Using mind-altering substances to promote combat motivation and performance has been a longstanding feature of warfare. While the practice of drugging soldiers wasn't widespread until the Second World War, the use of alcohol to boost morale and calm nerves long precedes modern drug use. Pharmaceutical amphetamines, however, were an innovation of the interwar years. In 1933, Benzedrine, was first marketed as a nasal decongestant. The euphoric effects of "Bennies" were quickly seized upon by recreational users, and it did not take long for military forces to consider their use in battle.
|Vendel Era Bronze Plate|
Precedents certainly exist for non-pharmaceutical military drug use. If one expands beyond the amphetamine category, lore has it that mind-altering "drugs" go back at least to the middle ages. The most popular legend of stoned soldiers tells of blood-crazed Viking beserkers eating dried fly agaric (the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria) to inspire their savage attacks. While drugging a medieval warrior and inciting him to behave like a bear might improve his will to fight, one has to wonder about the effects on hand-eye coordination. Instead, the adrenaline-like effects of therapeutic doses of amphetamine, such as wakefulness, increased muscle strength, improved memory, and cognitive control, made the drug much more useful on the modern battlefield than hallucinogens.
Use of amphetamines by the military, then, began in the Second World War. Richard Holmes, in Acts of War: The Behaviour of Men in Battle (1985), writes that in that conflict, Benzedrine was commonly administered to soldiers of various nations, noting ten percent of American soldiers used amphetamines in the conflict.
An excellent treatment of Allied research and use of amphetamines is found Nicolas Rasmussen's 2011 article "Medical Science and the Military: The Allies' Use of Amphetamine during World War II" Journal of Interdisciplinary History 42:2 (Autumn 2011) Rasmussen suggests that despite the popular conception that drugs were prescribed by the Allies as physically performance-enhancing, the reasons behind amphetamine distribution was based on mood-altering effects such as "increased confidence and aggression" and the promotion of morale. Until very late in the war, research had yet to conclusively prove the physical effects of the drugs.
Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 123, No. 10; Vol. 124, No. 12.
In 1943, the Americans came to the same conclusion on Benzedrine sulphate "pep pills" as a boost to morale and alertness and began to distribute them widely to all services. When Eisenhower learned that 100,000 six-tablet packages of "Bennies" were available for the North African theatre, he immediately requested 500,000. (Rasmussen, p. 226) Rasmussen suggests that the drugs were widely abused for recreational purposes and may have been the cause of battlefield atrocities in the Pacific theatre. (Rasmussen, p. 230-32)
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Drugs, then, have a long relationship with the military, especially in years after 1940 as the pharmaceutical industry and pharmacological practice expanded at pace. Beyond stimulants for combat, medical use has been made of barbiturates, sedatives and pain-killers. Illicit, recreational drug use extends beyond amphetamines as well, with marijuana and heroin use in Vietnam as the most notorious example. One need not look too far to find accusations regarding the negative effects of this military narco-love-affair.
A version of this page was first posted on 28 July 2011.