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10 Wars and the Drugs That Defined Them

From booze to speed to heroin, drugs have been as big a part of military conflict as bullets. As the opium trade flourishes amidst the combat in Afghanistan today, The Fix looks back at history's druggiest wars.

  • Alcohol: The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)

    The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts waged between the French and the rest of Europe, who were hell-bent on kicking the tiny Bonaparte off his pedestal. Britain, with its legendary navy and hordes of drunken infantrymen, led the charge against Napoleon. During the wars, alcohol use was encouraged among British troops as both a way to guard against disease—oops!—and to boost morale. So popular was alcohol among the British that some soldiers were known to spend a month’s worth of wages on alcohol in one sitting; teetotalers were reviled as “Methodists.” Officers had standing orders to avoid drunken privates “since they often attacked their superiors.”

  • Opium: The First Opium War (1839-1842)

    The British and Chinese fought a war that didn't just involve mass drug abuse, it was specifically about mass drug abuse. The Chinese wanted to end Britain’s prodigious opium imports, which were both propping up the British economy and ravaging the Chinese people. Opium addiction afflicted millions of Chinese—including its Army. So when the British showed up with better weapons and a superior navy, the drug-addled Chinese foot soldiers didn't stand a chance. Some were too focused on copping to fight, while others deserted in search of more opium. By some estimates as much as 90 percent of Emperor's Army were addicts. Guess who won?

  • Morphine: The American Civil War (1861-1865)

    On the Civil War battlefield, perhaps the only thing more prevalent than morphine was muttonchops. The "wonder drug" was used as an anesthetic in field amputations, a painkiller for the walking wounded and most commonly, as a way to stave off diarrhea. Many wounded soldiers continued to take morphine after they healed to dull the aches that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. Morphine abuse was so common during the Civil War that estimates say as many as 400,000 soldiers went home addicted. "Soldier's disease" is what people called the addiction. By the end of the 19th century, there were one million morphine addicts in America.

  • THC, Mushrooms: The Anglo-Zulu War (1879)

    In the late 1870s the British Empire had colonies throughout what is now South Africa. But it really wanted the giant Zulu Kingdom. After attacking in 1879, the better-armed British eventually defeated the Zulus in series of unexpectedly bloody battles. The Zulus' secret weapon? Drugs. They primarily used a potent, energetic form of snuff packed with THC that gave the Zulus a feeling of invincibility. Some also popped hallucinogenic mushroom that supposedly induced "a state of expanded perception," leading some Zulu to believe bullets would bounce right off of them.

  • Tobacco: World War I (1914-1918)

    When the Great War rolled around, America had gotten wise to morphine and classified it as a controlled substance. So when the US entered the conflict in 1917, the risk of creating a new generation of addicts was lessened. However, WWI did turn millions of doughboys onto cigarettes. Before the war, tobacco had been popular among monocle-wearing aristocrats, but the military figured tobacco would calm the nerves of frontline troops, so it teamed up with cigarette companies to ensure that every soldier could puff freely. Touted as a way to “lighten the inevitable hardships of war,” cigarettes were distributed as part of military rations. By the end of the war the American Expeditionary Force was handing out 14 million cigarettes a day.

  • Speed: World War II (1941-1945)

    By 1942 the militaries of the world had come up with plenty of reasons to take drugs: relieving boredom, treating pain, managing nerves. World War II introduced a new one—staying awake. To achieve that goal, soldiers were fed amphetamines. The Americans, British, Germans and Japanese all used speed to keep troops alert. Japanese kamikaze pilots and German Panzer were stuffed full of amphetamines to “motivate their fighting spirit.” The American military alone distributed around 200 million tablets of the drug. The popularity of amphetamines carried into peacetime, when doctors were prescribing pills for everything from depression to obesity.

  • Marijuana and heroin: Vietnam War (1955-1975)

    Like their long-haired friends back home, soldiers in Vietnam began experimenting with marijuana in the early '60s. Cheap and prevalent,, weed was the preferred drug for troops whiling away the days away from the "shit". For most of the decade, marijuana was tolerated by the brass even though still illegal. That changed in 1968 when media coverage of its popularly forced a crackdown. And since marijuana smoke is far from subtle, the crackdown was effective. But it had an unintended consequence: many soldiers turned to heroin, most commonly smoked in the field after being mixed in a joint with tobacco. By the summer 1971, 20 percent of enlisted men self-identified as heroin addicts.

  • Brown-brown, speed: Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002)

    War is hell, but there’s something especially hellish about a war fought by boys not much bigger than the guns they carry. That’s how it happened in Sierra Leone, where evil men wielding powerful drugs forced thousands of children to kill. The substances forced upon Sierra Leone's child soldiers ranged from amphetamines and cocaine to "brown-brown," a snorted mixture of cocaine and gunpowder. In the most extreme cases, “brown-brown” was rubbed into cuts made on a child’s temples and then covered with tape. In his memoir about life as a child soldier, Ismael Beah writes, "...after several doses of these drugs, all I felt was numbness to everything and so much energy that I couldn't sleep for weeks. We watched war movies at night, Rambo's First Blood, First Blood, Part II...we couldn't wait to implement Rambo's techniques."

  • Pills: War in Iraq (2003-2011)

    Recreational drug use may always be a problem within the American military, but according to the latest statistics prescription drug abuse dwarfs marijuana use among enlisted men. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, "prescription drug abuse doubled among U.S. military personnel from 2002 to 2005 and almost tripled between 2005 and 2008." It's not just Americans either. Some estimates peg as much as 30 percent of Iraqi and police forces as prescription drug addicts. Artane is their drug of choice. Used to treat Parkinson's disease, the pills provide energy and courage. “They take it so that there is no anxiety, no fear,” an anonymous doctor told the New York Times, “so they can break down doors and enter houses with no shame.”

  • Heroin: War in Afghanistan (2001-Present)

    The Taliban forbids drug use and drug testing by the U.S. Army shows that opiate abuse is minimal with American troops. Yet heroin and opium play a primary role in the war in Afghanistan, a country that produces 90% of the world's opium. Some of that opium is exported and some is sold to addicts within Afghanistan, but in both cases money goes to the Taliban. A United Nations study from 2009 estimated that $160 million of drug money goes to support terrorist activities each year. Given the perpetual increase in production, that number's likely higher now. The Taliban isn’t just using money from heroin to fight Americans; it’s attempting to get Americans addicted. So far they aren’t having much success.

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By Adam K. Raymond 05/31/12

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