On Drugs

Nazis on meth, army vets on ecstasy: how drugs shape warfare

From berzerkers on mushrooms, to Nazis on meth and Iraq vets on ecstasy, armies and soldiers have used drugs to fight, cope with and recover from war since ancient times.
During WWII, Nazi soldiers were given Pervitin tablets, or methamphetamine, during battle. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Since ancient times, soldiers and armies have used drugs to help them fight. This can be as simple as a shot of courage, to embolden warriors for a charge into combat, or the systemic use of stimulants to keep whole armies marching.

Norse mythology describes the exploits of the so-called berzerkers — ferocious warriors who went into battle clad in animal skins. In the legends, berzerkers fought fearlessly in a frenzied state, and they achieved that state through some kind of animistic force derived from the skins.

But some historians now believe the berzerkers actually existed and that their frenzy was the result of chemical enhancement. There's some evidence to suggest they were actually under the influence of a hallucinogenic mushroom, amanita muscaria.

In modern times, armies have harnessed the power of drugs in a more systematic way.

Norman Ohler documents the ways the drugs drove the German Army during World War II, in his book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich.

German soldiers during the early part of WWII were known to use Pervitin, a form of methamphetamine. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Ohler argues that some of the German army's early triumphs — victories that would shape the course of the war — were thanks in part to the use of an over-the-counter form of methamphetamine called Pervitin. A doctor named Otto F. Ranke was tasked with improving the performance of German soldiers. He had seen studies that showed Pervitin reduced fear and fatigue, and realized it was the perfect combination for soldiers.

Pervitin helped keep the army marching past the breaking point when Germany invaded France by way of the Ardennes mountains. But the drug also helped the soldiers fight.

Pervitin is an over-the-counter form of methamphetamine that was available to Germans during WWII. (Thomas Springer)

The first battle of the western campaign was in Martelange, Belgium. Ohler found accounts from Belgian soldiers who recall German soldiers charging fearlessly towards machine gun nests.

"You could say that the reduction of the fear level — which is scientifically proven if you take a high dosage of Pervitin — led the Germans to this unorthodox behaviour, which then frightened the Belgian defenders," said Ohler.

According to Ohler, these incidents helped create the rumour of the unbeatable German super soldier.

Drugs still a part of war

A child soldier in Sierra Leone plays with a weapon in 2001 in the capital Freetown. (Getty)

Drugs continue to play a role in warfare. Perhaps the most disturbing example is how drugs have been used to manipulate and control child soldiers in African conflict zone.

Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier, fought in Sierra Leone. Beah described how the commanders would keep the kids high on 'brown browns,' a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder.

The gunpowder contains nitroglycerin, which is a vasodilator, and helps spread the cocaine through the bloodstream more quickly. The commanders would have the children commit atrocities while high, because the drugs would help them overcome fear and conscience. The dependence on the drugs kept the kids loyal and obedient.

In popular culture, the Vietnam War may be the war most closely associated with drug use and abuse. But according to historian Jeremy Kuzmarov, that perception is largely a myth with roots in propaganda.

In his book, The Myth of the Addicted Army, Kuzmarov argues alcohol was the drug of choice for most American GIs. He says that, to the extent troops used marijuana, the use was confined to rear areas far from combat.

Contrary to the image of thousands of Americans coming home from Vietnam hooked on heroin, use of the drug was not widespread. Kuzmarov argues that Richard Nixon's administration used the idea of addicted soldiers to drum up support for the domestic war on drugs.

You can get into something, a darkness that will take you over. That's where it is akin to drugs or a spiritual experience,- Karl Marlantes

Karl Marlantes — who served in Vietnam — confirms that pot use was not tolerated on the front lines. Marlantes points out that soldiers have always used drugs as a kind of self medication to manage the trauma that comes with combat. But he also acknowledges how, in spite of all the horror and trauma, soldiers can spend the rest of their lives trying to regain the feeling of being in war.

According to Marlantes, the experience of warfare as a kind of drug in itself. He described the intoxicating feeling of being a 23-year-old with the power to call in napalm attacks and artillery bombardment.

"You can get into something, a darkness that will take you over. That's where it is akin to drugs or a spiritual experience," he said.

Drugs helping to heal after battle

Mark Haden is leading research into the use of MDMA — better known as ecstasy — to help veterans overcome post traumatic stress disorder. It's better known as a party drug, but it is showing promise when used along with talk therapy to help veterans come to terms with their traumatic experiences.

Haden describes the condition of PTSD as a kind of tape loop in the sufferer's mind. He says traditional therapy has struggled to break that loop, because patients are so bound up in fear. He says MDMA breaks down the fear and lets the patient access the loop.

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