Drugs and Ammo
Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, by Peter Andreas, Oxford University Press, 338 pages, $29.95
The military use of performance-enhancing drugs hasn’t evolved much since Vikings rushed into battle high on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Throughout history, armies have fought under the influence of one psychoactive chemical or another, sometimes with their commanders’ sanction and sometimes not: from the plant-based pharmacological highs of Zulu warriors to the vodka-numbed Cossacks in Crimea and from the coked-up British Tommies of World War I to the speeding American G.I.s of World War II. U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been routinely administered psychostimulants, steroids, and antidepressants to enhance combat performance. As long as there are wars to fight, governments will forever be trying to turn regular grunts into a more sophisticated version of that old Scandinavian berserker.
Indeed, after reading Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, you might start to suspect that a warring nation’s troops are only as good as the performance-enhancing substances they ingest. Was it just a coincidence that the U.S. Civil War was won by the Union, which had limitless coffee stores, while the South had to fight uncaffeinated? Does it surprise anyone that the two world wars, frequently fought under the influence of uppers, lasted a combined total of 10 years, while Vietnam—a conflict marked by less energizing chemicals, such as cannabis, alcohol, and heroin—took a laggardly 12 years? And if you want grand tales of “liquid courage,” look no further than the Russian army, shitfaced on cheap vodka since at least the early 18th century.
In Killer High, the Brown University political scientist Peter Andreas makes a persuasive case that you can’t separate the history of war from the history of drugs. The sextet of famously addictive stimulants and depressants at the center of Killer High—caffeine, tobacco, opium, alcohol, cocaine, and amphetamines—have, Andreas writes, “fueled imperial expansi
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