Small Wars Journal

Buzz Kill

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Buzz Kill

Kevin Sites

In war, there is always time for champagne. In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.                                                                                                            

-- Napoleon Bonaparte

From wine swilling Greek hoplites to tweaked out NAZI’s on speed, drugs and alcohol have been the most essential psychological weapons in the history of human warfare, both lowering our resistance to killing and helping us to forget it in the aftermath. But what does our dependence on drugs in wartime say about us? Are we reluctant killers, good at our core, who need to be altered to do the job … or willing, but imperfect killers, constantly seeking the things that will help us do it best?

The blockbuster film Dunkirk by Director Patrick Nolan recreated one of military history’s greatest oxymoron; the successful retreat. Yet it failed to answer the more pressing question of how those hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers got surrounded on that beach in the first place? Just as well. The answer would’ve hijacked the uplifting theme of “Dunkirk spirit” heroism with a bleak and sordid, narcocorrido.

Thanks to Blitzed, the eye-opening book by journalist Norman Ohler, we know that the NAZI blitzkrieg through western Europe that pinned the Allied forces against the English Channel was fueled by the same thing that turned Breaking Bad’s Walter White into Heisenberg: meta-amphetamine. Only the Germans quaffed it down, most frequently, in the form of a little, blue pill call Pervitin.  It was more or less, the same chemical composition as the illicit ice or crystal used by today’s tweakers.

And while it was true, the Germans had deftly sidestepped France’s border defenses, the supposedly impenetrable Maginot line by cutting through Belgium, the NAZI juggernaut was able to keep going for weeks rather than days because of the drug. It suppressed both their appetites and their fatigue, helping them to advance more like machines than humans. But perhaps most troubling, meta-amphetamine toggles off deep inhibitions enabling soldiers, some researchers believed, to kill, at least at first, more efficiently, momentarily devoid of empathy or reflection.

The allies later came up with their own versions of the drug. But while journalists like Ohler and Polish academic Lukasz Kamienski, who published his own book, Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare in 2016, precisely document the drugs and killing connection in war, the larger question of why we need them at all hasn’t quite been pinned down.

Some argue that their use, ironically, is humanity’s victory, a sign that we’re just not cut out for this killing business and need a little crystal blue persuasion to get us to pull the trigger. But others argue, the effort to adapt and overcome our reluctance, is proof that we are born, stone-cold killers. To interrogate the arguments properly, we need to take a look at the timeline.

Historically, drugs and alcohol have been as essential to our war machines as boulders to a medieval trebuchet and banana clips to the modern Kalashnikov. For instance, opium poppy was first referenced in Homer’s Odyssey as nepenthes or “the drink of oblivion,” which comrades of those killed in the Trojan War drank to drown their sorrows. 

Alexander the Great’s Macedonians were voracious wine drinkers -- as were the Greeks and Romans, imbibing first to calm their nerves, then after in celebration or solemnity.  Among the Vikings, there was a subset of Norse warriors known as berserkers who wore bearskins, carried giant swords and axes and who fought with such animalistic ferocity that they were thought to be possessed by some mystical frenzy. But in reality, the state was likely caused by ingesting either Amanita muscaria or Amanita pan-therina, -- hallucinogenic mushrooms, either likely to turn your average Viking into a froth-mouthed, blade-wielding, whirling dervish. 

Then there are the Hashashin, (romanticized in our modern times, first by the video game and now the movie Assassin’s Creed) the notorious, 11th Century Shia assassins whose very name etymology may be derived in part, from the legend that they smoked hashish before undertaking their killing work. Although many historians doubt the veracity that these devout Muslims, who often immersed themselves deeply in the language and culture of their enemies, only to emerge years later from their ancient sleeper cells to strike with stealth and precision, would’ve altered themselves and compromised their killing effectiveness.

In the Middle Ages, The Knights of the Templar, the monks purportedly fighting to liberate the Holy Land, were such infamous lushes that they inspired the expression “to drink like a Templar,” the equivalent of getting smashed. And France’s greatest general, Napoleon was quoted in true Gaelic form:

“In war, there is always time for champagne. In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.”

He apparently put his money where his mouth was, building gin and rum factories to supply his troops, believing that alcohol could help maintain the esprit du corps.

Even the highly disciplined, some would argue, uptight Japanese Samurai, would have a drink of sake before battle and reportedly, liked to get very drunk afterward. By the 1800’s -- armies both in India and China were using opium on widespread levels, but with different impact. Indian troops were seemingly stimulated by the drug while Chinese soldiers were tranquilized. We’ll examine the reasons for a little later.

British sailors had a tradition of daily grog or rum rations for hundreds of years. It became so intertwined with the service, that there were sometimes mutinies at times when it was suspended. Also, the expression “Dutch Courage” was named for the drinks English sailors threw back to steady their nerves before attacking ships from the Netherlands.

In World War I alcohol abuse became so prevalent on all sides that it impacted combat readiness of entire units. While in World War II the success of the Nazi blitzkriegs through Europe, as mentioned earlier, may have had as much to do with the amphetamines they were using as their weapons and tactics.

But while alcohol has often been war’s predominant drug of choice, America’s war in Vietnam ushered in a whole new range of intoxicant use both in number of users and variety, for U.S. GI’s.  A virtual Purple Haze, so blanketed America’s military at that time that according to the U.S.’s own Department of Defense, by 1968 as many as half of American soldiers deployed in Vietnam took some kind of drugs. Five years later by the time of America’s withdrawal from the war that number went up 70-percent, with over 50-percent smoking marijuana, 28-percent using hard drugs, mostly heroin, and over 30-percent using hallucinogens or psychedelics.

Some researchers believe, the popularity of hallucinogens with some troops may be that, despite their roles, they identified with the anti-war sentiment in the U.S. and around the world, the counter-culture or hippie movements which embraced, hallucinogens of all forms, pot, LSD and mushrooms. And in these cases, conscripted soldiers weren’t necessarily trying to enhance their killing efficiencies, but to transcend the battle environment completely, to be taken to another reality altogether.

Stories of today’s battlefields seem just as fueled by intoxicants. Journalists pouring through abandoned ISIS bunkers in Syria have found them covered in pill bubble packets of painkillers and anti-anxiety meds. In an interview for my own book, The Things They Cannot Say, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant Mikeal Auton told me about a particularly tenacious Iraqi insurgent inside a building, who simply would not die.

I personally threw five grenades into the hole and guy wouldn’t go down. Then EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) levels the whole rest of the building. But the dude sat up with AK-47 from rubble turned and looked at us—he was on adrenaline or something, another Sgt. tossed another grenade. You rarely encounter someone like that—you give respect for something like that—for bravery or whatever else. I can clearly picture him skinny 5’9 clean shaven face, black hair, black t-shirt pair of jean, his body full of holes after the grenade.

-- Mikeal Auton

It’s a complicated thing to examine the role of alcohol and drugs as they relate to conflict and killing … simply because there are so many possible angles and prisms of view.  For instance: there’s the organized use by militaries to instigate their soldiers’ killing instincts, individual soldier’s personal choices to help find courage or steady their nerves or even numb themselves to the process, then, on a macro level—there’s the actual trafficking of illicit drugs by rebels, insurgents and even government to fund entire war efforts.

In juxtaposition to that dark history though, they’ve also served medicinal purposes on the battlefield: to disinfect or anesthetize and treat disease and injury.

They’re responsible for saving soldiers’ lives, both physically and mentally. In some cases, their beneficial application is both unorthodox and unsurprising, the use of cannabis for chronic pain …and even new research shows promising results of using drugs like MDMA, also referred to as Ecstasy or Molly on the club circuit, to help soldiers recover from combat-related post-traumatic stress. 

To fully understand the role of drugs in war, it’s important to categorize them according to their effects on mind and body. Drugs are natural or man-made substances that have affect our central nervous system by altering our level consciousness. They’re grouped in three specific categories in the way they alter our minds:

  1. Stimulants: which enhance the activity of the central nervous system and produce psychical and or physical arousal.

Examples: amphetamines and cocaine.

  1. Depressants: or hypnotics which retard the activity of the nervous system and have a relaxing, tranquilizing, somniferous or euphoric effects.

Examples: alcohol, barbiturates, opium and opiates.

  1. Hallucinogens: which disturb the activity of the central nervous system and substantial alter the perception of reality.

Examples: atropine, cannabis, mescaline, sco-polo-mine, LSD, MDMA.

Each type, in different forms, has had its place in the history of warfare.


The NAZI Third Reich attacked many things that it considered deviant behavior, jazz music, certain types of art, but most of all they decried the use of intoxicants. All intoxicants. Nazi Party doctrine stated that any type of psychoactive substance; alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and opium we’re “inebriant poisons” that weekend the vitality of the Aryan Master Race.

So, it’s not without a little irony to learn that the NAZIS pioneered the use of amphetamines by their soldiers in 1938. Almost every other army, both Allied and Axis powers, followed suit. But let’s focus on the NAZIS for the moment, because it’s in their use of the meta-amphetamine Pervitin, that was essential to the operational success of the NAZI Blitzkrieg through Europe. The tactical advantage of the lightning advance of German Panzer tanks and German Stukka dive-bombers, was enabled to a great degree by the organized distribution and consumption of Pervitin.

Basically, the speed of the NAZI advance was directly related to the speed they were taking. The NAZI became the first army on meth. And this nicely complimented which complimented the myth of Aryan Lebensraum or the NAZI as superhuman with unmatched endurance.

And initially it did give them, what could be considered, superhuman characteristics; it heated up their bodies---so cold weather wasn’t a factor, it suppressed their appetites—so hunger wasn’t a factor, it made them highly alert—immune to exhaustion and the need for sleep. And there were some psychological advantages as well, at least if your job was to kill. It made them more aggressive, irritable and even a little paranoid. Following the invasion of Poland, and during the course of the conquest of Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, German soldiers use of meth was extraordinary.

According to Ohler’s book, Blitzed, more than 35 million pills of Pervitin and a modified version called Isophan, were issued. And the Third Reich’s leadership believed the drug had a very positive affect on their troop’s performance, that it was, “very useful in modern battle conditions when used in mass attacks.”

Then in 1940, the British discovered strange pills in the possession of German Luftwaffe pilots shot down during bombing raids over London. The Royal Air Force commission analysis on the pills and found that the German pilots were using meta-amphetamine. Some British military leaders suggested that they look into providing methamphetamine to their own pilots, especially those engaged in providing air cover for naval convoy and other involved in long-range missions. The British found that Benzedrine, a form of amphetamines, boosted the performance of their own pilots. Soon pep pills” became an official part of the British military effort as well. 

Once the Americans joined the war effort in 1941, they too saw the benefits of Benzedrine pills or “bennies” and made them available to their flyers.

Japan, allied with Germany during World War II, was equally attracted to the benefits of amphetamines or “cat-eye” tablets,” not only their troops, but also the society as a whole. Every civilian in Japanese society working in the arms industry was expected to use one 24 different types of amphetamine tablets available in the Japanese market to maintain their productivity.

But perhaps the most infamous chapter in the annals of amphetamine use in the Japanese military was by the Tokka-tai or kamikaze pilots who were supplied so called, “storming tablets,” a methamphetamine blended with green tea and stamped with the Emperor’s seal before they undertook their one-way, suicide missions against Allied ships and troops.

So, with all of these military forces consuming amphetamines and methamphetamines at insane levels was World War II -- really a battle of super humans? Not for long.

The Germans, first in to the meta-amphetamine game, were also the first to begin to experience the drugs downsides. While it could provide some initial physiological and psychological benefits, there were severe repercussions to prolonged use.

These included: heart palpitations, loss of breath, dizziness, heart and liver damage, severe depression and most evident—collapse from exhaustion when the pills could no longer push their bodies forward … or, when there was a cut off in supply. Many German soldiers also became addicted to the Pervitin or Isophan pills…which left them in poor shape when pills were delivered late or not at all.

The German leadership began to notice that many soldiers were in extremely bad shape, even just one day after they began taking the pills. One of the issues, which seems paradoxical for the NAZI killing machine, was the pills could make their troops too aggressive, leading to civilian massacres that were not sanctioned, as their officers lost control of their troops.

The Germans began dialing back the distribution of methamphetamine to their troops,but didn’t stop completely. They still issued 10 million pills to the Eastern Front, but also provided an instructional booklet titled, “Guidelines for Detecting and Combatting Fatigue.” The booklet mentioned some of the side-effects of Pervitin use. But even with the drug’s problems, it remained popular among the German troops. In Shooting Up, Gerd Schmuckle, a member of the 7th Panzer Division explained it’s attraction this way:

The pills seemed to remove the sense of agitation. I slid into a world of bright indifference. Danger lost its edge. One’s own power seemed to increase. After the battle one hovered in a strange sense of intoxication in which a deep need for sleep fought with a clear alertness.

And how could rank and file troops be asked to moderate their use of the drugs, when the German High Command was also perpetually high? Top NAZI leader Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering, both had addictions to morphine and other drugs, while Hitler himself, at times seem to be equally intoxicated and not just by his own power. Ohler’s research in Blitz, indicates, that indeed he was.

Ohler writes that Hitler’s personal physician, Theodor Morrell made himself indispensable to the Fuehrer, less doctor than drug pusher. He assuaged Hitler’s hypochondria with prescriptions for about 150 pills per week as well as daily injections of his own concoction, sometimes containing mixtures of strychnine, hormones and meta-amphetamine.

Often Morell gave the Fuhrer an injection before his speeches to up his energy level. Some now theorize that his fiery oratories and ability to move the masses were pharmacologically enhanced. This leads to questions on us how much influence drugs actually had in both the philosophies, decisions and ultimate machinations of one of history’s most brutal mass killers.


Unlike amphetamines--alcohol is a central nervous system depressant—yet despite that fact, it’s been employed by militaries throughout the history of warfare. The flow of alcohol and the flow of blood have traditionally been the twin rivers running through the centuries of human conflict. But why? There are, according to Kamienksi, both biological and sociological reasons.  First, alcohol can hijack the amygdala, that part of our brain that controls fear.

Alcohol strengthens the willingness to take risk by increasing self-confidence, undermining prudence and impairing judgment therefore moderately inebriated soldiers might be expected to do things that sober would hardly risk doing. Freeling all powerful and invincible, they for example, march over barbed wire waving a bayonet at a murderous machine guns.

But secondly, perhaps its most powerful role, the author points out, is helping to turn soldiers that are strangers to each other-- into comrades; the universal military concept of small group cohesion.

Group drinking strengthens bonds and builds trust between companions which is essential for the smooth operation of a unit and the survival of its members. In short, by intensifying intimacy between soldiers, alcohol fosters the establishment and maintenance of brotherhood among them.

Too much alcohol, though Kamienski warns like an advert to drink responsibly, “can be ruinous.”


It starts to make sense, a little alcohol can help bond and motivate, a lot and everything can go pear-shaped, fast. So, what about another depressant with a long connection to warfare? Opium.  Opium has long been used recreationally, but also as a painkiller for illness and injury large and small, including the wounds of war, both physical and psychological.

It was behind two wars in China in the mid 19th century. From 1839-1842 and again from 1856-1860.  The British, later joined by the French fought to force China to allow them to sell opium in China. The Opium Wars, historians have noted, were fought to ensure a “free trade in poison.”  

Because of the pervasive supply of opium in the region, many of the Chinese troops defending their nations from the influx of opium were, ironically, they themselves addicts—perhaps as many as 90-percent of the Emperor’s Army.  And because of this, things did not go well.  China was forced to capitulate to the European nations demands in both wars.

But if alcohol could sometimes play a beneficial role in an army’s performance, why not opium? The fact was, it could. and in some cases, it had. Indian forces used small amounts of opium, with good success, But the Chinese were not using moderately, as mentioned. As addicts, they needed more and more of the drug not to be sick. The highly addictive nature of the drug already mitigates is usefulness as a performance enhancer in war. And there’s another factor that separates opium from alcohol in terms of military usefulness. While moderate drinking of alcohol can often be social and help in small unit cohesion, opium’s strong narcotic effect often puts their users to sleep or into a narcotic haze. Even troops who use opium together, find that their high eventually separates them. It’s hard to bond when everyone has fallen asleep. 

But opium’s minor value before or during battle, is mitigated to some extent as both a physical and psychological painkiller after. It has long been our nepenthes, but we smoke or inject rather than drink it,  to arrive at the same place, oblivion.

Few places is this more evident to than in Afghanistan. There opium profits both fuel the Never-Ending War while an ever-increasing number of its citizens treat their collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with the drug.

Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium poppies in the world, the raw material from which heroin is made. When it comes to supplying the world with smack, the country has no equal. But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that while Afghanistan was once content to be a supplier, after decades of war, it has now become a leading consumer of their own drugs.  The UN opium survey found that nearly one million Afghans between the ages of-ten and sixty-four are addicted to drugs.  At eight-percent of the population, this rate is twice the global average. While opium use as a painkiller has predated the wars there, the enormity of the current drug problem, some experts believe, may present a greater long-term threat to the stability of the nation than even its conflicts. A perpetual cycle of violence and addiction, they warn, is already in play.

A dank and fetid piece of ground under the Pul-e-Sokhta Bridge in West Kabul puts faces to these stats. It’s home to hundreds of rotating drug users that gather in the shadows to smoke, shoot up and nod off.  A river of raw sewage flows between them, creating a hellish landscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. Many here, including a young man I meet named Shir Shaw, who has pupils the size of pin-pricks, are former soldiers. Shaw says he steals, begs helps fill up taxis to buy the four ampules of heroin he needs each day.  Some of this same addiction among warriors is reflected in the U.S. or UK, where casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are first introduced to opiate-based painkillers like oxycodone. Later to find themselves snared in the throes of addiction, migrating to heroin or synthetics like Fentanyl in efforts to make themselves “whole” again, but instead find the death they evaded in wars overseas back in their own hometowns.


So where does all this lead us, this seemingly infinite connection of drugs and war, in rendering judgement on ourselves as killing beings? Are we tender hearts who need to dope up for the kill and to forget the dirty business when it’s done. Some think so. Journalist, sociologist and author (Blood Rites, amongst others), Barbara Ehrenreich feels our compass points that way. She writes:

Almost any drug or intoxicant has served in one setting or another to facilitate the transformation of man into warrior. Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon ingested a hallucinogen before battle; the ancient Scythian smoked hemp, while a neighboring tribe drank something call “hauma which is believed to have induced a frenzy of aggression. So, if there is a destructive instinct that impels men to war, it is a weak one, and often require a great deal help.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Those who think like she does, tend to believe that drugs help us to dehumanize and kill each other in war, the only way an otherwise mentally-health person can do it.

There’s merit in this. So many examples in history, such as our official war propaganda materials depict our enemies more as animals and reptiles rather than people. More recently, I’m reminded of an episode of the brilliant British-produced, sci-fi television series, Black Mirror, titled, “Men Against Fire.” In it, soldiers are given brain implants to see the targets of their violence, the so-called roaches, as threatening, beast-like creatures, making them easier to hunt and kill. In reality, they’re just another class of poor, marginalized people who might be a drain on a pool of finite resources held or sought by others.

But it can also be argued that the process of dehumanization is less a crutch of our learned killer shortcomings and more a deadly tool of our natural-born, killing instincts. That dehumanizing tool, whether through the psychological, brain-washing of propaganda (think of Hutu radio broadcasts in Rwanda inciting genocidal violence against the Tutsi “cockroaches”) or actual brainwashing through futuristic, Black Mirror-type implants … or our own self-deluding about our less-human enemies achieved through personal or institutional drug use in war, has proved itself undeniably effective.

In his 2007 book, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, philosopher David Livingstone Smith, comes to the conclusion that killing is indeed part of human nature, but he also gives us some wiggle room to not condemn ourselves too completely for it.

The track record of our species suggests that our taste for killing is not some sort of cultural artifact, but was bred into us over millions of years of natural and sexual selection. But we have also seen that there is something in human nature that recoils from killing and pulls us in the opposite directions. These contrary dispositions exist side by side within us and any explanation of war must honor the tension between them.

But how do we honor that tension?  More importantly, how do we begin to understand it? Self-deception, like those in the Ehrenreich camp, he also argues, is key. No matter how it is achieved.  Dehumanization is what enables us to kill, purportedly to ensure the survival of our own specific group.

Our relationship with killing is ambivalent, a compound of pleasure and aversion. Both are deeply rooted in human nature, and neither can be extirpated. If I am right, we will never stop men from enjoying war and trying to do so is a fool’s errand. The most that we can hope for, in the end, is for men to detest it more than they enjoy it and the only way to shift that balance is to expose the self-deception that makes killing bearable. If we can do this, however incompletely, we will have accomplished something heroic.

But perhaps shifting the balance through something heroic isn’t necessary at all. Perhaps it’s more practical. Simply find and use the right tool that help us make-up for our deficits. If we modify our ambivalence about killing in one direction through drugs, why can’t we do the same in the other direction. Why not use our mastery of pharmacology to make a substance that helps us to see each other not as competitors for resources, but peaceful cooperators in the challenge for human survival?

But then we will have to ask ourselves another question; “do we have another imperfect capacity, like killing, in our human nature? Say, the need for universal kinship?

Drugs have helped us become better killers. It’s tempting to imagine they could help us become worse ones.

Whether we are hard wired to kill or not is still in contention, but history has proven to us, unassailably, that we are born to cooperate. Both our most aspirational and destructive accomplishments, whether skyscrapers or nuclear-tipped missiles, are testament to that. But that cooperation is limited, usually in service to our family, tribe, community, religion or nation. Can we nudge past those boundaries with a little chemical assist? But we have to want the universal kinship part of our nature to succeed, one way or another. But it maybe be that we’ve simply reinforced the killer in us for so long, the better angels of our nature are impossible to summon …or already dead.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Sites is a former award-winning war correspondent (NBC, CNN, Yahoo! News). He currently teaches a course at The University of Hong Kong titled, Killing Stories: The Search for Truth in the Narratives of War, on which the research for this article was based.