Combat High – How Armies Throughout History Used Drugs to Make Soldiers Fight - MilitaryHistoryNow.com (2022)

Drugs and warfare have always gone hand in hand – from Homeric warriors drinking wine and taking opium to Wehrmacht troops popping methamphetamines.”

By Lukasz Kamienski

THE PHILOSOPHER Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that the history of narcotics is a study of culture itself. He may very well have been speaking about military culture.

Although largely neglected by military history scholarship, intoxicants have been an integral part of war for centuries.

Stimulants have long been known to enhance combat performance, keeping personnel awake, alert, and hence alive after prolonged periods of fatigue. Intoxicants also “take the edge off” war, enabling soldiers to cope with the traumas of the battlefield. Drinking and drugging rituals have even helped soldiers bond, which is crucial for group cohesion and morale. And since long periods of boredom are also a part of war, soldiers have often reached for intoxicants because they simply have had not much else to do.

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Drugs and warfare have always gone hand in hand – from Homeric warriors drinking wine and taking opium to Wehrmacht troops popping methamphetamines. The truth is, soldiers have been fighting while high for much of history. Consider the following examples.

Fortification

Alcohol is the oldest and likely most popular pharmacological motivator of fighting men. For centuries, rations of spirits inspired the so-called “Dutch courage” that propelled troops into battle. Of course, different nations had different drinks of choice. For the British it was rum. The Russians turned to vodka. Ancient Greeks, Romans and the modern French preferred wine. The Germans issued beer. Americans initially doledoutrum butsince the Civil War, it waswhiskey. The fact is that until the mid-20th century, wars were rarely fought sober.

Zulu Courage

The experience of fighting with fierce and alien enemy pumped up on drugs is hardlynew. When the British decided to subdue the Zulu tribes in 1879, they faced the ferocious foe who was seemingly immune to the modernrifle fire. What made the Zulus truly fearless warriors was not justtheir traditional belligerence but also their pharmacopoeia. Shamans provided spearmenwith various herbs, such as intelezi (a traditional plant taken in purifying rites to boost morale), medicated beer, dagga (the South African variety of cannabis which had a stimulating effect), a potent painkiller and hallucinogen produced from the “bushman poison bulb,” and probably also toadstool known as Amanita muscaria or “fly agaric.” Had the British in 1879 been familiar with the idea of zombies, they would have likely used the term to describe the Zulus who fearlessly charged them at Isandlwanda.

Mushrooms

While it’s unclear if Zulus had access toAmanita, the mushroom was certainly used regularly by warriors in Eurasia, particularly in the Siberian tribes of Chukchi, Kamchadals, and Koryaks. The main psychoactive component of the toadstool ismuscimol, which significantly enhancesa soldier’scombat performance. Interestingly, because the urine of its eater retains strong psychoactive properties, drinking it was also popular among the Siberian warriors. Legends say that the tribes that consumed Amanita muscaria produced fierce “mushroom warriors.” Strikingly, Soviet soldiers – probably from Siberia – were reportedly stoned on the mushroom at the Battle of Székesfehérvár in Hungary in 1945. They performed equally fearlessly.

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Blown Away

The First World War brought cocaine to the frontlines. The drug, which was first developed in the 1860s, was used by German and French pilots as a stimulant, as well as Canadian infantrymen. In fact, the drug was so popular among soldiers in Canada’s army stationed in the United Kingdom, it precipitated considerable moral panic among Britonsin 1915. The British army issued a medicine containing cocaine and an extract from cola nuts known as “Tabloid” or “Forced March.” It was said to encourage fearlessness and offset combat fatigue. Self-prescribed consumption was also widespread as cocaine proved an effective boosting aid in the trenches. London pharmacists sold medical kits containing cocaine and heroin. Girls happily bought the boxes, advertised as “useful presents for friends at the front” and eagerly sent them to their boys, fiancés, and husbands on the lines.

Getting Blitzed

If cocaine was the drug of choice between1914 and 1918, amphetamines would becomethe favoured stimulant during the Second World War. In fact, the conflict was largely fought on speed and from 1939 to 1945. And frontline soldiers were the greatest consumersof amphetamines.

It was the Nazis who pioneered wholesale and systematic military doping. Their pill of choice was Pervitin, an early version of crystal meth. It energized the body, increased alertness, combated fatigue and created strong feelings of confidence. In his book The Art of War the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu writes that “speed is the essence of war.” It was certainly the essence of Blitzkrieg, for which German forces were primed by chemical speed.

Between April and December 1939, the Temmler-Werke company supplied the German military with 29 million Pervitin “attack pills,” many of which were used experimentally during the campaign against Poland in September 1939. As the drug proved exceptionally useful, at the peak of the Blitzkrieg in the spring of 1940, troops were issued some 35 million tablets. The Wehrmacht’s amazingly rapid advances appear less incredible given that in some units many soldiers took up to four Pervitin pills a day. Overall, it is estimated that from 1939 to 1945 the German military consumed some 200 million meth pills.

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Britain, the U.S. and Japan followed suit, administering amphetamines to their troops. It’s estimated that British soldiers consumed around 72 million Benzedrine amphetamine tablets in World War Two. The drug was distributed largely to pilots, but also to infantrymen. For example, on Oct. 23, 1942 General Bernard Montgomery gave away some 100,000 pills to his Eighth Army before the Second Battle of El Alamein. The British high on speed managed to defeat the Germans, who were laced with meth. The role of uppers in the outcome of this battle remains, however, largely unexplored.

By 1942 Benzedrine tablets (popularly known as “bennies”) were added to emergency kits for American bomber crews and in 1943 the practice was extended to the infantry. About 15 percent of U.S. soldiers regularly took the stimulant. In fact, the Pentagon issued at least 250 million Benzedrine pills to the troops, yet the total number might be as high as 500 million. This huge range in estimates results from the fact that while we know the value of govern­ment contracts with Smith, Kline & French company, the producer of Benzedrine, the procurement price is unknown.

Self-Medicating

The Americans continued to boost their troops with amphetamine in the Korean War where the administration of dextroamphetamine became commonplace. The conflict also saw American servicemen stationed in Korea and Japan concocting their own speed balls – an injectable mixture of amphetamine and heroin. But it was the Vietnam War where the consumption of psychoactive substances by servicemen both prescribed by the authorities and self-prescribed by individual soldiers assumed alarming proportions. Authorized speed-popping was rampant. Between 1966 and 1969 the military issued 225 million dextroamphetamine tablets. According to the Pentagon, while in 1968 some 50 percent of American soldiers in Vietnam took drugs, in 1973, the year of the U.S. withdrawal, this jumped to 70 percent. Half of the servicemen doing drugs smoked marihuana, and nearly 30 percent took heroin and opium.

Modern-Day Meds

More recently, during the 1991 Gulf War, 58 percent of American pilots flew with dextroamphetamine support and 17 percent regularly popped “go pills,” as legal uppers are commonly referred to by the pilots themselves. Even today, combat pilots embarking on missions longer than eight hours (one-manned flights) or exceeding 12 hours (two-person crews) can each time, if all required procedures are met, obtain Dexedrine pills. Beginning in 2003, amphetamine uppers have been slowly replaced by a new generation psychostimulant, an eugoric called modafinil (Provigil). Officially, the U.S. military is the only armed force that allows for controlled pharmacology-assisted fatigue management. The policy is limited to pilots only.

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However, the Chinese army is reported to introduce its own smart drug. The anti-sleep pill, referred to in the West as “Night Eagle”, is said to enable soldiers to stay awake for up to 72 hours. And at Russian pharmacies there are plenty easily available medicines, which in the West are called nootropics and are banned in sports as doping. Some of these performance enhancers developed originally for astronauts were used by the Red Army during the Afghan War (1979–1989). Compounds such as Phenotropil, Metraprote, or Mildronate work similarly as dextroamphetamine and methamphetamine but without the same serotonin or dopamine side effects. Metraprote is probably still given to special forces or rapid response units in emergency situations.

For ISIL the substance of choice is Captagon, a powerful stimulant known as fenethylline metabolized in the body to form amphetamine and fenethyline. Invented in 1961, it has become a major recreational drug in the Middle East and more recently a favored stimulant in the Syrian civil war. For fighters, it promotes alertness, enhances strength, numbs fear and induces bravado. Jihadists have been reported to consume it pervasively, while also taking powerful opioid painkillers and hashish. “Some people take so much, if you shoot them, they won’t drop,” recalled one Muslim Brotherhood militant in Syria. Intoxicated jihadists are often compared to zombies. Fueled by Captagon, they continue fighting even when gravely wounded.

A similar experience was shared by U.S. Marines during the 2004 Battle of Fallujah. The Iraqi insurgents were so heavily doped up on amphetamines and cocaine that they continued fighting despite severe injuries. When the standard firing procedure to aim at the body failed, the Marines were ordered to refocus on head shots.

Łukasz Kamieński is Associate Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland and the author of Shooting Up. A Short History of Drugs and War (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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(Originally published on MilitaryHistoryNow.com onFeb 27, 2017)

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FAQs

What drug did they give soldiers in the war? ›

The Union Army requisitioned 5.3–10 million opium pills throughout the war, and a further 2.8 million ounces of opiate preparation (such as laudanum). Many veterans of the war had opiate addictions.

What drug do soldiers use to keep them awake? ›

The US military has stepped up research into Provigil since the 1990s. In one test, at the Aeromedical Research Laboratory in Alabama, helicopter pilots were given the drug after being kept awake for 40 hours. The drug sharpened their performance, especially between 3.30am and 11.30am, when tiredness is at its peak.

What drugs does the US military use? ›

In the United States military, modafinil has been approved for use on certain Air Force missions, and it is being investigated for other uses. As of November 2012, modafinil is the only drug approved by the Air Force as a "go pill" for fatigue management.

What drugs are illegal in the military? ›

Military personnel are not allowed to use anything that appears on the Drug Enforcement Administration's list of banned substances.
...
This includes:
  • Marijuana.
  • Spice.
  • Amphetamines.
  • Anabolic Steroids.
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids.
  • Other mood-altering substances.
Jul 31, 2018

What is the combat cocktail? ›

March 30, 20184:49 am. Some veterans have called it the “combat cocktail.” A combination of drugs prescribed to combat vets for a variety of conditions including PTS, anxiety, depression and pain.

What drugs did Vietnam soldiers take? ›

Almost half of all enlisted men in the Army serving in Vietnam had tried one of two opioids — heroin or opium — and 20% had become addicted while there. All had been in the country for one year, so their exposure to the drug-rich environment was essentially the same.

What did soldiers drink in Vietnam? ›

As for the local Vietnamese stuff, there was “Ba Moui Ba” – Biere “33”, which came in a bottle about the size of a US 12 oz., and tasted OK, most of the time. The other local beer was called “Tiger Beer”, but was actually named Biere Larue, and usually came in a one liter bottle.

Does the military use Adderall? ›

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he says, Ritalin and Adderall use by active-duty troops “increased by nearly 1,000 percent in five years, to 32,000 from 3,000.” According to Friedman, this rising use of anti-ADHD medication could be partly to blame for surging rates of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Are drugs used in war? ›

During war, soldiers may turn to drugs for a variety of reasons, including: To boost performance: Soldiers may use stimulants to remain alert and fight longer even when fatigued. For pain and injury: Morphine and opioids were frequently used to treat wounds and relieve pain after going to the battlefield.

Do people in the army do drugs? ›

Although illicit drug use is lower among U.S. military personnel than among civilians, heavy alcohol and tobacco use, and especially prescription drug abuse, are much more prevalent and are on the rise.

Does the military have a drug problem? ›

However, overall, illicit drug use among active duty personnel is relatively low2 and cigarette smoking and misuse of prescription drugs have decreased in recent years. In contrast, rates of binge drinking are high compared to the general population.

What percentage of veterans are addicted to drugs? ›

Currently, reports indicate that 5.4% of all military personnel are heavy drinkers while 1% across all branches are currently abusing illicit drugs. Approximately 4% of active-duty service members reported misusing one or more prescription drug types.

What drugs were used in World War 2? ›

It should be noted that Germans were not alone in their use of performance-enhancing drugs during World War II. Allied soldiers were known to use amphetamines (speed) in the form of Benzedrine in order to battle combat fatigue.

How many people get kicked out of the military for drugs? ›

Consider the following statistics: Since 1999, over 17,000 people have been discharged from the U.S. military because of drug use. The Navy has discharged more individuals because of drug use during that time (3,400) than any of the other branches of the armed services.

What cigarettes did they smoke in Vietnam? ›

Typical commercial brands issued in the cigarette rations in Vietnam were: Camel, Chesterfield, Kent, Kool, Lucky Strike, Marlboro, Pall Mall, Salem, or Winston. Due to health concerns, cigarettes were eliminated from the MCI accessory packs in 1975.

What were they smoking in Platoon? ›

A group of soldiers smoke Marijuana at their base camp. The methods of smoking are a pipe, a gas mask, a joint, and a Remington rifle. A group of soldiers drink beer, whiskey (referred to as "Kentucky Windage"), and Southern Comfort during a poker game. Soldiers smoke Marijuana from a pipe in their barracks.

Does the military use amphetamines? ›

Results of published reports indicate that amphetamines have use in sustained operations. During the Desert Shield/Desert Storm operation in 1990–91, some US Air Force crews were given low doses of amphetamines to take during extended combat air patrol operations, and some of this experience has been published.

What beer did US soldiers drink in Vietnam? ›

While the United States exported a variety of domestic beers to South Vietnam during the war, including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz and Budweiser, two local varieties — 33 Beer and Tiger Beer — were cheaper and always available if American brands could not be found.

What beer has formaldehyde? ›

sources, all american premium beer are laced with added formaldehyde, with the exception of miller's beer. this company produces beer with no additives or preservatives. as for most other beers,the brewers are a little secretive about their process except for german and dutch beer,they also do not add preservatives.

What beer did they drink in Vietnam? ›

Some of the familiar local brands of bottled/canned beer you may find in Vietnam are Saigon Red, Saigon Special, Hanoi Beer, 333, Huda, and Su Tu Trang (White Lion). Many people also prefer the taste of imported or international brands like Heineken, Tiger, Biere Larue, Budweiser, and Sapporo.

Can you be prescribed Xanax in the military? ›

(Nov. 29, 2012) -- On Nov. 15, the Department of Defense expanded military drug testing to include selected prescription drugs in the benzodiazepine class, which includes such familiar drugs as Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Restoril, plus 31 others.

What are military nootropics? ›

Smart drugs could lead to enhanced cognitive abilities in the military. Also known as nootropics, smart drugs can be viewed... Smart drugs could lead to enhanced cognitive abilities in the military. Also known as nootropics, smart drugs can be viewed similarly to medical enhancements.

What drug do fighter pilots take? ›

Amphetamines, a prescription drug, are known on the street as uppers or speed. Yet, a 20/20 investigation has found, the amphetamines, the speed pills, are now standard issue to U.S. Air Force combat pilots, to help them stay awake on long combat sorties.

Can you smoke in the army? ›

According to Army Regulation 600-63 (Personnel—General Army Health Promotion), tobacco use is prohibited in all Department of the Army-occupied workplaces, except for designated smoking areas.

Did soldiers in ww2 use morphine? ›

Throughout World War II, the U.S. military issued soldiers medical kits to treat their wounds in combat. Each kit included morphine syrettes that allowed the wounded to self-administer narcotics before medics could arrive on the scene.

What alcohol did ww1 soldiers drink? ›

Soldiers were sometimes issued beer, cider, or brandy in lieu of Pinard, but it remained the most common alcoholic drink consumed at the front. On special occasions, other drinks like spiced wine or sparkling wine would be issued.

Do Marines drink a lot? ›

A lot of cases Marines drink four to five times the normal intake of alcohol recommended. It isn't always the Marines health that is the biggest concern. When a Marine drinks alcohol irresponsibly, often it affects other Marines surrounding the abuser and causes problems for the command.

Why do military members drink so much? ›

Military personnel report that drinking often is used to cope with stress, boredom, loneliness, and the lack of other recreational activities. The easy availability of alcohol and drinking opportunities also contributes to alcohol use in this population.

Can you join the Army if you've done drugs? ›

The Military Screening Process

If you have been physically or psychologically dependent on drugs or alcohol, then you may not be eligible to join. If you have experimented with drugs but were not dependent, you may still be eligible. The military does not accept those who have sold or trafficked in drugs in the past.

What happens if you get caught doing drugs in the military? ›

Drug abuse may be considered a form of officer misconduct and therefore may result in an administrative discharge, but a service member may also face court-martial. In some cases a court-martial acquittal may be followed by misconduct discharge proceedings.

What drugs did Vietnam soldiers take? ›

Almost half of all enlisted men in the Army serving in Vietnam had tried one of two opioids — heroin or opium — and 20% had become addicted while there. All had been in the country for one year, so their exposure to the drug-rich environment was essentially the same.

Who invented Pervitin? ›

Developed by the Temmler pharmaceutical company, based in Berlin, Pervitin was introduced in 1938 and marketed as a magic pill for alertness and an anti-depressive, among other uses. It was briefly even available over the counter.

What malaria drugs were given to soldiers in Vietnam? ›

New antimalarial drugs called chloroquine and primaquine were developed during the World War II research program and given to U.S. troops in Korea and Vietnam.

What alcohol did ww1 soldiers drink? ›

Soldiers were sometimes issued beer, cider, or brandy in lieu of Pinard, but it remained the most common alcoholic drink consumed at the front. On special occasions, other drinks like spiced wine or sparkling wine would be issued.

What cigarettes did they smoke in Vietnam? ›

Typical commercial brands issued in the cigarette rations in Vietnam were: Camel, Chesterfield, Kent, Kool, Lucky Strike, Marlboro, Pall Mall, Salem, or Winston. Due to health concerns, cigarettes were eliminated from the MCI accessory packs in 1975.

What did soldiers drink in Vietnam? ›

As for the local Vietnamese stuff, there was “Ba Moui Ba” – Biere “33”, which came in a bottle about the size of a US 12 oz., and tasted OK, most of the time. The other local beer was called “Tiger Beer”, but was actually named Biere Larue, and usually came in a one liter bottle.

Does the military use Adderall? ›

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he says, Ritalin and Adderall use by active-duty troops “increased by nearly 1,000 percent in five years, to 32,000 from 3,000.” According to Friedman, this rising use of anti-ADHD medication could be partly to blame for surging rates of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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