Written By: Zarrar Khuhro
On a battlefield in the not-so-distant future, a soldier huddles in a makeshift foxhole, flinching as artillery rounds impact around him. Enemy drones hover overhead, scanning for him and his comrades as he lies motionless, hoping that his stealth gear will fool the drones’ sensors. Exhaustion makes his eyelids feel like lead, his limbs ache and hunger gnaws at him–eating through the last of his adrenaline. Moving carefully he removes a patch from his knapsack and applies it to his bare skin. Within seconds a cocktail of drugs and stimulants pass through his skin into his bloodstream; his heart beats faster, his pupils dilate and the hunger, the fear and the exhaustion are swept away by a chemical tide.
This isn’t science-fiction, but a scenario that is the likely and logical outcome of centuries of warfare and advances in the chemical sciences; an answer to the age-old question: How do we motivate ordinary men to overcome their instinct for self-preservation and put themselves in harm’s way? When this question was put to Napoleon he replied: ‘A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.’
Certainly, this is true. But even the most motivated soldiers still fall prey to common human needs and frailties: they succumb to hunger, to fear, to moral qualms and also the eternal enemies: fatigue and boredom. While some of these can be overcome with training and effective logistics, soldiers throughout the ages have also turned to other means to boost their courage and effectiveness: namely drugs and alcohol.
The ancient Greeks of the Homeric age routinely went into battle intoxicated on wine, a tradition that continued in European armies until quite recently. Take the term “Dutch Courage’: coined during the conflicts between England and the Netherlands in the 18th century, it refers to the propensity of Dutch sailors to consume large amounts of gin, something the English attributed their fearlessness to. The British chose rum, while the Russians opted for vodka. During the American Civil War, rum was an important part of the soldiers’ kit, and was later replaced by whiskey. In fact, up until the mid 20th century few wars waged by Western armies were fought sober.
‘From the fury of the Norsemen, oh lord… deliver us’–Ancient English prayer
The history of drugs (alcohol will be classified as a drug for the purpose of this article) and warfare, however, stretches even further back. Inca warriors in South America routinely chewed coca leaves (the main ingredient of cocaine) to ward off altitude sickness, hunger and sleep. In the 9th century, the feared Viking berserkers–known for entering battle in a state of madness, impervious to wounds that would cripple an ordinary man–would consume the Amanita mushroom, a psychedelic mushroom containing bufotenine, which has been known to cause hallucinations and psychophysiological effects similar to those described in Norse sagas about the Berserkers. How feared were these warriors? The Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241 AD) wrote this description: “His (Odin's) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves.”
In this part of the world, the Rajput warriors were also reported to consume opium before battles, often sharing it with their horses as well.
Francois Bernier, a French traveler who visited India in 1656 AD and wrote a book titled "Travels in the Mogul Empire" relates:
".....From an early age they (Rajputs) are accustomed to the use of opium, and I have some times been astonished to see the large quantity they swallow. On the day of battle they never fail to double the dose, and this drug so animates, or rather inebriates them, that they rush into the thickest of the combat insensible of danger."
A contemporary Indian commander, Sirsubha Sakharm Martand, also relates that:
“My long connection with and intimate knowledge of the State army enables me to say unhesitatingly that a moderate dose of opium is an unmixed good to the consumers. Opium eating does not necessarily lead to immorality or crime. It gives staying power under great exertions such as long marches and hunting excursions. As compared with alcohol drinkers, I found opium consumers to be steady, quiet, reliable, and obedient soldiers. In my time I found 40 to 50 percent using opium in the State army.”
Also the General in command of the Indian state army in Indore, Balmukund Gayadeen, said:
“Opium is eaten as well as drunk in the army. The percentage of consumers in my opinion is 50. A moderate use of opium is known not to tell against the physique of soldiers. Opium-eaters are sober, quiet, obedient, enterprising, and attentive to their duties. They can stand hard marches under the influence of the drug. If the use of opium is accompanied by the use of milk, sweetmeat, or any substantial food as is usually the case, it is not only harmless but positively beneficial. It staves off hunger, and keeps the user from the effects of exposure to cold or heat. Opium is also useful to animals and makes them capable of undergoing hard work and long journeys.”
In short, opium was a crucial component of the contemporary Indian war machine.
Out of Africa
There are similar tales from every part of the world. Take the Zulu warriors of what is now South Africa. With their modern weaponry and strict discipline, the world-conquering British felt the half-naked Zulus, armed with primitive shields and assegai (a short spear) would be easily defeated despite their numbers. After all, the British had faced such foes countless times in countless lands. Instead, at the battle of Isandlwana in 1879 the Zulus dealt the British a rare defeat. There were many factors at play, of course, but the Zulus had one thing the British did not: shamans who had fortified them with a potent mixture of war drugs. The warriors were first given a form of powdered cannabis providing a sense of well-being and euphoria. Second, they were given an extract from a bulb called Boophane disticha, which is closely related to morphine and codeine. While mildly hallucinogenic, it is also an effective pain killer. Tales from the battle itself relate how Zulu warriors advanced despite being shot several times–something that can be attributed to their use of this extract. Finally came a psychedelic mushroom containing a toxin called muscimol, which in limited doses has the effect of sharpening the senses and increasing one’s ability to focus. No wonder then that the superior arms and tactics of the British did not avail them against the Zulu tide.
The Chemical Blitz
Now we come to the modern era and the dawn of the chemical revolution. In the early years, around the beginning of the 20th century, little was known about the negative long-term side effects of commercially produced morphine, opiates and–most crucially–methamphetamines. Of these latter drugs, a methamphetamine called pervitin was to play a crucial (and under-acknowledged) role in the success of the German Wehrmacht in WW2, something that is detailed at length by German author Norman Ohler in his book “The Total Rush.”
Patented by German pharmaceutical company Temmler in 1937 and aided by a slick marketing campaign, Pervitin became the stimulant of choice for Nazi Germany. And when war broke out, the German army quickly realized its benefits. During the invasion of Poland in the Nazis in 1939, one German soldier reported: “Everyone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. Slight euphoria and increased thirst for action. Mental encouragement, very stimulated. No accidents. Long-lasting effect. After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors,”
Another report read: “The feeling of hunger subsides. One particularly beneficial aspect is the appearance of a vigorous urge to work. The effect is so clear that it cannot be based on imagination.”
With Pervitin, the trauma of the front was lessened: hunger faded, fear subsided, courage increased.
“The German army was trying to win the battle against sleep,” Ohler relates. “It’s why they used methamphetamines.”
“At the beginning, it worked wonders in the attack on Poland and the Western Campaign against France and Great Britain, you can see exactly how methamphetamine was used.”
There were consequences, of course. With the Nazis shipping 35 million units of Pervitin and similar drugs to army and air force troops in April and May 1940 alone, addiction became an issue and letters show soldiers writing home, begging for more Pervitin. From generals to footsoldiers, all needed their fix. For the Luftwaffe they were called ‘stuka tablets’ and for the tank divisions they were dubbed ‘Panzer chocolate.’
Reports of negative health effects and addiction were ignored by the high command for a simple reason: Pervitin worked.
In January 1942, in the frozen hell of the Eastern front, a group of 500 Germans surrounded by the Red Army were attempting to escape in minus 30 degree weather. A military doctor assigned to the unit wrote: "More and more soldiers were so exhausted that they were beginning to simply lie down in the snow." The command to take Pervitin was given and "After half an hour," the doctor wrote, "the men began spontaneously reporting that they felt better. They began marching in orderly fashion again, their spirits improved, and they became more alert."
For King and Country
This did not escape the notice of the Allied forces, and the U.S. and Britain also began their own stimulant program with the UK opting for the amphetamine Benzedrine.
An article on the topic puts it thus: “Roland Winfield of the Royal Air Force was studying the effects of Benzedrine on long-range Bomber Command missions when the bomber pilot he was observing suddenly plunged his aircraft below the cover of clouds, into heavy anti-aircraft fire, in order to “press home the attack.” The pilot scored a direct hit. Winfield recommended Benzedrine for every RAF mission, for the ‘determination’ and ‘aggression’ that it imparted. By early 1942, Smith, Kline and French was supplying large quantities of Benzedrine to the RAF. Likewise, a British war memorandum in 1943 titled A Guide to the Preservation of Life at Sea after Shipwreck suggested that shipwrecked sailors use Benzedrine to “lessen feelings of fatigue and exhaustion, promote alertness, raise the spirits, and prolong the will to ‘hang on and live’.” That same year the Army Supply Service provided commanders with packets of six Benzedrine ‘pep pills’ for each of their soldiers. U.S. marines relied on Benzedrine during the invasion of Tarawa in November 1943, and paratroopers used the stimulant during the rigorous D-Day landings in June 1944.”
Pilots of the Royal Air force dubbed these the ‘wakey-wakey’ pills, and they quickly became a staple for exhausted pilots in particular.
The Rising Sun
The Japanese however, took it to another level. While the German army’s adoption of Pervitin came from the bottom up–the public was already hooked onto it–the Japanese empire mandated its use by decree. Using a methamphetamine dubbed Philopon (translated as ‘love for work’), they supplied it to factory workers–who could then work longer hours with less food, and to all arms of the military. A particularly potent dose was reportedly added to the last cup of sake (rice wine) that the famed kamikaze pilots would ceremonially imbibe before their suicide missions.
While there is no hard evidence for this, the emotion-numbing effects of these drugs possibly also played a role in the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. Additionally, as with Germany and to a lesser extent England, Japan also faced the consequences in the shape of a post-war addiction epidemic.
Good Morning Vietnam!
Lukasz Kamienski, author of Shooting Up: a History of Drugs in Warfare, calls Vietnam "the first pharmacological war". Given what we have discussed about WW2 earlier this may seem like a stretch but then consider this: in all of WW2, about 200 million amphetamine tablets were given to Nazi troops. In Vietnam, U.S. soldiers consumed 225 million tablets. The drug of choice was the amphetamine Dexedrine, and while the recommended dosage as ordained by the U.S. military was 20 milligrams of dextroamphetamine for 48 hours of combat readiness, these ‘pep pills’ were consumed, as one veteran put it, ‘like candies’.
One U.S. commando describes the effects thus: “[they] gave you a sense of bravado as well as keeping you awake. Every sight and sound was heightened. You were wired into it all and at times you felt really invulnerable.” But aphemtamines increase not just alertness but aggression as well–and when the effects started to wear off, some veterans said it made them so angry “that they felt like shooting children in the streets”. In some cases, that’s exactly what they did.
Dexedrine was one drug, but not the only one. Codeine and the anti-psychotic thorazine were also handed out, and the latter played a role in lowering the rates of combat trauma among U.S. soldiers. In WW2 the rate of mental breakdowns among American soldiers was 10 percent. In the Korean war it was 4 percent, but in Vietnam it fell to 1 percent.
Again, as always, the war does come home eventually and while drugs may have insulated the soldier on the battlefield, they made the transition to civilian life that much harder. The post-war issues that Vietnam vets faced can at least partially be attributed to the hard crash after the high–the consequences of addiction and withdrawal.
That’s exactly what happened in Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Army veteran Tyson Manker says: “In 2003 my Marine Corps infantry platoon helped lead the invasion of Iraq, and during that time we were fed a constant supply of pharamaceuticals without a prescription or any real oversight. Our platoon corpsmen, both enlisted navy medics, were tasked with the responsibility of doling out the drugs. Like good Marines we followed orders and took them, often standing in line, even though we weren’t really sure what we were taking. My offical records show that in addition to daily doses of Amphetamine, we were given Mefloquine, an anti-malaria drug, and Ciprofloxacin, a powerful antibiotic. This came after being injected with smallpox, anthrax, typhoid, and meningococcal vaccines.”
Remember ‘Gulf war syndrome’, the mysterious ailment that afflicted so many U.S. veterans of that conflict? Many experts speculate that it was caused by the cocktail of drugs given to soldiers. The U.S. military first denied its existence, then tried to downplay it, and only reluctantly recognized its existence due to pressure from veterans.
Regardless, the U.S. military has continued with the policy of drugging its soldiers. Under U.S. law, “The U.S. military can force troops to take drugs without their informed consent when the President determines that ‘obtaining consent is not in the interests of national security’.”
On April 17, 2002 an American F-16 fighter jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on Canadian soldiers, who were conducting a night firing exercise at Tarnak Farms, killing four and injuring many others. As this was not an Afghan wedding party, an inquiry was held during which the pilot claimed that he had been flying missions non-stop and had been pressurized into taking dextroamphetamine known to the troops as "go pills," and that he was under the influence when the incident occurred. GlaxoSmithKline, which makes dexedrine, warns that the drug "may impair the patient's ability to engage in potentially hazardous activity such as operating machines and vehicles and that patients should be cautioned accordingly," The pilot claims no such warning was given to him. He lost the case and the USAF refused to comment on his allegations.
However, former Department of Defence psychologist Bart Billings confirms: “We have never medicated our troops to the extent we are doing now…. And I don’t believe the current increase in suicides and homicides in the military is a coincidence.”
Low-intensity… High Dosage
No longer is the use of such drugs confined to formal militaries, as their use in low-intensity conflicts is also on record.
The Ugandan LRA (lord’s resistance army) and Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front are both known for their use of child soldiers plied with drugs. These include amphetamines, crack cocaine, palm wine, brown-brown (cocaine mixed with gun powder), marijuana and tranquilizers. Children who refuse to take these are beaten and even executed. One rehabilitation camp director said that recruits “would do just about anything that was ordered” when they were on drugs.
What the future holds is unknown, but advances in medical, neural and genetic science mean that the war drugs of the future will most likely be unlike anything we have seen before. The United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a research unit called the Peak Soldier Performance Programme, which aims to devise a ‘biochemical approach’ that would allow a soldier to operate in theatre for up to five days without requiring sustenance. Work is being done on temporary memory blockers that could not only literally help soldiers ‘forget’ their trauma but can also be used to erase classified information from one’s mind in case of capture by the enemy.
At What Cost?
But all this has come at a great cost. Not only does the reliance on drugs greatly compromise the moral integrity of fighters–causing them to make grave errors of judgement or even engage in committing atrocities–it has devastating consequences that continue long after the conflict has ended. The war comes home in many ways: in the form of mass drug addiction such as what we saw in post-WW2 Germany and Japan, which in turn gives rise to an entire underground economy catering to supplying illegal drugs with all the criminal violence that entails. New advances in these fields may have deadlier consequences as designer drugs that make soldiers more open to suggestion and indoctrination can also be used to create an army of virtual zombies, insulated from conscience and morals by a chemical tide designed to numb the senses. In the final analysis it would be best to speak to the soul in order to motivate soldiers and not rely–as so many Western armies in particular have done–on numbing the senses.
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV Channel.