Super Soldiers: Performance-Enhancing Drugs and the Military
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By Wes O’Donnell. U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force Veteran. Managing Editor, InMilitary.com & InCyberDefense.com. Speaker and veteran advocate. Reach out to Wes on LinkedIn.
Wars are rarely fought totally sober.
Although that was the case throughout most of human history, it seems inconceivable that today’s professional U.S. military would use performance-enhancing drugs for an edge against our nation’s formidable adversaries. But you may be surprised.
Drugs, Alcohol and Warfare Have Always Gone Hand in Hand
Some of the earliest examples of explicit drug use are found in Homer’s Odyssey, arguably the world’s first “road trip” story of a Trojan War veteran who slaughters his way across the Aegean. The Ionian equivalent of LSD, cannabis and opium tempt Odysseus and his crew at nearly every step of their 10-year journey.
For 1,000 years, alcohol was probably the most popular pharmacological motivator of young fighters. Governments rationed “liquid courage” that would make the fighting more bearable and also alleviate the sheer boredom that accompanies war.
For example, Roman warriors drank wine. The British issued rum rations to the Royal Navy. The Red Army had vodka and Germans drank beer.
Even the young American government, taking a page from her older European siblings, issued alcohol during the Civil War. What kind of alcohol? Whiskey, of course.
In his recent book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, author Norman Ohler describes a Nazi war machine that was rife with “cocaine, opiates, and, most of all, methamphetamines, which were consumed by everyone from factory workers to housewives to German soldiers.” But the Nazis weren’t the only European power seeking to create super soldiers through creative pharmacology.
Britain was one example. This nation proudly commemorates the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army won a decisive victory against the Germans there and sent Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s troops into a retreat into Tunisia. However, it is often overlooked that Montgomery distributed 100,000 amphetamine tablets to his troops just before the battle.
Allied infantry weren’t the only beneficiaries, however. American bomber pilots often had Benzedrine tablets (popularly known as “bennies”) in their emergency kits for times when being especially alert was a matter of life or death.
Commanders Issued Drugs to Specialized US Units During Vietnam War
Rampant illicit drug use during the Vietnam War is well-known. According to a report by the Department of Defense, 51 percent of the armed forces smoked marijuana, 31 percent used psychedelic drugs (such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin mushrooms) and an additional 28 percent used hard drugs (such as cocaine and heroin).
Not often mentioned were the drugs that commanders issued to specialized U.S. units. According to a report by The Atlantic, long-range reconnaissance units “infiltrating Laos for a four-day mission received a medical kit that contained, among other items, 12 tablets of Darvon (a mild painkiller), 24 tablets of codeine (an opioid analgesic) and six pills of Dexedrine. Before leaving for a long and demanding expedition, members of special units were also administered steroid injections.”
Khat Motivated Somalis during Battle of Mogadishu
In the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, where the now-infamous “Black Hawk Down” event took place, Somali fighters under warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid chewed a plant called khat, known locally as “qaad” or “jaad.” Its effects include a feeling of well-being, mental alertness and excitement.
In conversations I have had with Army Rangers who fought in Mogadishu, they told me that khat use was often why the Somalis threw themselves into the battle in such large numbers, despite their heavy casualties.
Weapons-Grade Modafinil Has Been Used by Various Military Forces
Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting drug similar to amphetamines but without many of the side effects. The drug became popular after the release of the 2011 Bradley Cooper movie “Limitless.” In this movie, a man takes a pill that “unlocks” parts of his brain that were previously unused, essentially making him the smartest person on the planet.
The fictional pill in the film, NZT-48, was based on modafinil, which the U.S. Air Force has been openly issuing to pilots since 2003. Modafinil is available in the United States by prescription only, and is often used off-label for cognitive enhancement.
In a recent report by ABC News, scientists deprived 16 healthy subjects of sleep for 28 hours. The subjects were then expected to sleep from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. for four days and stay awake each night. Those on modafinil did far better on cognitive tests than those on a placebo. Some of the participants were able to stay awake for more than 90 hours.
The French government admits to issuing modafinil for its Foreign Legion troops. The Indian and British Ministries of Defense approved modafinil for their respective armed forces. The Canadian government also reports that modafinil is used by its astronauts on long-term missions aboard the International Space Station.
As for the U.S. military, modafinil has been approved for certain Air Force missions as a “go pill” for fatigue management. The use of dextro-amphetamine is no longer approved, according to an Air Force Instruction (AFI) issued by the Special Operations Command.
Ethics and Future Military Drug Use
At what point does it become unethical to issue pharmaceutical-grade, performance-enhancing drugs to American warfighters? In the event of “total war” in which our nation’s survival is on the line, I imagine we would do anything to win.
Many of our nation’s adversaries are no doubt experimenting with new ways to increase the lethality of their troops. Therefore, it seems we are experiencing a sort of low-key arms race in the realm of chemical modification and enhancement that is largely unknown to American taxpayers.
As medical technology improves, this dispensing practice will only increase in frequency and perhaps in lethality. Modafinil is certainly a safer and less addictive drug than amphetamines in the short term. If we issue performance-enhancing drugs to servicemembers with minimal long-term health risks and they help improve mission outcomes or save lives, I see no ethical barrier to their use.
The catch – because there is always a catch – is that it takes years of clinical research to determine whether a drug has long-term health risks. Researchers admit they are unsure exactly how modafinil does what it does inside the brain. They also are uncertain what the long-term side effects, if any, are and how severe they might be.
Along with technology advancements and improvements in weapons design, drug use has always had a place in war. That trend no doubt will continue.
In the meantime, I’d be happy if Uncle Sam started issuing whiskey again. Preferably old single malt from Tennessee, served “neat.”