% of our society has fought this war, year after year after year. They slept with their heads on the bag of a gas mask, wrote final letters home, and went into this war with the belief that you go to war to win.

They are still there.

Author: Marjorie K. Eastman, the 2017 National Independent Publisher Award-winning author of The Frontline Generation: How We Served Post 9/11, served 10 years in the Army Reserve, including two combat deployments. She received a Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge. Learn more at www.thefrontlinegeneration.com.