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Drugs in War: How armies arm their soldiers against fear, fatigue and weakness

Alcohol and cigarettes were always loyal companions of the soldier. Today the armed forces use a number of substances to suppress killing inhibitions and fears. And they have active ingredients researched so that the fighters never get tired again.

An arms race for tomorrow's supremacy is underway around the world. But the race is running in silence, it's not about aircraft carriers or long-range missiles. Instead, the military are targeting a new enemy: sleep. In the United States, for example, there is evidence of this in the armed forces' budgets. In the current budget, for example, a number of "Human Performance Optimization" projects have been put out to tender.

The task of optimizing the performance of people is aimed at researchers from universities and pharmaceutical companies, and last but not least, they want funds to optimize sleep. Specifically, this means drugs that allow maximum performance with as little rest as possible.

Fatigue is just one of the soldiers' alleged weaknesses, who have always been a thorn in the side of commanders of this world. Hunger or fear are just as much a part of it as the characteristic that makes people human: the inhibition of killing. But here, too, all kinds of drugs and medication are supposed to provide relief.

The craft of war is considered to be the most strenuous of all. “It is therefore no surprise that commanders administer psychoactive substances to their troops to carry out this business,” explains Peter Andreas in an interview. The history professor at the renowned Brown University in Providence in the state of Rhode Island describes the killing of other people as an unnatural act that takes enormous effort.

And that is precisely why drugs of all kinds have remained indispensable since ancient times. In his new book “Killer High”, historian Andreas reveals the history of the war using six drugs. These substances are: alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, opiates, cocaine and amphetamines. He excludes cannabis: Defense ministries around the world want killers in uniform, but not dreamers. In the episodes from the past he sees a prelude to the new arms race for fighters with superhuman endurance, intelligence and strength.

Before, during and after the battle

In his book, Andreas looks back on the “psychoactive revolution” in the 16th century, when Europeans discovered tobacco, coffee and tea as mind-altering stimulants on their forays overseas. The USA plays an important role in drugs in the war effort. After all, since the Second World War, no nation has been campaigning around the globe so incessantly.

But the use of substances ultimately remains a constant across epochs and continents. Commanders use this method again and again to give their troops courage, to dampen tiredness and inhibitions or, more recently, to follow up on traumatic experiences.

Alcohol is the oldest companion of warriors. Called "liquid courage" by US soldiers, the alcohol floods the brain with endorphins, relieves stress, but also the fear of death and the inhibition of killing. And it numbs pain from injuries and defeat. That is why in ancient times Sumerians, Egyptians and Greeks resorted to beer and wine. The British Navy replaced the brandy rations for seafarers after the conquest of Jamaica in 1655 with rum, which was distilled from sugar cane juice.

For a long time, an alcohol content of 57 percent was the measure of all things. Sugar cane grown in the Caribbean by enslaved Africans became the main source of money for the British Empire. The last daily ration of “Navy Rum” was not served until July 31, 1971, long after the colonial empire had been lost. The Canadian Navy remains loyal to the rum to this day. While the British made rum their official encouragement, tobacco, coffee and tea dampened hunger and tiredness. The joint consumption of intoxicants and stimulants also strengthens the corps spirit.

Alcohol floods the brain with endorphins, relieves stress, and numbs pain in both injuries and defeats.

The American founding father Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) already recognized: «Fear creates the desire for tobacco. That is why soldiers and sailors use it more than any other group of people. " Tobacco is easy to consume even in the trenches. In the Crimean War (1853-1856), for example, British troops had copied the rolling of tobacco into strips of newspaper from their Ottoman comrades and the Russian enemy.

In the American Civil War (1861-1865) coffee was added to tobacco and alcohol. The Union troops enjoyed the advantage of unlimited access to the hot caffeine shot. They prevented the southerners from importing coffee through a sea blockade. Union commanders compared the effects of coffee to additional divisions, and the butts of infantry rifles were fitted with small coffee grinders.

This drug mix was expanded to include cocaine in the First World War, especially among Anglo-Saxon troops. The Americans once again opted for coffee and cigarettes as an integral part of daily rations. The glow sticks remained indispensable for all armed forces during the Second World War.

According to Andreas, the manufacturers of Lucky Strike or Coca-Cola rely on a kind of product placement by strategically using the supply of soldiers to first conquer the domestic and then the world markets. In addition, the historian shows the interactions between war and intoxicants. For example, in the American War of Independence, rebellious colonists replaced British rum with whiskey from their own distilleries.

Unbridled consumption of vodka reduced the efficiency of the Russian troops, which were led under Stalin even more brutally than in the days of the tsar. Meanwhile, in the early summer of 1940, the French military had two million liters of wine delivered to the front every day. The importance of alcohol for the “deadly embrace of war and drugs”, as Andreas calls it, can hardly be overestimated.

Hitler's blitzkrieg thanks to amphetamine

Hitler's Wehrmacht, on the other hand, had a potent stimulant in its blood, without which the restless blitzkrieg through the Ardennes to the Atlantic coast would hardly have been possible: amphetamine. During the French campaign, the army command administered 35 million tablets to the armored divisions, which had been brought onto the market by the Berlin Temmler works under the brand name Pervitin. Amphetamines were particularly effective in suppressing fears and inhibitions to killing. The British, Americans and Japanese quickly followed suit. Above all, the air force threw in “go pills” or “bennies” (amphetamines) for long missions. Pilots reported hallucinations.

In the summer of 1945, kamikaze pilots in Japan steeled themselves with amphetamines for their final deployment against US fleets. Later on, Islamist fighters in Syria or Afghanistan consumed the substance Captagon, which is comparable to amphetamine, in large quantities. According to their own statements, they turned "into intrepid lions". Suicide bombers, child soldiers and terrorist squads often throw in amphetamines before their deadly missions. The fact that jihadists wreaked a bloodbath in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai in 2008 and fought against an overwhelming force of security forces for three days without sleep can only be explained with such tools.

Even regular armed forces do not want to do without that. The US military is relying on new super drugs like Modafinil (see text below). But amphetamine derivatives like Ritalin and Adderall can still be found in combat zones on every military base. The historian Peter Andreas paints a shocking picture. Antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft or Wellbutrin are freely available for emergency services, but also relaxants such as Valium, Klonopin or Xanax as well as drugs for psychotic disorders and the sleeping pills Ambien or Lunesta. Soldiers also pack caffeinated drinks such as Red Bull or Rip It for missions.

This creates an endless cycle of stimulating and calming through a whole arsenal of psychoactive substances. At least in the Pentagon, hardly anyone should care about the long-term effects of such funds on individual soldiers.

Wide range of psychiatric drugs

Officially, at least brandy and tobacco are going out of fashion with commanders. At least they are no longer given to the troops. Brains under the influence of rum or vodka can hardly use the modern instruments of war in a targeted manner. Military shops introduce a sales ban for G.I. under 21 in August, but violations should not be punished. Like their ancestors, US soldiers continue to grab beer and cigarettes on their own. And of course, nicotine and alcohol remain long-running in the arsenal of so-called self-medication, with which veterans try to dampen the long-term consequences of their inhumane work.

Since the Vietnam War, cannabis and opiates have also been used, as well as the whole range of psychotropic drugs already available in active service. That is why the campaigns after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 leave behind a growing army of former soldiers who suffer from severe trauma and also from addiction problems. One result is likely to be the twenty or so suicides per day among veterans.

Soldiers of the future who are treated with novel super drugs or equipped with sensors are likely to pose completely new challenges for pharmaceutical research after their retirement, but even more so for the entire US society.

“Killer High” author Peter Andreas wants to raise awareness of the importance of intoxicants in war - but not to cloud it: “Military conflicts would take place without psychoactive substances. Ultimately, war remains the drug that we humans have the most difficulty in getting rid of. "

Sleepless, networked, fully equipped

Some of the current projects of the US armed forces remind the historian Peter Andreas of "Captain America". In the well-known comic, there is a super soldier serum that is supposed to make the perfect fighter possible; strong, fast, tireless, intelligent. Andreas alludes to orders that have been advertised by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), a command for elite fighters. In particular, “means for optimizing sleep” are in demand.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the legendary research department of the Pentagon, is working in the same direction. The dream of soldiers who never tire goes back to medicating troops with amphetamines during World War II. At the same time, the pharmacological armament of the military is pointing the way to the future. Fighters of a new kind can be seen on the horizon; conditioned by medication, networked with their commanders via implants - and in many ways actually no longer ordinary people.

For example, armed forces operate a comprehensive optimization of soldiers' bodies. For some years now, this has included the development of exoskeletons at DARPA. These external support structures should allow fighters to run faster and farther, but also enable them to transport larger loads. The USSOCOM, on the other hand, relies on research into drugs for improved wound healing, which should bring advantages on inaccessible battlefields, for example in Afghanistan. In addition, there are more efficient painkillers, but also wireless bio-sensors that send a diagnosis from the body in real time in the event of wounds or can also detect whether chemical, biological, nuclear weapons or explosives are in the vicinity. Such sensors should also help if the troops have to acclimatise quickly in locations with extreme temperatures.

Here there are points of contact with DARPA's “Brain Initiative”, which started in 2013 and which now includes an entire catalog with hundreds of projects. One focus is the smallest digital interfaces between bodies and computers. These should be implanted directly in the brains or hands and allow the commanders access to a flood of data that is continuously recorded for every fighter. Military lawyers are already preoccupied with the extent to which such an armed soldier is still in control of his decisions and can be held responsible for killing civilians, for example.

Amazingly, however, there is apparently no common vision that is binding for the armed forces, the Pentagon and the research departments. The information available to outsiders rather speaks in favor of a large number of parallel projects run by different staff units or laboratories. This inevitably leads to duplications. At DARPA, for example, a “Biological Technologies Office” conducts research that is similar to that at USSOCOM. In addition to diagnostic instruments for sustained high performance or means to optimize physical and mental endurance, the focus is on improving sleep. This also includes research on the ideal interaction between diet and medication. Keywords are nootropics or eugeroics. These technical terms are to be understood as means for stimulating the central nervous system.

These include drugs that have already been launched on the market, such as Modafinil. As a stimulant comparable to amphetamines, Modafinil has lower risks in terms of addiction and long-term health damage. Developed for the treatment of insomnia, the drug was quickly discovered as a way to endless nights, be it by college students before exams or by party friends. Modafinil or similar drugs are now used by the French Foreign Legion as well as by armed forces in India and the USA for extremely long missions. According to expert Peter Andreas, "armed forces in dozens of countries are studying the effects of Modafinil with great enthusiasm".

Pentagon planners dream of fighters who emulate giraffes who get by on less than two hours of sleep a day. The military in China is introducing a drug code-named "Night Eagle" to the People's Liberation Army. Its effect is said to be comparable to that of Modafinil and amphetamines.

The reasons are obvious. Peter Andreas quotes several commanders in the Air Force and the Navy in the USA. They attribute the fact that a head start is required when it comes to sleep reduction to modern technology: Every advance places ever higher demands on the crews of aircraft and increases the need for performance-enhancing pills. More frequent deployments at night or missions with a longer duration would have given the US strategic advantages, say military experts. In order to maintain this, however, the troops would have to be trimmed to get along with even less sleep.

Periods of four to seven days are in discussion. An expert paper for the Pentagon states: “The most important aspect for the human factor in military clout is the decline in performance under stress - and especially when there is a lack of sleep. If an opposing force were superior to us, this would pose a serious threat. " The authors therefore call for more efforts to be made in reducing sleep and constant monitoring of other armed forces worldwide in this area. The arms race against sleep continues.