My Guardian book review appears this weekend:
In October 2015 a Saudi prince was arrested at Beirut international airport accused of trying to smuggle nearly two tonnes of the amphetamine drug Captagon through the country. Two months later, Lebanese officials claimed to have confiscated 12 million Captagon pills heading to the Gulf. The synthetic drug, invented in 1961, has become a major recreational drug of choice in the Middle East and favoured stimulant in the Syrian civil war. Kurdish survivors from the Syrian city of Kobane reported Islamic State fighters being “filthy, with straggly beards and long black nails. They have lots of pills with them that they all keep taking. It seems to make them more crazy if anything.”
In this compelling book [Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare] about the history and prevalence of alcohol and drugs throughout the history of warfare, Lukasz Kamienski reveals in copious detail the countless ways “intoxication, in its various forms, has … been one of the distinctive features” of human life.
Rather than focusing on the draconian methods used by governments to restrict and regulate drugs in the modern age, Shooting Up examines how “warriors have always dreamt of gaining superhuman abilities that would bring them estimable victory, particularly when meeting their enemy in a decisive clash”. Without some tool to distract or mask the horrors of war, how can fighters tolerate the barbarity, fear, stress and intensity of combat?
Alcohol remains the most commonly used drug during and after war. Kamienski explains that the ancient Greeks and Romans probably went into battle drunk. The Roman method also involved getting their opponents inebriated before battle. By the late 19th century, the British army was regularly and proudly drunk. Its 36,000 men required 550,000 gallons of rum annually plus allowances for more booze to celebrate victory. Soldiers expected to be provided with alcohol by the army. Without it, their morale, determination and camaraderie would suffer. Japanese kamikaze pilots in the second world war were known to drink heavily as their final day approached.
American forces in Vietnam were given government rations of two cans of beer per man per day but the open secret was that destroying the Viet Kong should be rewarded. It’s a war that still remains mired in mystery; American journalist Nick Turse’s 2013 book Kill Anything That Moves made a rare departure from secrecy by highlighting the extreme violence unleashed on Vietnamese civilians by US forces. Kamienski powerfully shows how “alcohol was issued as a reward for proven proficiency in enemy kills. This largely explains why soldiers cut off the ears and penises of their dead enemy, because showing the trophies on their return to base camp entitled them to more reward – alcohol.”
This book details the Nizari Ismaili, founded in the 1080s as a radical group of Shia Muslims. Its members were accused of smoking hashish to claim supernatural powers, but it’s possible that their “truly powerful intoxicant was their deep religious faith, coupled with crazed fanaticism”.
In the 21st century many Islamic extremists are surviving thanks to the drug industry. The Taliban’s main source of income is from Afghanistan’s opium trade, the world’s biggest. Militants, child soldiers, narco-guerrillas and terrorists all often raise revenue while also using the product themselves.
But what turns some soldiers into monsters? Kamienski tries to answer this question with evidence that the use of intoxicants contributes to the propensity of extreme violence on the battlefield. However, it may not that be that simple – racism is a curious omission in the book’s argument. For example, there are countless examples of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan treating local people with contempt because of their different skin colour, religion or belief. This mentality was bred long before arriving for combat.
Nonetheless, the book questions the generally accepted belief in almost all societies that soldiers are brave warriors and act like “rabid dogs”. It may often be true, with magic mushrooms and marijuana being part of a soldier’s arsenal, but it’s also an effective myth different nations tell themselves about the invincibility of their armies.
During the cold war, many governments searched for the most effective use of increasingly powerful and disabling drugs. Washington considered the idea of dispersing LSD over enemy forces, “paralysing even the best trained and disciplined units without killing or injuring them”. After the second world war Army Chemical Corps Major General William Creasy imagined the use of psychoactive substances for a “war without casualties”. He told This Week magazine in 1955 that Washington should consider using chemical weapons, asking “would you rather be temporarily deranged, blinded or paralysed by a chemical agent, or burned alive by a conventional fire bomb?” It was a question that few Americans ever knew their government was considering at the highest levels.
From developing truth serums to elicit answers from enemies during the cold war and distributing stimulants during the Vietnam war, drug development, use and abuse have always been central to humankind’s pursuit of conflict. Kamienski details the devastating civilian toll that drug abuse by soldiers can cause. In Vietnam, amphetamine use “was to blame for some incidents of friendly fire and unjustified violence against the civilian population”.
There’s no blatant anti-war message in this book, written by an academic and published here in a solid translation by the author, but its position is clear: that “soldiers are often doped by war in a twofold manner – not only can war itself be a true narcotic for them but an engagement in combat may also result in their becoming addicted to real drugs.”
• Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastropheis published by Verso.