2020年1月3日 星期五

At War: A history of war in 6 drugs

An impressive and eclectic mix of sources give drugs a fuller place in discussions of war.
via Oxford University Press
Author Headshot

By C. J. Chivers


Dear reader,

In a newly released book, “Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs,” Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University, has drawn from an impressive and eclectic mix of sources to give psychoactive and addictive drugs a fuller place in discussions of war.

His book steps back from the headlines to draw a full arc that reads as both complement and counterpoint to enduring fables and simplistic accounts surrounding wars and nations you may think you know. Organized into six main chapters on the varied drugs-war relationships — one each for alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, speed and cocaine — it offers a fascinating interpretive lens for drugs’ roles in making war and, in turn, wars’ roles in spreading drugs around the world.

Andreas agreed to answer a few questions for readers of At War, offering insights veterans might not have heard in their military schools about the intensity of the drugs-war relationship across time and the degree to which many storied military units were hooked on drugs, either for funding or performance:

One theme kept recurring in “Killer High”: hypocrisy. From the Y.M.C.A. reversing its antismoking stance to lead World War I cigarette drives for troops to the American government dropping its long tolerance of Manuel Noriega’s cocaine trafficking and framing his involvement as a national-security risk, the book is thick with institutions taking sharply contradictory positions about psychoactive and addictive drugs. What does this tell us about war?


Hypocrisy is indeed a subtext in the long story of drugs and war — and it is not only the Americans. During the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were staunch prohibitionists when it came to alcohol, labeling it a capitalist vice, but once they took power, they returned to the old ways of the Russian czars and turned to vodka revenue to fill state coffers. Similarly, Nazi ideology was also an antidrug ideology, yet the state aggressively pushed methamphetamines on its soldiers, and Hitler himself was a junkie dictator. Again and again throughout history, we’ve seen that the imperatives of war and preparation for war have tended to override health concerns about drugs. But not always. As I show, war has sometimes also enabled antidrug campaigns — as was the case of World War I enabling the rise of America’s ill-fated Prohibition experiment.

You point out the “common tendency to view recent developments as entirely new,” and in the drugs-war relationship, not much is new at all. In this sense, Chiang Kai-shek’s use of opium traffickers to suppress Communists in Shanghai read like a familiar model of military pragmatism in partnering with unsavory actors for tactical and operational gains. How does it compare to the Pentagon’s partnership with Afghan warlords, politicians and security forces — the elements of a narco-state — in campaigns against the Taliban?

In Afghanistan, the United States has been propping up a narco-state, routinely glossing over institutionalized drug corruption, in its efforts to battle a drug-funded insurgency. So in Afghanistan today we have more of a war for drugs and a war through drugs than a war against drugs. An important difference in the earlier China case is that the Communists were actually not nearly as reliant on the opium trade — even as Washington depicted them as a leading trafficking threat. In fact, after Mao took power, the Communists undertook a sweeping and draconian antidrug campaign that probably qualifies as the world’s most successful “war against drugs.”

Before income taxes were firmly established, many wars were in large measure funded by taxes on vice. What are the best examples?


There are countless examples of this, but some of the most prominent include the drug-funded rise of major imperial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries. From a broader historical perspective one could argue that Britain was the first true narco-state and even a narco-empire when we consider the financial importance of not only the tea (caffeine) and opium trades but also reliance on alcohol and tobacco taxes. Meanwhile, vodka revenue was an essential ingredient in Imperial Russia’s ability to mobilize the largest standing army in Europe, though Russia probably had the most alcoholic army as well.

The Blitzkrieg was fueled by speed, with hopped-up, nearly sleepless German soldiers popping Pervitin (the trade name for a contemporaneous methamphetamine tablet) issued by commanders as they raced across Europe and bewildered foes with the rapidity of their advance. Tell us about other conventional forces and their reliance on amphetamines.

All of the major powers during World War II, with the notable exception of the Russians, disbursed amphetamines to their fighting forces. Although the Germans were the early adopters of pill-popping on the battlefield, the British and the Americans were not far behind. And for the Japanese, total mobilization for war included drugging not only Kamikaze pilots but also defense-industry workers, giving the country a methamphetamine habit that long outlasted the war itself.

Although the American military’s issue of amphetamines and other “go pills” to its forces has been covered episodically for years, the practice has not gained much traction in public discussions of Pentagon practices. Why do you think this is so?

It is interesting that even as the country became increasingly aware of the serious health consequences of amphetamines in the 1960s and lawmakers criminalized their nonmedical use, the U.S. military nevertheless continued to aggressively prescribe the drug during the Vietnam War, and the pills were now much more potent than during World War II. Far more public and media scrutiny was devoted to soldier heroin use — fear of heroin-addicted G.I.s coming home even helped Nixon justify declaring a war against drugs — yet amphetamines was arguably a more serious problem. The enduring appeal of amphetamine-type stimulants in the military is not hard to understand, especially for sleep-deprived pilots. And it’s not just the American military. Military strategists around the world continue to look for ways to give their forces a fighting edge, and this includes dreaming of chemically enhanced super-soldiers requiring less rest and sleep. Much of the interest in recent years has focused on Modafinil, a drug that is considered less addictive and has fewer negative side effects than amphetamines. It reminds me a bit of the initial excitement about the battlefield applications of amphetamines.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

— C.J.

C.J. Chivers is assigned to The New York Times Magazine. He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and is also the author of “The Gun,” a history of automatic weapons.

Looking for another long read? A new special report by USA Today is worth your time, both on merit and in light of The Washington Post’s release of the Afghan Papers. The report — “Inside the U.S. military’s raid against its own security guards that left dozens of Afghan children dead” — revisits an ill-fated American raid in 2008 that left scores of Afghan civilians dead and that the American military whitewashed. It’s a case of journalism doing the hard work of truth-seeking that the government won’t, and a bracing reminder to be wary of official war reports.



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