Stuart Walton reviews a new history of narcotics and the various roles they have played in warfare.
Łukasz Kamieński, Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare, published in the UK by Hurst, published in the US by OUP as Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War (2016)
In September 2006, the British Ministry of Defence was forced to confirm, in response to press enquiries, that a Royal Military Police investigation was being undertaken into the conduct of members of the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment in Iraq. The charge was that soldiers were involved in smuggling small arms, including Glock pistols, out of their operational base in the occupied territory to British stations in Germany, from where they were traded with criminal gangs for cocaine. The drug was then transported back to the combat zone for selling on to serving British soldiers, in a latter-day version of the triangular transatlantic mechanism that once sustained the slave trade. Ironically, the armaments themselves had originally been provided to the Iraqi police by the UK and US governments, but were now helping support a flourishing commerce in controlled Class A substances for frontline troops. One former fusilier was quoted as saying that about 60 per cent of members of his company regularly used cocaine, as well as ecstasy and cannabis. ‘There are guys who have to have two or three lines of coke before they can operate,’ he vouchsafed to a Sunday Times reporter, making the murderous quagmire of Iraq sound a little like the maelstrom of the West End theatre.
When these revelations were aired in the press and parliament in the UK, they were treated with sanctimonious dismay, as though they marked a substantial erosion of the morals of the modern fighting man. The official institutional line of all three armed services in Britain with regard to drugs is zero tolerance. The cost of a promising recruit’s basic training can be briskly written off as a dead loss if he or she returns to barracks after a weekend on leave and carelessly tests positive for a controlled substance, and yet the evidence from the recent continuous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan is that troops in the field not only have ready access to drugs at levels of purity unheard of in the street trade back home, but that a substantial percentage, often a majority in a particular combat unit, avail themselves gratefully of the supply. Field operations are often conducted under the high-voltage sizzle of stimulants, in the tranquillising fog of cannabis, or wrapped in the velvet embrace of narcotising heroin and opium.
There is nothing new in this, according to Łukasz Kamieński’s timely study of the use of intoxicants in warfare throughout human history. The cultural paradigm of Homer’s heroes going into battle on an ingestion of nepenthes, a probable blend of opium and the flowers and fruit of the blue lotus, source of the psychoactive alkaloid apomorphine, set the tone for the next twenty-eight centuries of intoxicated combat. Hannibal’s army used atropine-bearing mandrake during the course of subduing rebellious African tribes around 200 BC. Scandinavian berserkers and belligerent Siberian tribes went into battle on hallucinogenic fly agaric mushrooms, in the process gaining a reputation for superhuman ferocity. Coca energised the Inca warriors of ancient Peru, as well as indigenous rebels against Spanish colonialists in the eighteenth century. Chinese troops fought like automata on the opium with which the British Empire was supplying them in the Victorian era, sickening their opponents with frontal assaults comprised of human waves, in which those felled by machine-gun fire were replaced by further advancing hordes, a battlefield tactic about which the British themselves were to become sufficiently sanguine as to employ it on the Western Front during the Great War.
Combatants on nearly all sides in the first world war used cocaine, both under official military prescription and by self-procurement on furlough through what became, while the war ground on, the illicit street trade. In the next global conflict, it was dextroamphetamine, even methamphetamine, that was doled out to troops by all major participants (with the exception of the Soviet Union), particularly pilots flying long expeditionary missions, to maintain wakefulness, endurance and, not coincidentally, combative aggression. Finland’s forces were supplied with gargantuan quantities of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, morphine and opium to use as needed during the three-year Continuation War triggered by the Soviet air offensive of 1941. Use of psychedelic drugs by US forces in Vietnam has become virtually a cultural archetype, while the drugs whose trade sustains the insurgencies in Afghanistan and the ISIS territories today are not forgone by jihadis, rebels and terror groups themselves.
Not even the child soldiers pressed into service all over Africa and Asia, and who could hardly commit crimes against humanity in a state of stone-cold sobriety, are required to operate without chemical sustenance, in their case anything from a burgeoning pharmacopoeia including amphetamines, cannabis leaf and resin, khat, barbiturates, benzodiazepine tranquillisers, and what has come to be known in parts of Africa as ‘brown-brown’, essentially injectable heroin with an admixture of gunpowder. When syringes for its administration are not to hand, field doctors cut open the flesh of the child fighters and rub it directly into the exposed tissue.
If there is an overarching moral to Kamieński’s story, it is surely that war itself, whatever its immediate occasion or the justness of its primary cause, is such a traumatic experience for those who must prosecute it at the sharpest end that it is unthinkable without the chemical alteration of ordinary consciousness. He shows that these interventions are useful all the way along the line, from promoting a properly bellicose, or at least hypnotically self-disregarding, attitude among troops before engagement, through medicating the mental disintegration that war trauma itself produces amid the flying body parts and oceans of blood, to rewarding those who have returned from a successful sortie with the kind of elation or soporific relaxation that mere alcohol cannot offer. There probably hasn’t been an entirely sober war in history.
There are moments of wry relief in the otherwise unremittingly grim narrative. It is said that the reason Hitler didn’t order a prompter Nazi response on the morning of the D-Day landings is that he was so doped with barbiturate to get him off to sleep, against the tidal flow of intravenous amphetamine he was on during the day, that it took a farcically long time to wake him up. You could hardly throw a glass of water in his face. News that certain rebel groups fighting in Syria’s civil war are permanently revved up on Red Bull falls some way short of horrifying. An internet theory that the Anglo-German fraternisation on the Western Front at Christmas 1914 might have been empowered by soldiers taking MDMA, newly synthesised in Germany in 1912, is so captivatingly beautiful that one almost feels it ought to resist its crystallisation back into arrant nonsense.
The principal problem from which Kamieński’s diligently researched study suffers is a lack of focus in its own ethical stance. If drugs are the extraneous agents that help make war both more conceivable and more spiritually survivable, he argues, they are also, more conventionally, the agents of social and moral corrosion in civil society. What this produces during those passages when Kamieński refers glancingly to the non-miltary context is a certain broad-brush slapdash illiberalism. It may be true that much non-state violence is financed by the civilian drug trade, but that hardly convicts civilian drug users of wilful complicity in it. ‘Americans and Europeans,’ we are told, ‘purchase substances that slowly consume and destroy them’. By such selfish idiocy, they ‘damage their health and undermine their social fabric’, allowing profiteering cartels to exploit their ‘weaknesses, vanity, and pursuit of pleasure’ – pursuit of pleasure of course being one of those human impulses that is almost as pernicious as blowing other people to bits.
The author entirely discountenances any argument about the catastrophic effects of substance control in directly facilitating the drug trade’s role in crime and terror throughout the world. His evident compassion at the calamities of war that drive combatants to self-medication stops judderingly short at the margin of civil society, where no trauma is thought severe enough to justify the recourse to intoxicants, and where no innocent, non-problematic use of them might point the route away from intoxication as the invariable resort of the desperate. If no legal argument can be fashioned for exonerating a crime on the grounds that its perpetrator was whacked on tequila or skunk or angel dust when he committed it, then no ethical case is sustainable against the notion that intoxicants help human beings cope with a profoundly flawed empirical reality.
On the question of whether returning Vietnam combatants brought their opiate addiction back with them to America in the 1970s, Kamieński doesn’t quite make up his mind whether he thinks this was all a political and journalistic myth in furtherance of the national drug control agenda, or whether it was a real factor in subsequent urban disorder. ‘[The] New York City Mayor’s Office for Veterans Affairs estimated that in 1971 between 30,000 and 45,000 Vietnam veteran heroin addicts lived in the city.’ Then again, ‘there was nothing exceptionally distressing about the homecoming “junkie soldiers” that the Americans should fear’. The faintly uncomfortable sense of having it both ways, in this and other arguments, does not extend, however, to Kamieński’s historiography of the war itself, which as so often is told entirely from the losing side as America’s tragedy, as though its substantially greater crimes against Vietnamese humanity scarcely counted.
Shooting Up should be read for its relentless cataloguing of the role that intoxicants have been put to in the ceaseless history of human depravity. It is a little spoiled by the unevenness of the English translation, which Kamieński superintended himself in conjunction with a couple of colleagues. A native speaker ought at least to have proofread it, to insert and remove all the misplaced definite articles with which the text is littered. Its closing meditation, however, that when all is said and done on the question of drugs, it may be that war itself is the most potent and habit-forming intoxicant of all, sounds a salutary note, which those involved with mediation and peacekeeping initiatives worldwide would do well to heed.
is a journalist and the author of A Natural History of Human Emotions, Out Of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and a new novel The First Day in Paradise. He also writes on food and wine and spent many years writing for The Guardian.