Soldiers have always needed drugs to get them through their brutal missions.

Shooting Upby Łukasz Kamieński

Oxford University Press. 381p $29.95

As the title suggests, this book is meant to shock us—and it does. It shocks us to learn that drugs and alcohol are routinely issued to soldiers in times of warfare and always have been. We know the dangers of drugs and scorn those who have used them unfairly in sports. We are saddened by the widespread addictions in our society and understand their cost. How can we justify the military giving addictive pills to their warriors?

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Unfortunately, this book does not satisfactorily answer the question its title raises. The author makes no attempt to examine the viewpoint of moral authorities like the Catholic Church, for whom the use of drugs, except for therapeutic reasons, is a grave offense. Instead, he cites a multitude of famous authors, among them Friedrich Nietzsche, Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau and Simone Weil, who have written about human nature’s intimate association with intoxicants—in religious rituals and festivities as well as in warfare—to show that the urge toward them has always been tolerated and justified by society. He brings Machiavelli in to defend the role of expediency in matters of national security. He admits he sees no role for governmental regulation of intoxicants, citing the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, “who warned that all efforts to restrain personal behavior by force or legal regulation is more likely to arouse vices and dissoluteness than to reform them.”

Kamieński does break new ground, however, in tracing the historic connection of drugs to warfare as well as the transference that has always existed from battlefield use to use in the general population. His book represents a major research investigation that conclusively shows that drugs and warfare have always been inseparable. It is well researched, with more than 500 entries in its bibliography. It culls surprising information and a range of interesting anecdotes from its sources. We learn how soldiers have habitually used drugs and alcohol to better carry out their mission, screw up their courage, ward off pain and fatigue and forget the hardships and dangers they face.

Alcohol has been used since the beginning of history. Opium was used by the Greeks to invigorate their athletes in the Olympic games. In Homer’s epic, Ulysses and his companions use the “drink of oblivion,” thought to be opium juice, to relieve the stress of battle. Siberian tribes and Scandinavian “berserk” warriors used mushrooms and the urine of mushroom eaters to improve their stamina and unleash frenzy in battle. From early modern times, French troops were issued daily rations of wine. When Napoleon’s forces arrived in Egypt, their wine-drinking habits ran up against Islamic prohibitions. Soldiers took to hashish instead and helped spread that habit throughout France. British soldiers were issued rum, and Germans beer. Coca leaves and their offshoot, cocaine, have been used since the Spanish conquistadors discovered the Incas chewing the leaves in South America.

As the historical narrative moves into the mid-19th century, its focus turns to the United States. Opium was common then, and American doctors for the most part were ignorant of its dangers. The physician Oliver Wendell Holmes prized it as the only medicine “which the creator himself seems to prescribe.” It was used to alleviate pain, improve spirits and provide relaxation everywhere. When the damage it was causing became understood later in the century, the addiction was called “the soldier’s disease,” as its spread was popularly attributed to opium’s widespread use in the Civil War. World War I brought cocaine, which was used heavily by both the Allies and the Central Powers. The mid-20th century brought sophisticated pharmaceuticals—the Second World War: amphetamines; Korean War: methamphetamines; Vietnam War: dextroamphetamines—all administered by the military for combat conditions and later introduced into society as pain and stress killers.

One of the saddest chapters in the book examines the advantages contemporary armies find in using drugged and intoxicated child soldiers, and the difficulties adult soldiers find in confronting them on the battlefield. The phenomenon of drugged young combatants has been on the rise since the 1990s. “The employment of minors has become a deliberate strategy by many insurgent, terrorist, criminal, hybrid violent armed groups,” the author says, giving examples of Sunni, Shiite and Taliban fighters as well as Mexican drug gangs. He points out that confronting child soldiers in battle can have a serious demoralizing effect on regular troops. According to one experienced authority, “Killing is always traumatic, but when you have to kill children the horror transcends description or understanding.”

Another gloomy chapter examines contemporary efforts to develop nonlethal psychochemical arms. The U.S. Army Chemical Corps has been at the forefront of this effort, according to the author. He describes a scenario, admittedly fantastic sounding, in which a heavily populated area could be subdued. After sabotaging the water and food supplies with an LSD-like substance and dispensing intoxicating gas into the air, “the armies would simply enter the cities with minimal resistance. The following day, or after several days, when the residents returned to their normal psychophysical state, they would already be under occupation. The local economy would also not suffer, as no material damage would occur.” The author is careful to cite authorities who think there are too many technical and pharmacological difficulties (e.g., individual reactions to drugs that are not predictable) in bringing this about to make it a real tactical possibility. Its ethical consequences, however, are not addressed.

Lukasz Kamienski is an assistant professor of history at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. Shooting Up is an edited translation of a work originally published in Polish in 2014. In the prologue the author says that grasping the scale of use of intoxicants “may change the way we analyze, interpret and understand war.” If he hopes that it might advance new ground for policy makers, there is little in his analysis to support that. Nevertheless, the book makes an interesting contribution to our thinking about a little understood aspect of military practice and its impact on society as a whole.

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