Drug use in warfare may be as old as war itself. Use of intoxicants during combat spans centuries, from Homer’s written accounts of soldiers drinking wine in ancient times to Siberians consuming mushrooms to use of amphetamines in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.1
Even though drugs were used to enhance performance and increase endurance in soldiers, they took a physical and psychological toll on the users.
Reasons for Drug Use
A soldier may use drugs during war for a variety of reasons. These include:
- Performance enhancement. Soldiers commonly use stimulants to stay awake and remain alert despite fatigue.1
- Treating injuries and pain. Morphine and other opiates were used to help treat pain and injuries from the battlefield.2
- Anesthesia for surgery. Morphine was also used as an anesthetic for field amputations during wartime as early as the American Civil War.2
- Bonding. Rituals with alcohol and drugs go hand and hand with wartime. They may help soldiers to bond and connect with one another.1
- Dealing with boredom. Often, soldiers may turn to drugs and alcohol because they are bored and don’t have much else to do.1
- Managing combat stress. Soldiers may believe that intoxicants can help take the edge off and make it easier to manage the intense stress and trauma of combat.1
The American Civil War is the first American war with documented instances of drug addiction. Morphine was the drug of this war. It was considered a wonder drug and given as a painkiller, anesthetic, and sometimes as a diarrhea cure . One of the Union officers supposedly made his command members drink opium daily as a preventative for dysentery.2
Soldiers left the war hooked on morphine and continued to use it at home, where it was readily available. An estimated 400,000 soldiers returned home addicted to morphine. For this reason, morphine addiction was known then as “Soldier’s Disease.” 2,3,4,5,6
World War I
Historians often refer to World War I as The Tobacco War. The government provided cigarettes to soldiers to help ease boredom and reduce stress. Prior to the war, less than 0.5% of American people regularly consumed cigarettes. By the war’s end, approximately 14 million cigarettes were distributed daily.2
According to Lukasz Kamienski, a political science professor at the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora and author of Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War, cocaine also became a drug of abuse on the frontlines. People turned to the drug to boost energy, combat fatigue, and reduce wartime anxiety. It gained popularity when the British army created a drug known as “Forced March,” a combination of cocaine and a cola nut extract. People then began to self-prescribe the drug as a wartime aid.1
Many of the soldiers’ wives and girlfriends sent packages of cocaine and heroin purchased from London pharmacists labeled as “useful presents for friends at the front” or sometimes “welcome presents for friends at the front.”1
World War II
Amphetamines were the most popular drugs used in World War II. In fact, soldiers accounted for the largest number of amphetamine users between 1939 and 1945.1
The Nazis started the trend. Their drug of choice was Pervitin, an early version of crystal meth in a pill form that they patented in 1937. The drug was marketed for military use to foster confidence, boost physical energy, enhance performance, and combat fatigue. The Germans also made a cocaine chewing gum that helped the pilots of one-man U-boats stay awake and alert. However, many of these men suffered breakdowns from using the drug and being in a small enclosed space alone for extended periods.1,7,8
Historians estimate that the German military consumed roughly 200 million methamphetamine pills during WW2. They also produced chocolates that contained 13mg of the drug, far more than the regular 3mg pills. With the help of Pervitin, German soldiers could march for days on end without stopping, going without sleep for up to 50 hours.1,7
Pervitin had many adverse effects, however. These included dizziness, sweating, depression, hallucinations, and addiction. Some soldiers died of heart failure, while others shot themselves during drug-induced psychoses .8
The United States, Japan, and Britain followed Germany’s lead and administered amphetamines to their troops as well. The British army consumed an estimated 72 million Benzedrine (amphetamine) tablets during the war. The British allegedly defeated the Germans in the Second Battle of El Alamein while high on speed after Gen. Bernard Montgomery gave away roughly 100,000 amphetamine tablets.1
The American army used even more amphetamines than the British. The Pentagon issued between 250–500 million Benzedrine tablets to U.S. troops during the war. Benzedrine was added to American emergency bomber kits in 1942, and in 1943, they extended this practice to the infantry. Approximately 15% of American soldiers took the drug on a regular basis.1
The Japanese army widely used methamphetamine. It was sold as Philopon, named after the Greek word philoponus, meaning “he who loves labor.” The army marketed it as a pick-me-up and gave it to soldiers to help them stay awake and alert for long periods of time. After the war, the drug made its way into the hands of civilians. Methamphetamine addiction became an epidemic, with an estimated550,000 addicts in the country in the early 1950s .9
Additionally, Japanese kamikaze pilots drank shots of sake at their farewell parties. The alcohol helped them relax as they waited for their one-way suicide missions and faced their untimely deaths.10
Speed was a popular drug for American soldiers in the Vietnam War as well. The American military issued 225 million tablets of dextroamphetamine between 1966 and 1969.1 Dextroamphetamine was twice as strong as the Benzedrine tablets given during World War II. These so-called “Pep Pills” were given out like candy with no attention paid to dosing or frequency.11
Speed was far from the only drug used during this war, however. Drug use in Vietnam was quite common. At least half of the soldiers used marijuana, and a third of them used heroin or opium.1
According to Kamienski, the level of drug use among American military personnel in the Vietnam War was unprecedented. For example, soldiers going on special missions were administered steroid injections as well as given medical kits containing 6 dextroamphetamine pills, 12 Darvon tablets (a mild opioid painkiller), and 24 tablets of codeine (another opioid analgesic).11
The Department of Defense provided sedatives and neuroleptics to soldiers to help combat the intense stress and mental breakdowns associated with war. For the first time in history, antipsychotics such as chlorpromazine were given to soldiers. And even though these drugs drastically reduced the number of mental breakdowns in the short-term, they were given without psychotherapy.11
The use of dextroamphetamine also caused long-term problems for soldiers. Speed increases aggression as well as alertness. When the drug wore off, the soldiers were so irritable that some felt like “shooting children in the streets.”7,11 Unfortunately, soldiers were not able to detox from the drugs before being sent back home. Instead they reportedly suffered serious withdrawals on the flight home. Those that arrived home were offered little to no support and many battled addiction and PTSD.7
The exact number of Vietnam veterans that suffered from PTSD is unknown. But estimates range from 400,000 to 1.5 million.11 Research indicates that approximately 200,000 of these people still suffer from PTSD today, nearly 50 years after the Vietnam War ended. More than 70,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide after likely suffering from PTSD.7
Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
The misuse of alcohol and drugs in warfare is still a problem among America’s military today. In fact, alcohol use is more prevalent among military men and women than in civilians. Almost half of active duty members reported binge drinking in a 2008 survey, an increase of 35% in a decade. Research indicates that binge drinking rates are even higher among those exposed to high combat.13
Illicit drug use is less common in military personnel than the general public. But prescription drug use is on the rise.13 Data from the Department of Defense reveals a significant increase in prescription narcotics for active-duty troops during the Iraq war, from 33,000 a month in October 2003 to 50,000 a month in September 2007.14
Research indicates that prescription opioids such as Percocet, OxyContin, and Vicodin are commonly abused. Red Bull drinks, NoDoz, and Dexedrine pills are also widely used to help maintain energy and alertness. When it’s time to come down, prescriptions drugs such as Ambien, Restoril, and other benzodiazepines are taken to help soldiers fall asleep and relieve anxiety.4
There are many factors that contribute to misuse of prescription drugs and alcohol among today’s active-duty soldiers. These include:
- Traumatic brain injury. Many soldiers suffer from traumatic brain injury (TBI) during combat. Research has shown a correlation between TBI and alcohol problems. Military personnel that experienced a severe traumatic brain injury that resulted in a loss of consciousness for 20 minutes or more are more likely to develop alcohol problems.4
- Combat. Soldiers may turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the intense stress of combat as well as to treat combat-related injuries. Uppers may be used to help soldiers stay awake and alert for long periods of time, while downers may be used to help them fall asleep, relieve pain, or simply cope with emotional trauma.4,14
- Prescribed drugs for medical purposes. Many soldiers arrive in Iraq already taking a slew of prescription drugs, as few medications will disqualify a soldier from active duty. Military physicians also prescribe drugs on the front line, such as sleeping pills, narcotic painkillers, antidepressants, and even antipsychotics to help with nightmares.14
Many veterans return home from war only to struggle with post-deployment alcohol use disorder, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses. Some end up homeless or commit suicide. In one study reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1 in 4 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of a mental illness, and 1 in 6 reported symptoms of PTSD.13
Suicide rates used to be lower among military personnel than the general public. But the military suicide rate began to climb in 2004, and by 2008, it surpassed the rate of the general public. The Army Suicide Prevention Taskforce released a report in 2010 finding that 29% of active-duty suicides involved alcohol or drug use.4,13
Government agencies, addiction specialists, and other mental health support professionals should take necessary action to address drug use in warfare and provide post-deployment support for military personnel when they return home.
- Military History Now. (2018). Combat High – A Sobering History of Drug Use in Wartime.
- McElroy, W. (2014). U.S. Government Guilty of Creating Heroin Addicts. The Daily Bell.
- History.com (2017). History of Heroin, Morphine, and Opiates.
- Golub, A. & Bennett, A. (2013). Introduction to the Special Issue: Drugs, Wars, Military Personnel, and Veterans. Substance Use and Misuse, 48(10).
- Flascha, C. (2011). Wartime Drugs. Prospect Journal.
- North American Spine. Pain Management in History: Morphine and the Civil War.
- McCarthy, B. (2016). A brief history of war and drugs: From Vikings to Nazis . Al Jazeera.
- Hurst, F. (2013). WWII Drug: The German Granddaddy of Crystal Meth. Der Spiegel.
- Ito, M. (2014). Dealing with addiction: Japan’s Drug Problem. Japan Times.
- Kamienski, L. (2016). Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War. Oxford University Press.
- Kamienski, L. (2016). The Drugs that Built a Super Soldier. The Atlantic.
- Stanton, MD. (1976). Drugs, Vietnam, and the Vietnam Veteran: an overview. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 3(4), 557-70.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Substance Abuse in the Military.
- Petersen, M. (2009). U.S. Military: Heavily armed and medicated. NBC News.