Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot     index     <prev     next>


"How come you ain't killed them yet? I want them dead."

--U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley ordering the killing of the inhabitants of the Vietnamese Village My Lai, March 15, 1968

Death's appearance as a reaper is a reminder that ultimately all life is harvested. The Tarot deck's frightening image of Death, wielding a scythe that has beheaded both pauper and king, emphasizes the impartial distribution of mortality. But in the Tarot journey, death is not the end. The Death card appears at a transitional point in the middle of the deck's major arcana. The Tarot death is irreversible but not final, symbolic of inevitable change and its lethal continuity.

Death's symbolic appearance here is theatrical. A costumed activist strolls past rows of college men who might be waiting like a field of wheat to be cut down and siloed in another season of war. Death's scythe is a sarcastic invitation to enlist in the Central Intelligence Agency, the nation's spectral espionage organization empowered to conduct subversive operations with permission to kill. And kill it did. CIA actions have included the overthrow of democratically elected governments, the assassination of popularly elected presidents, post-World War II collaborations with exiled German Nazis, strategic support for totalitarian regimes including Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, drug trafficking in Central America to raise extra-legal funding for Middle East terrorists, and pay-offs to Mafia crime figures to assassinate foreign heads of state. In 1961, the CIA persuaded a young President Kennedy to embark on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. At the time of this photograph, the CIA was deeply involved in Indochina, managing a secret war in Laos while torturing and murdering as many as 20,000 Vietnamese citizens. When it was created after World War II the CIA's mission was to fight communism. But as it evolved into the Cold War, the CIA became the equivalent of the Soviet Union's KGB, a clandestine spy net with little accountability and a secret multi-billion dollar budget to do real dirty work on a world stage of ever shifting alliances. It was work that had to be concealed. It would not be allowed otherwise.

When the bodies of American soldiers began returning from Vietnam in ever-larger numbers, anti-Vietnam protests escalated. Death in this war was not impartial. Most of those fighting in the Vietnam jungles were poorer Americans who had taken a military path to learn job skills or get money for an education. Those dying in Vietnam were disproportionately black. Those being killed by American soldiers were mostly impoverished rice farmers or, with increasing frequency, young boys enlisted by Vietcong rebels. When photographs surfaced of the My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers murdered some 400 men, women and children and mutilated their bodies, an investigation led to the conviction of company leader Lieutenant William Calley and exposed a pattern of American war atrocities.