Soldiers at Play: The Surprising History of Games in War (P)

Throughout history, soldiers on the front lines have found unique ways to entertain themselves. Whether it was the Civil War, the World Wars, or Vietnam, these moments of play served as outlets for stress relief and camaraderie among troops. Today’s soldiers have technology to keep them entertained. Some may even play blackjack online in the trenches. Back in the day, in turn, they didn’t have the luxury of online games – but they had more than enough creative ways to kill time.

Civil War and the Quirky Lice Races

During the American Civil War, soldiers turned to rather unconventional forms of entertainment. One of them was lice racing. Yes, you read that correctly. Soldiers would race lice across tin plates, finding amusement in a scenario far removed from the battlefields.

This might sound bizarre to us now, but for the soldiers at the time, it was a creative way to pass the time and bond with their comrades.

World Wars: A Melting Pot of Games

Fast forward to the World Wars, and we see a melding of cultures and games among soldiers. The introduction of blackjack to American GIs during World War I marked a cross-cultural exchange of entertainment. Meanwhile, craps, a game that had gained popularity in the US, was introduced to Europe. Slot machines also saw a rise in use among American troops stationed overseas during World War II. And, at the same time, they generated significant revenue for military funds​.

‘Nam and the Ace of Spades

The Vietnam War introduced a darker element to the use of playing cards, with the Ace of Spades symbolizing death for the Viet Cong. American forces would place these cards on the bodies of fallen enemies in a grim ritual. This contrast to the recreational use of cards shows the roles gambling played throughout military history.

Beyond Gambling

Beyond gambling, soldiers engaged in physical activities and performances to stay entertained. Boxing matches allowed them to release tension in a controlled environment. These bouts sometimes became the highlight of their downtime. Football, both American and European, and even wrestling on mules, provided exercise and laughter. It was a welcome break from the monotony of military life.

Board games and card games were also popular among troops, serving as a way to challenge the mind and enjoy some strategic play. A game similar to the modern “Sorry,” developed during this time, was just one example of how soldiers whiled away the hours.

These activities, from the quirky to the competitive, underscore the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. They provided soldiers with a sense of normalcy, a way to connect, and a brief respite from the realities of war.

Just as we today might find relaxation in a game of blackjack online, soldiers have turned to games and entertainment to find comfort. And, of course, a momentary escape from the challenges of military life.

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