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War & Drugs: Veteran Battles Ep 1 – From Tank to Tanked

Hosted by Lauren Brande & Written by Dan Wagener | Published 3/30/18

Listen On: SoundCloud | Youtube | iTunes | Google Play

Welcome back to Let’s Talk Drugs! My name is Lollie and in this series we wanted to talk about the deep-rooted (and consequential) connection between drugs and war.

Many of us have seen drug use depicted in war movies. The movie “Platoon” is a popular one from 1986. The film is based on Oliver Stone’s experiences as a GI in Vietnam and explores opposing views of the war. In a classic scene from “Platoon,” Chris Taylor, a young troop member new to the platoon, gets inducted into the underground world of pot-smoking by the other members of the squad. The evening ends in troop bonding through shared laughs and karaoke, complete with a telling message: “Feeling good is good enough.”

But American GIs deep in the jungle weren’t the only fighters who got high. In fact, according to some scholars, soldiers have drank, smoked, and popped pills in the trenches through countless wars.

Lukasz Kamienski, a Polish historian and author, argues that drugs have been used for centuries in warfare. But since the issue is considered very controversial, few scholars have investigated it.1 Only recently have writers like Kamienski begun to tackle the topic. There was even a book written last year about Nazi drug use, by Norman Ohler.

Soldiers may take drugs for many reasons:

  • Numb pain from wounds or for surgery
  • Become fearless in battle
  • March longer distances or stay awake for extended periods of time to fight
  • Bond with other troops, which is good for creating a cohesive fighting force where everyone has each other’s backs
  • Trauma, such as seeing your friends killed or killing someone else

Today, we’re going to dive a little deeper into why drugs are used during war. This is the first episode in a three-part series on drugs in warfare. In the following episodes we’ll look at the unfortunate side effect of all this wartime drug-taking: addiction, and how it’s treated among vets.


First, let’s talk about how drugs were used as medicine in battle.

In the American Civil War, doctors used opium and morphine to treat pain, illness, and disease. Throughout the war, the Union army ordered 10 million opium pills, which doesn’t include other forms of the drug they probably used, including tinctures, derivatives, or patent medicines.2

They applied powdered opium and liquid morphine to gunshot wounds. One Union physician reported that he would use the tip of his knife as a measure, fill it with powdered opium, and dust it over open wounds.2

Morphine and opium were also used to treat intestinal illnesses such as dysentery, which can cause diarrhea, by causing one of the most common side effects of opioids: constipation. Doctors believed the morphine treatment was better than allowing the men to die from fatal dehydration.2

The invention of the hypodermic needle around this time led to the use of injectable morphine as a pain reliever,4 which was very effective. In addition to pain relief, morphine use may result in euphoria and an impaired level of consciousness, drowsiness, stomach cramps, dry mouth, and headache, which can cause all sorts of other problems for active soldiers.5,6

Civil War docs also used alcohol as a pain reliever, which, even though it was thought to be a stimulant, actually suppresses the nervous system and dilates blood vessels, which can be especially bad if the person is actively losing blood or already having trouble maintaining consciousness.3

The physicians did the best they could with what they had at the time. The problem was, the pervasive use of morphine—including the use of the hypodermic syringe to inject it—contributed to massive rates of addiction after the war.


Another reason war and drugs have been so closely linked is to boost courage and even encourage wartime aggression. A good example here are the Zulu.

In the late 1800s, the British wanted to colonize South Africa and set up provinces there. They were pretty close to this goal, except for one key setback: the Zulu.1

The Zulu lived in a kingdom that dominated much of Southern Africa. The British ordered them to disband their military, and of course they refused. So, the British decided to suppress them by force.1

In January 1879, at the battle of Isandlwana, 20,000-25,000 Zulu defeated about 1,700 well-armed British soldiers. You could point to a number of reasons why the British lost, including their own arrogance and pathetically low troop numbers. But one of the reasons may have been the drugs that the Zulu were on.1

Zulu shamans led rituals in which the warriors sought supernatural assistance in battle and ate psychoactive plants and herbs. They took intelezi, a plant that supposedly banished evil spirits and enhanced morale. It was also intended to protect the men from enemy attacks.1

They also took dagga, a South African variety of cannabis that had a stimulant effect and made them braver. And they may have also taken Amanita muscaria, a hallucinogenic mushroom with a long history of ritualistic use.1

After ingesting these drugs, the Zulu charged into battle without fear, confident that their gods would protect them. The anesthetic effects of the plants and herbs allowed them to continue fighting, even through serious injuries.1 Sir Henry Bartle Frere, the British high commissioner for Southern Africa, described them as a “frightfully efficient manslaying machine.”1 Drugs helped the Zulu stay focused and determined during wartime, which led them to victory in this 1879 battle.


We’re going to jump forward in time a bit now and focus on World War II, where drugs were used to increase endurance and reduce fatigue.

In 1937, the Germans patented Pervitin, a methamphetamine pill.7 An Army doctor, Otto Ranke, believed that the drug could keep pilots and soldiers awake and alert for long periods of time. He tested it on university students in 1939. Then the Wehrmacht, the German army, began to distribute millions of them to soldiers, who called them “tank chocolate.”8 They were used in the campaign against Poland in 1939 and found to be highly successful.11

In July 1940, the Temmler factory in Berlin shipped more than 35 million doses of Pervitin to the German army and air force. Norman Ohler, an author who’s written about Nazi drug use during World War II, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that he believes the Nazi victory in the Battle of France that year was due to their meth use.9

He discussed the battle on CBS This Morning in 2017:

Norman Ohler: Before the Germans attacked France, the army decided to organize the Pervitin, the methamphetamine use, and 35 million dosages of meth –

CBS anchor 1: 35 million?

CBS anchor 2: Wow.

Ohler: Were being distributed in April and May when Germany got ready and then attacked and surprised France and the British armies who had no idea what was going on—what the so-called “Blitzkrieg” was.

Ohler says the soldiers marched for 36-50 hours without stopping.9 One German general claimed his men stayed awake for 17 days straight.10 While Ohler thinks that’s probably an exaggeration, he still believes drugs helped the Nazis win. After all, they only had 3 million troops compared to the Allies’ 4 million, and they weren’t fully prepared.9

Later on, a German pharmacist created a chewing gum that contained cocaine. The army handed these out to captains in one-man U-boats to stay awake longer. Many of these guys had mental breakdowns from being isolated in an enclosed space for long periods of time, which cocaine probably didn’t help with.9

When the Allies bombed the Temmler factory in 1945, the supply of meth dried up.9

The Nazis weren’t the only ones popping meth pills in the war, though. The British, Americans, and Japanese also took amphetamines, which were called Benzedrine. The Pentagon issued as many as 250 million Benzedrine pills to American troops. But that number could be as high as 500 million.11

Escape Reality and Trauma, Fight Boredom

About 20 years after WWII, America found itself in another conflict: Vietnam.

In the Vietnam war, just like World War II, the military used drugs to keep soldiers going. Men who were going on long-range reconnaissance missions were given “pep pills,” and soldiers who went on a four-day mission to Laos were given a medical kit that contained 12 tablets of Darvon (a mild painkiller), 24 tablets of codeine (an opioid), and 6 Dexedrine pills (a stimulant). Members of special units were also injected with steroids before long expeditions.12

But those fighting in Vietnam took drugs for another reason: to escape—the jungle, the horrors of war, and the disillusionment of the campaign. According to one survey, 43% of Vietnam soldiers said they used drugs to “escape” reality.1

Vietnam narrator: What’s happening here is also happening to some extent at virtually every other American installation in Vietnam. Recent surveys estimate that well over 50% of the soldiers in Vietnam use marijuana.

GI: You get really stoned, then, you know, who like cares about the war? (Laughs)

They battled heat, snipers, disease, fatigue, and death. The U.S. lacked a strategic objective, other than to win. This lack of direction affected overall morale. The army was also up against an unconventional enemy that knew the terrain. The main strategy was simply to kill as many Viet Cong as possible.1

Other factors may have contributed to widespread drug use in Vietnam. In this war, unlike previous ones, the young soldiers came from a culture where drug use was more acceptable. They didn’t have parents or other authority figures telling them what to do. And they dealt with a rotation policy in which individual soldiers were removed from units after a certain period of time and replaced with new ones. This policy may have added to feelings of alienation and loneliness, which can contribute to drug use.1

Soldiers also took drugs in Vietnam to deal with the boredom, which could be crippling. Their tasks and days could be very monotonous. One veteran said that “every day was the same as the last” and the only difference between days was that “maybe today would be wetter than yesterday.”1

The most common drugs available in Vietnam, according to a survey that sampled 451 vets, were marijuana, heroin, amphetamine, and opium. Marijuana was often smoked as a part of a group ritual and used to initiate new members in a platoon, just like the scene described earlier.1

During the war, the military also deployed psychiatrists into the field to treat soldiers with antipsychotics such as Thorazine. The goal was to prevent mental breakdowns and keep the soldiers fighting. It appeared to work. The rate of mental breakdowns among WWII soldiers was 10%. In the Korean War, it was 4%. But in Vietnam, the rate dropped to 1%.12

There may be a disconnect with these statistics, though, because the rate of Vietnam vets who suffered from PTSD, while not exactly known, may be somewhere around 400,000 to 1.5 million. Some studies put the number as high as 15.2% of all soldiers who fought in Southeast Asia.12 For some context, the past-year rate for PTSD among general U.S. adults is 3.6%, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.15

Current Use

Even today, drugs are used to keep troops revved up. The U.S. military allows drug use to limit fatigue. But the policy is limited to pilots.11 U.S. combat pilots who fly missions longer than 8 hours for 1 person or missions longer than 12 hours for 2 people can receive Dexedrine pills.11

Troops in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also use NoDoz (caffeine pills) and Red Bull to keep them alert and Ambien and other sedatives to help them sleep and ease anxiety.13

Many veterans of these wars are also prescribed opioid painkillers for chronic injuries. Prescriptions for opioids through the Veterans Administration increased 270% between 2000 and 2012. The jump led to addictions and a fatal overdose rate that was 2 times the national average.14

In response, the VA has cut the number of vets prescribed opioids by 20% since 2012, and the overall doses for about 17,000 patients. Despite these efforts, the number of vets with opioid addiction increased by 55% from 2010 to 2015.14

* * *

If you are a veteran struggling with addiction, or maybe you know a veteran facing these challenges, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help at . Our recovery support specialists are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to connect you with a recovery program that understands the unique needs of veterans. All you have to do is pick up the phone.

In our next episode, we’ll take a closer look at what happens to vets when they return from war environments where drug use was common. How do they cope with addiction? What other kinds of issues do they face, such as PTSD? And what kinds of issues are our vets facing today?

Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out on this important series! You can also follow us on Instagram at letstalkdrugspodcast. Reach out with #LetsTalkDrugs with what you think about the relationship between war and drugs. See you next time!

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National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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