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BRYANT JORDAN

A dangerous deck of cards

IT BEGAN WITH the Pentagon's novel way of identifying the Iraqi leadership that it continues to hunt down. The 55-card "Deck of Death" quickly became a "must-have" item, and it very quickly became available for commercial sale, proving -- like Gulf War I's Humvee-turned-Hummer before it -- that war, once you get past the death and destruction thing, can generate really cool profit-making ideas.

Shortly after the "Deck of Death" made its debut, journalist Christopher Ruddy created and marketed through his website a "Deck of Weasels," targeting war critics in Congress, Hollywood, and the media. Next came "America's Most Unwanted," another photo gallery of antiwar politicians and celebrities.

Seeing a card gap, those who opposed the war in Iraq and those supportive of the administration hit the decks. "The Deck of Republican Chickenhawks," which highlights the almost uniform lack of military experience by top administration officials, and "Operation: Hidden Agenda," which uses the face cards to question the motives for the war, hit the commercial arena.

Suddenly, Charles Lamb's observation that "cards are war in disguise of a sport" seemed downright prophetic, with this latest byproduct of diplomacy by other means bringing new meaning to the old children's card game, War.

You can view these decks as clever or silly -- and doubtless which decks you consider clever and which silly will depend on your politics. Still, notwithstanding the computer-added French berets and court-jester caps on politicians and celebs in the "Weasels" deck, none of the cards are nearly as well-designed as Digimon cards. But, doubtless they sell. Because they're novel, some people might buy them as collectors' items, though it's not likely they'll ever be pitched against the stoop in my old neighborhood.

Most people probably will dismiss them. But one deck, "America's Most Unwanted," is different -- it's dangerous. Like the "Weasels" deck, it uses public domain photos of its antiwar targets, usually photos depicting politicians, Hollywood stars, or media types at their worst.

The difference is that the "Unwanted" deck is the creation of two active-duty Marine officers, and what's dangerous is that the Marine Corps is winking at their sale and distribution.

According to a Marine spokesman, the Corps' Judge Advocate General reviewed the matter and determined that "the actions of the individuals did not require any further action."

Basically, this means that the two officers have the Corps' blessing to hold up to public ridicule and scorn members of Congress who are opposed to the war in Iraq. Now, members of Congress hold themselves up to ridicule and scorn almost every day. Regardless, when the Marine Corps turns a blind eye to members of its officer corps publicly disrespecting congressmen over their views on the war, it has entered politics.

If the Marine Corps doesn't see it this way, it should wait until some of its officers market a deck that holds the administration up to the same kind of ridicule.

Doubtless, some who will say the Uniformed Code of Military Justice bars service members only from targeting the president, vice president, service secretaries, and "Congress as a whole" from this kind of ridicule, and that showing scorn for individual congressmen is OK. But even if the code is that narrow, allowing it to be so applied carries grave risks.

If publicizing your politics is going to be permitted among uniformed service members, is it only going to be permitted by those on one side of the political spectrum?

If yes, then get ready for charges that the military belongs to a single political party. If not, and the "other" side also is allowed to put its partisan cards on the table, expect political divisions that run contrary to good order and discipline to be seen and heard in the ranks and on the job.

The Corps spokesman said that the Judge Advocate General officers, when looking at the "Unwanted" cards question, didn't consider what they would do if Marines began peddling an antiwar deck. That is pretty shortsighted. And it's absurd to think that Judge Advocate General officers would look the other way at a deck of cards ridiculing President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others.

The fact is -- or hopefully would be -- that Judge Advocate General officers would land on that deck faster and harder than the president did coming down on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in May. And the enterprising Marines who dealt the cards would find themselves out of the game very quickly.

And that's how the officers should have handled "America's Most Unwanted."

Bryant Jordan is the deputy news editor for the Marine Corps Times in Springfield, Va.

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