Small Wars Journal


Fri, 10/22/2021 - 12:47am

War and Drugs: A Toxic Relationship

By Cesar Pintado


War has a long history of intimate association with drugs and alcohol. They have often served to prepare for combat, as a cultural bond, and to cope with the physical and psychological hardships of service. The nature and impact of these substances reveal changes and continuities as medical innovation has brought new possibilities[i]. Human nature, however, offers less novelty and it is easy to recognize patterns from the earliest known cases.

To begin with, a distinction must be made between "official" substances, prescribed and distributed by the military authorities, and those "self-prescribed" by the combatants themselves. There is not much literature on the subject, but recent works such as Lukasz Kamienski's Drugs in War analyze in- depth the whole spectrum of the alteration of consciousness for war purposes, from the distribution of wine to cheer up the troops to the American plans to spray Soviet troops with LSD.

The author highlights the use of alcohol, used as an anesthetic, stimulant, relaxant, and strengthener. The British Empire cannot be understood without rum, which was given to sailors and soldiers, nor the Russian army without vodka. In Chechnya, soldiers even exchanged armored vehicles for cases of vodka to better withstand the rigors of campaign life.

His book follows the use of alcohol and drugs chronologically, up to the current wars, with ISIS on captagon (fenethylline) and the Americans using the new generation psychostimulant modafinil, which is very effective in combating fatigue and sleep deprivation[ii].

Free access was available until well into the 20th century for many now banned substances prolonged the addiction that many soldiers brought from their service


In general, the use of certain substances by combatants is as old as combat itself and depends on their cultural conditioning factors and (obviously) on the substances available. In Ancient Greece, soldiers were enervated with opium and wine; Hannibal's armies used mandrake (atropine) in their war against the African tribes; the Siberian tribes and the Vikings used hallucinogenic mushrooms (mainly amanita muscaria) profusely; Inca warriors consumed coke leaf; African warriors used a wide variety of drugs, ranging from kola nut to hashish; in Asia, opium was used by both local warriors and Europeans. In the 19th century, the use of morphine was already common in conflicts in Europe and North America, but it was the 20th century with its improved pharmacology that brought modern drugs.

Without a doubt, World War I was the war of cocaine, which could be bought in most pharmacies. The product synthesized from the old coca leaf was distributed to British, German, Australian,[A1]  and Canadian troops to increase their performance.

World War II brought methamphetamine (mainly under the name of Pervitin) and amphetamine (benzedrine), while continuing to use all of the above[iii]. In the Winter War between Finland and the USSR, the distribution of pharmaceuticals to the troops reached almost unbelievable extremes. In December 1940, Finnish military pharmacies stocked 117,500 5 mg heroin tablets, 469,500 1 mg morphine tablets, 917 kg of opium and 351 kg of morphine[iv]. Although Nazi Germany was the first to investigate the military use of amphetamines in 1938, throughout the conflict, Great Britain, the United States, Japan and Finland authorized the distribution of speed among their military[v].

Korea was the scene of extensive speed use, like other Cold War conflicts. But it was Vietnam that became known as the first pharmacological war because of the unprecedented use of both legal and illegal substances. Perhaps the most striking thing was not that many demoralized soldiers got hooked on drugs that were more affordable and accessible than at home. It is that much of the addiction was caused by the official supply. Since World War II, not much research had been done on the effect of amphetamines on troop performance, so the US military commanders supplied speed profusely. This was especially true for units on long reconnaissance missions. It was common to exceed the established doses (about 20 mg of dextroamphetamine for 48-hour combat missions); and the amphetamines were handed out, in the words of one veteran, "like candies".

In 1971, a report by the Congressional Crime Committee revealed that between 1966 and 1969, the U.S. military had used 225 million stimulant pills, primarily Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), an amphetamine derivative almost twice as strong as the Benzedrine used in World War II. Soldiers infiltrating Laos on four-day missions were given a medical packet that included 12 pills of Darvon (a mild painkiller), 24 of codeine (an opioid painkiller) and 6 of Dexedrine. They were also injected with steroids.

Those psychoactive substances not only sought to improve combat capabilities, but also to reduce the mental damage caused by stress. For the first time in military history, potent antipsychotics such as chlorpromazine (manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline as Thorazine) were routinely prescribed. The massive use of this new psychopharmacology and the numerous deployment of psychologists go some way toward explaining the low rate of combat trauma recorded in operations. While the percentage of mental breakdowns in World War II had been 10%, in Vietnam it was 1.2; this was a misleading result. Narcotics and anti-psychotics only relieved symptoms and, taken without proper therapy, delayed a problem already installed in the psyche. A problem that can flare up later with worse consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The number of U.S. Vietnam veterans affected by PTSD is impossible to know exactly, but the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study published in 1990 found that 15.2% of combatants suffered from PTSD[vi].

The research revealed that among the military, the percentage of regular amphetamine users increased from 3.2% upon arrival in Vietnam to 5.2% at the end of their service.

In the Gulf War, many U.S. military personnel took unapproved drugs as protection against Iraqi biological and chemical agents. Congress claimed that they could be ordered to take them only on the direct order of the president or if the president declared a national emergency[vii]. The medical consequences among veterans extend to this day.