A Brief History of Drug Use in War

Posted by Jackson Bentley on Jun 26, 2018 8:00:00 AM
Jackson Bentley
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One of the less widely illustrated facts about the history of war is its inextricable ties to drug use. Since the beginning of civilization, intoxicants have been used during wartime to inspire courage, dull pain, and temper boredom. From B.C. Greek warriors drinking wine to U.S. soldiers taking heroin in Vietnam, substance use has been tied to armed conflict for centuries. This article will take a look at the history of drug use during warfare, from ancient civilizations to the modern landscape.


Drug Use In War Time


By examining patterns of substance use during wartime and acknowledging the ramifications that these substances can have on our military and civilian population we can build better policies and support systems in the future. Veterans are susceptible to traumatic brain injury and PTSD and may turn to drugs and alcohol as a method of coping. By working with government support agencies and advocacy groups, more research into treatment options will become possible.


Fortifying Spirits

Empty bottles of wine. Fortifying spirits were among the high drug use during wartime.

It should be no surprise that alcohol has long been the go to drug for increasing courage during war time. In the days of ancient Greece, it was not an uncommon occurrence to give soldiers daily rations of booze, for motivation, courage, and in some cases payment. Military campaigns at the time involved long treks, and it could be several years before a soldier would return to his family. One of the most notorious drinkers in the ancient world was Alexander the Great. Alexander and his army of Macedonians conquered more than half of the civilized world, and a good portion of that time was spent drunk. In fact, while in India, Alexander decided to host a wine-drinking contest with his soldiers and the locals. However, 41 out of 42 contestants died on the spot from alcohol poisoning. The winner, a Greek, would die four days layer from alcohol poisoning.


Other notorious imbibers were the Vikings. The Vikings and other Germanic tribes were feared for their courage, strength, and ferocity in battle, but they were also infamous for their drinking abilities. No Viking victory was complete without a proper celebration of consuming beer, ale, and mead. The Vikings enjoyed alcohol so much that they preferred making important decisions while sloshed. The Roman writer Publius Cornelius Tacitus wrote in his book:


“For they think that at no time is the mind more open to simplicity of purpose or more warmed to noble aspirations. A race without either natural or acquired cunning, they disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity. Thus the sentiments of all having been discovered and laid bare, the discussion is renewed on the following day, and from each occasion its own peculiar advantage is derived.”


But alcohol use in warfare hasn’t been unique to Europe. In Japan, Samurai included sake drinking as part of pre-battle rituals, along with prayer and a special meal. The ritual, known Bushi-nin, was carried on by the Samurai until their eventual disappearance by the late 1800’s. However, Kamikaze pilots during WWII revived this tradition. Speaking of, methamphetamine was developed by Japanese scientists prior to World War II, and it’s rumored that methamphetamine was distributed to soldiers and kamikaze pilots.



While we typically associate psychedelic substances with peace, hippies, and good music, some substances have been used in the past to aid in battle. When the British attempted to subjugate the Zulu tribes in the late 19th century, they faced ferocious opposition from what seemed to be fearless warriors. While the Zulu certainly weren’t thrilled to be invaded, their ire was reinforced by a chemical combination of beer, cannabis, painkillers, and a hallucinogenic herb called dagga. Prior to battle, the tribesmen would ingest these various substances to enhance their perception, courage, and pain tolerance. The Siberian tribes of Chukchi, Kamchadals, and Koryaks were all avid users of the Amanita mushroom, a powerful hallucinogen. During WWII, Soviet soldiers from Siberia were reportedly stoned on this mushroom during the Battle of Szekesfehervar in Hungary in 1945.



Opium along with alcohol is one of the oldest battlefield tonics in history. In fact, opium and its variants have played in a part in most armed conflicts since the 18th century. It found its way to America when Chinese immigrants brought it with them. Morphine was developed in the early 19th century by German scientists and used as a painkiller during the Civil War. After the war ended, American witnessed heaps of soldiers still hooked on the substance, which proved to be just as, if not more so, addictive than morphine. During the war, an estimated 400,000 people sought treatment for morphine addiction.



The first world war brought cocaine to the front lines of Europe. Cocaine was isolated in 1859 by German scientist Albert Niemann, and the drug rapidly became a popular ingredient in recreational and medical tonics. In fact, by 1905, nasal damage from snorting cocaine had become a common cause for doctor’s office visits, and in 1912, the United States government reported 5,000 cocaine-related deaths. At the onset of World War I, popular news publications such as the Times and Daily Chronicle were stoking fears of a cocaine panic throughout the United States.


Cocaine and morphine were both widely popular intoxicants used by soldiers on the front lines. Cocaine was more widely promoted than morphine because it helped servicemen stay awake on long tours. Cocaine was distributed freely among most nations involved in the first World War. However, due to the destructive nature of the conflict, worldwide production of cocaine declined from 1914 onwards; until 1919 as a result of the War and increasingly thereafter because of restrictions surrounding usage initiated by the League of Nations. By 1930 the legal cocaine market had shrunk to 30% of its peak in 1913. Along with cocaine, alcohol was also extremely popular and was even ratioed to front line troops by most participating nations. British troops were rationed 2.5 fl ounces of rum, French troops were rationed a half litre of wine, while Russians consumed Vodka and Americans consumed Whiskey.


World War II and the Fuel for the Nazi War Machine

The Nazis were one of the first to pioneer the wholesale production and distribution of military dope. The pill they created, Pervitin, was a methamphetamine analog similar to crystal meth, and the drug was intended to promote energy and alertness while combatting fatigue. In 1939, the pharmaceutical giant Temmler-Werke supplied the German military with 29 million Pervitin pills, and in 1940 more than 35 million. Overall, it is estimated that the German military may have consumed upwards of 200 million Pervitin pills during the course of the war, which is nothing to say of the cocaine and opiates that were also consumed. During the invasion of France, for example, the German army captured more territory in 100 hours than they had over the course of the entire first World War.


In Germany, the Nazis outlawed the wholesale production of many narcotics, but in 1937 patented the Pervitin drug, along with a special brand of chocolate, Pervitin, that contained 13 mg of methamphetamine per serving. These drugs may indeed have altered history, considering the speed and temerity of the Nazi war machine was infamous throughout Europe. A stimulant decree was issued in April of 1940 distribute as many Pervitin pills as possible to the front lines, including during the Blitzkrieg invasion of France through the Ardennes mountains. However, it should be noted that the Germans were not the only side to utilize performance enhancing drugs, and the Allies consumed many amphetamines as well.


The most authoritative literature on the subject is “Der Total Rausche”, by German author Norman Ohler. Ohler examined front line drug usage as well as Nazi leadership. It turns out that many of Hitler’s closest party members among the top tier of leadership all heavily dabbled in chemicals. The records of Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Theo Morell, revealed that Hitler received 800 injections over the years. Hitler met Dr. Morell in 1936. Morell was well known at the time for giving vitamin injections, and Hitler being an infamous health nut, quickly enlisted the doctor to help administer his daily vitamin intake. From the fall of 1941 up until Hitler’s death, the fuhrer’s drug consumption increased from daily vitamin injections to daily opiate and hormone injections. Ernst Udet, the Chief of Aircraft Procurement and Supply was hooked on methamphetamine, while Goring earned the nickname Moring from his strong predilection for morphine.


In Sachsenhausen, prisoners were forced to ingest experimental new drugs that contained a cocktail mixture of cocaine, methamphetamine, and Eukodal (an opioid analog similar to Oxycodone) and forced to run in circles with a backpack all night long. The SS carried out these experiments across concentration camps, including in Dachau where prisoners were unknowingly pumped full of mescaline and carefully observed.


Towards the end of the war, Hitler’s personal relationship with drugs took a downward turn. The factory that produced much of Germany's opiates destroyed by British Air Raids in December of 1944. In Morell’s notes, he describes being unable to supply the Fuhrer with the same amount of drugs that he needed on a daily basis. In late April of 1945, Hitler fired Morell and reportedly screamed at the doctor that he had been “poisoning him with opiates the whole time”. Historical debate is still waged over whether Hitler was suffering from withdrawals or early onset Parkinsons by the war’s end. Footage from Nazi war propaganda towards the end of the war shows that Hitler often had to disguise his body from shaking while making public appearances. There’s no way to know for sure, because his medical records indicate that he had stopped being given the same amount of opiates necessary, and that he was also taking Parkinson’s medication.


Heroin and Amphetamines in Vietnam

According to a 1971 report by the Department of Defense, over 51% of the armed forces in Vietnam smoked marijuana, 31% had taken psychedelics, and 28% had taken hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. A report by the House Select Committee on Crime reported that between 1966 and 1969, armed forces in Vietnam consumed over 225 million tablets of prescription stimulants. Sedatives were also heavily used to help relieve anxiety and boredom. Arguably, the drugs worked: the rate of mental breakdowns in soldiers was only 1% compared to 10% in World War II. Marijuana’s widespread usage during the war was eventually clamped down when media attention lead to an outcry back home for keeping the troops more in line. In 1968, the Army began arresting roughly 1000 G.I.’s per week for marijuana possession. A study on the total number of drug addicted soldiers by the Pentagon found that 20% of soldiers were habitual heroin users by wars end.


Iraq and Afghanistan

Misuse of drugs and alcohol is still a problem among America’s military service members today. In fact, binge drinking alcohol is more common among military men and women than in civilians. Nearly 50% of respondents reported binge drinking within the last month in a 2008 survey, and for those with more exposure to combat that number is even higher. Illicit drug use is lower for enlisted personnel than the general public, however, prescription drug abuse has been on the rise for the last decade. Data from the Department of Defense shows a marked increase in military use of painkillers such as percocet, oxycontin, and vicodin, along with a stimulant drugs such as Red Bull, NoDoz, and Dexedrine. Additionally, benzodiazepines and synthetic analogs such as Ambien and Restoril are commonly used to aid in sleep. During the Iraq War, for example, prescription narcotics for active duty troops increased from 33,000 a month in 2003 to more than 55,000 a month in 2007. The Army Suicide Prevention Taskforce released a report in 2010 finding that 29% of active-duty suicides involved alcohol or drug use.



Next Steps

Landmark Recovery is a place where people struggling with chemical dependency problems can find answers to the issues that have tormented them for months, years or decades. Whether you Our dedicated clinicians, nurses and medical staff will help you or your loved one find solutions that “stick” for a lifetime. We’re waiting to hear from you. Call one of our caring admissions consultants today to find out about our comprehensive program at our inpatient drug and alcohol rehab centers.



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