Book review: Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare


Book review: Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare

Lukasz Kamienski,

Hurst & Co, London, £25 HB

READING this revelatory book has convinced me that Napoleon’s dictum about armies marching on their stomachs requires a modern day coda: and fight with the aid of a cornucopia of psychoactive substances.

Throughout history soldiers have resorted to a variety of analgesics, intoxicants, stimulants, and hallucinogens to make war endurable.

Sometimes the drug-taking was unofficial but more often it was a deliberate policy implemented by the military hierarchy.

In Napoleon’s day, the drugs of choice for his troops were cognac and hashish, a habit they picked up in Egypt and then took back to France.

But by the time of the First World War the French had switched to wine and alcohol remains highly popular in most armies.

During the American Civil War opium and morphine were doled out liberally to combatants to the extent that, after the war, “the soldiers’ disease” became a synonym for a devastating epidemic of drug addiction in the United States.

Indeed, soldiers were often pioneers in experimenting with psychoactive drugs, introducing practices that then spread to their societies.

Drug-taking by the military fostered the levels of addiction that led to the so-called “war on drugs” — a concept introduced by US President Richard Nixon in response to heroin abuse among troops returning home from Vietnam.

Cocaine was the dominant drug in the First World War, used to improve combat efficiency as well as to alleviate pain.

British troops in the trenches were sometimes dosed with rum and cocaine tablets before ‘going over the top’, and Australian soldiers in Gallipoli were also administered significant amounts of the drug before an attack.

A cocaine factory in neutral Netherlands made a fortune from processing thousands of tons of coca leaves imported from the Dutch East Indies which it then sold to the conveniently located armies opposing each other in the trenches.

The Second World War was prosecuted by military personnel high on amphetamines which have emotional and cognitive effects such as euphoria and increased wakefulness.

Market-leaders were the Americans, who used Benzedrine and other “speed”-like stimulants to encourage fearlessness and to offset combat fatigue.

Tens of millions of pep pills were dispensed to US troops, a practice that continued through the wars in Korea and Vietnam and, more recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Japan civilians were given ‘speed’ to boost their productivity.

In the early years of the Second World War the German Blitzkrieg was powered by Pervitin, an early version of crystal meth, which creates a false sense of well-being and strong feelings of confidence, as well as hyperactivity, energy and decreased appetite.

The Red Army of that time restricted itself to vodka and valerian (a sedative herb) but during the 1980s Afghanistan war opium and heroin consumption were rampant among Soviet soldiers. In Vietnam 10-15% of US troops were addicted to heroin.

But the most disturbing finding of this book is the extent to which terrorists and irregular armies are fuelled by drugs.

During the occupation of Iraq, American marines found caches of amphetamines and cocaine together with piles of syringes in the houses of insurgents.

The Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai’s hotels in 2008, killing more than 100 civilians, were heavily intoxicated with steroids, cocaine and LSD.

ISIS in Syria and Iraq is an army of junkie jihadists who commit horrific atrocities high on Captagon, another amphetamine-style drug. In the irregular armies across the world, drugging child soldiers is commonplace.

The extent of military drug usage is shocking to modern sensibilities because such substances are now illegal and deemed dangerous to mind and body.

Yet most of those drugs were legal as well as socially and medically acceptable until relatively recently.

In the 19th century, opium was used to treat a variety of medical conditions such as asthma, depression, dysentery, headaches, haemorrhoids, menstrual pain and rheumatism.

Cocaine was not effectively banned until after the First World War and amphetamines and hallucinogens were legal in many countries until the 1960s and 1970s.

In surveying this panorama of pharmacological-based warfare Kamienski avoids indulging in absolutist moral judgements.

Sometimes drugs do help warriors to cope with the demands and traumas of war.

Amphetamines can be effective in keeping personnel awake and alert and hence alive.

Marijuana can provide relief from the extremes of stress and boredom that characterises military life.

Moderate use of opium may enhance combat effectiveness.

The fearsome fighting power of Zulu warriors was based on pre-battle ingestion of analgesics.

And while cocaine and heroin are highly damaging drugs so too are the psychotropic drugs commonly prescribed by front-line medics to deal with combat trauma.

These sedatives and antidepressants are designed to suppress emotions and anxieties.

But when recipients return home the suppressions are released in an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Happily, ecstasy — the rave culture’s drug of choice — has provided effective relief from PTSD for many veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The diverse ways drugs have been used as weapons of war constitutes another thread of Kamienski’s story.

The British waged opium wars with China in the 19th century to keep the drug trade open and encouraged Chinese soldiers’ addiction because it undermined their military effectiveness.

To facilitate Soviet soldiers’ addictions the CIA is said to have flooded Afghanistan with illicit drugs seized by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the United States.

Kamienski claims, that to weaken the United States, Fidel Castro supported producers and smugglers of drugs and even entered an alliance with Colombian drug cartels, turning a blind eye to the transit of their contraband through Cuban waters.

During the Cold War the Americans funded programmes to develop pyschochemical weapons that would incapacitate rather than kill the enemy.

A favourite in these experiments was the hallucinogen LSD and the even more powerful BZ — “Agent Buzz” — to be dispersed in gas or liquid form to disorient opposing troops.

The proponents of psychochemical warfare argued that such nonlethal violence was a more humane form of combat.

The problem was that these new weapons were tested on thousands of unwitting civilians and military personnel.

Another panacea sought by the military was a truth serum based on a mixture of hallucinogens and barbiturates that would aid interrogation of the enemy.

Currently favoured by the military are a new generation of pyschostimulants called “eugerics” — arousal drugs with no nasty side effects.

According to Kamienski drugs such as Modafinal work reasonably well to enhance performance and are viewed by the American military as wonder pills.

There has also been progress in developing drugs that induce recuperative sleep between combat missions. It will be interesting to see how these will spill over to the civilian sphere.

The historical sociologist Charles Tilly wrote that “war made the state and the state made war”.

Echoing this emphasis on the close connection between warfare and the development of modern states, Kamienski argues: “Drugs shaped warfare, while warfare shaped the society, often by spreading and popularising intoxicants.”

We live in an age of intoxication but, paradoxically, the governments that supplied military personnel with drugs banned the general public from consuming them.

Increasingly, governments have tried to keep military drug-taking a secret and find it difficult to cope with the outcry when it becomes public.

War is the greatest intoxicant of all, concludes Kamienski — an exhilarating experience whose unpleasant aspects are ameliorated by pharmaceuticals.

Kamienski’s book is the first comprehensive history of drugs in combat and sometimes he overreaches to make claims based on dubious sources.

We should remember that, like all forms of warfare, the deployment of pharmaceutical agents can be the object of disinformation and black propaganda. But mostly he is quite discerning and the book is sure to become a classic.

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