War on drugs

Published November 2, 2015
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

RECENTLY, a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family was arrested in Lebanon for allegedly attempting to smuggle a large quantity of drugs out of that country. The cargo included two tons of an amphetamine called Captagon, a drug that is apparently very popular in the Middle East. According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, amphetamines are the most commonly used drugs in Saudi Arabia, so this may have been a recreational/ commercial endeavour by the Saudi suspect.

Captagon is also reportedly the drug of choice for Daesh and other groups fighting in Syria. The why of this is easy: like most amphetamine-based drugs Captagon increases heartbeat and blood pressure, makes the user feel “alert and powerful” while also banishing fatigue and hunger. It’s easy to see, then, why this would make for such a prized battlefield drug.

The use of drugs to enhance combat effectiveness is by no means a recent phenomenon. The Norse Berserkers were said to ingest the hallucinogenic amanita muscaria mushroom, which helped them achieve the frenzy they were so feared for. The Zulus often took a potent snuff before battle, the active ingredient of which was THC, a chemical found in cannabis along with extracts from a plant with pain-killing properties.


Militaries are always looking for the perfect battle drug.


Centuries ago, Incan warriors chewed coca leaves to stay alert and Prussian soldiers in the 19th century routinely used cocaine as a stimulant. The chemical age took things to another level of course; amphetamines were first synthesised in 1887 in Germany and its more potent version, methamphetamine, was manufactured in Japan in 1919. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the militaries of both countries quickly realised how useful this stimulant could be on the battlefield.

Nazi Germany issued millions of tablets of a potent methamphetamine called Pervitin to its military and it came to be known as Panzerschokolade (tank chocolate) by the armoured divisions and as Stuka-Tabletten (Stuka-tablets) by the Luftwaffe. On the eastern front, as the invasion of Russia ground to a halt, this drug became invaluable when it came to getting exhausted soldiers on their feet. One German military doctor reported that a unit whose “soldiers were so exhausted that they were beginning to simply lie down in the snow”, were given doses of Pervitin and after half an hour “they began marching in orderly fashion again, their spirits improved, and they became more alert”.

It came at a high cost, however, with many soldiers becoming addicts. Heinrich Boll, the famous writer was one of these addicts and he repeatedly asked for more supplies of Pervitin in his letters to his family. As a side note, it has been reported that suicide bombers in Pakistan have also been sometimes dosed with Pervitin, or something very similar.

Much the same took place in Japan, where methamphetamines were administered by injection to kamikaze pilots. Pills were also liberally distributed among soldiers, sailors and factory workers. After the war ended, military stocks of methamphetamines were looted and widely used by the shell-shocked Japanese population as an appetite suppressor during the post-war food shortages. Amphetamine abuse remains a serious issue in Japan to this day. Not to be left behind, the British air force also used this drug, which they nicknamed ‘wakey-wakey pills’.

On April 17th, 2002, Canadian forces training at a former Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan were bombed by a US F-16, killing four. In the subsequent investigation, the defence counsel for the pilots claimed that the pilots had been “routinely pressured” to take dextroamphetamine (known to them as ‘go pills’ but more commonly referred to as ‘Speed’) in order to keep flying missions even when beyond the limits of human endurance. When they needed to wind down they were given ‘no go pills’, which are likely some form of sedative. This is apparently common practice and sanctioned by military high command.

Modern militaries are always looking for the perfect battle drug, and the Pentagon seems to be spearheading this effort. The Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency has stated that “the capability to operate effectively, without sleep, is no less than a 21st-century revolution in military affairs,” and a drug called Modafinil has been widely used, apparently allowing soldiers to operate for over 48 hours without sleep.

But this is a revolution that will come at great cost. One documented effect of the use of amphetamines is a marked drop in empathy and emotion, something that would certainly (if partially) explain the numerous atrocities carried out by German and Japanese soldiers in the Second World War. Sleep deprivation, whether chemically induced or not, also has similar effects so it’s not hard to see what this means for the battlefield of the future. In the quest to create the perfect soldier, the generals and scientists of the near future may just end up creating perfect monsters.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2015

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