10 Wars and the Drugs That Defined Them

Posted on April 26th, 2015
Posted in Drug Addiction

Throughout human history, drugs and wars have gone hand in hand. From illicit substances to those that are still legally consumed in modern society, soldiers in various conflicts have turned to and come to depend on drugs. The Fix paints an interesting picture of this history with its list of 10 Wars and the Drugs That Defined Them, and although we may hope otherwise, the problems aren’t confined solely to the history books.

Napoleonic Wars: Alcohol

Between 1803 and 1815, the rest of Europe waged war on the French, specifically against their leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. Britain was at the forefront of the fighting, and the country actually encouraged alcohol use among its troops, for protection against disease and to boost morale. This led to rampant drunkenness and soldiers spending a month’s wages in a single day of drinking.

First Opium War: Opium

From 1839 to 1842, the Chinese fought a war specifically because of drugs. British opium exports kept the economy afloat, but addiction was destroying China, which had millions of opium addicts as a result. The war was destined to end in China’s defeat; up to 90 percent of Chinese soldiers were addicted to opium, and would regularly desert their posts in order to find another hit.

American Civil War: Morphine

Morphine was everywhere during the Civil War, used as everything from a painkiller and anesthetic to a treatment for diarrhea. After being treated with the drug for pain, injured soldiers became addicted for the rest of their lives. It’s estimated that 400,000 soldiers went home addicted, and at the turn of the 20th century, there were 1 million morphine addicts in the U.S.

Anglo-Zulu War: THC and Mushrooms

When the British fought the Zulus in 1879, wanting to take the large kingdom to expand their colonies in what is now South Africa, the result was a series of gruesome battles and a British victory. It probably didn’t help that the Zulus used a THC- (the main psychoactive in marijuana) containing form of snuff to make them feel invincible, and took hallucinogenic mushrooms to obtain “a state of expanded perception” on the battlefield. Some actually believed bullets would bounce off of them.

World War I: Tobacco

In World War I, the U.S.’s problems with morphine had subsided due to legal changes, but upon entry into the conflict in 1917, the military thought tobacco would be a good way to keep the troops calm. Previously, tobacco use was largely confined to the upper classes, but the military’s decision to team up with a tobacco company ensured that ordinary American soldiers were turned onto smoking, with cigarettes being included in rations. By the end of the war, 14 million cigarettes were handed out every day.

World War II: Amphetamines

In World War II, staying awake was vital for troops on all sides, and amphetamine use was pushed on service personnel by America, Britain, Japan and Germany, particularly for pilots and tank crews. In the American military alone, 200 million tablets were distributed in the war, and they continued to be widely used for medical purposes after the conflict ended. 

Vietnam War: Marijuana and Heroin

The conflict in Vietnam lasted from 1955 to 1975, and the surge in marijuana use in the early 1960s at home was mirrored among U.S. troops in Southeast Asia. Initially, marijuana smoking was common and mostly tolerated by superior officers despite being illegal, but a crackdown on use of the drug in 1968 changed things. Marijuana couldn’t be smoked covertly, so many of the troops switched to heroin, and by 1971, 20 percent of soldiers identified themselves as heroin addicts.

Sierra Leone Civil War: ‘Brown-Brown’ and Amphetamines

In the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991 to 2002), much of the fighting was done by child soldiers, who were force-fed drugs and made to kill. “Brown-brown” was a characteristic drug: a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, which was snorted or, in extreme cases, rubbed into cuts made on a child’s temple. The children were also forced to take amphetamines, and when they couldn’t sleep at night, they watched war movies like “Rambo” and fantasized about playing out the same moves on the battlefield.

Iraq War: Prescription Drugs

The Iraq War (2003 to 2011) was no different from older conflicts, but the drug of choice switched to a more modern addiction. Prescription drug abuse is still a huge problem in America, and our troops in Iraq were not immune. From 2002 to 2005, prescription drug abuse among the military doubled, and then almost tripled from 2005 to 2008 — meaning prescription drug abuse increased almost six-fold from 2002 to 2008. Many Iraqi forces were also battling their own problems with prescription drug abuse, with up to 30 percent of Iraqi army and police forces having been addicted to medicines.

Afghanistan War: Heroin

The war in Afghanistan is closely tied to drugs, although the Taliban doesn’t allow drug use and the U.S. Army institutes regular testing. Use among soldiers isn’t common, but 90 percent of the opium in the world comes from the country, and the profits go straight to the Taliban. In 2009, the United Nations estimated that the country used $160 million in drug money to fund terrorist activity.

Addiction and War

Although the stories can be horrific, the tales of wars and the drugs that defined them serve as important reminders of the times people come to depend on substances. Is it really that surprising that faced with the gruesome reality of war, some turn to mind-altering drugs? Stress, depression and a host of other negative emotions drive people to drugs, and soldiers are certainly no strangers to these feelings. It’s a poor coping mechanism, and although it’s easier to understand in such extreme situations, soldiers become addicted for the same reasons the rest of us do.

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