We’re all familiar with the ‘War on Drugs’ but what about drugs in war? Drug use in wartime is a topic rarely covered by mainstream media but each war has a distinct underlying drug culture attached to it. What’s interesting is that no army in recent history has ever successfully been able to curb drug use among their ranks. Of course not all military forces discourage the use of drugs. From the Napoleonic wars to Iraq and Afghanistan, drug use in the military doesn’t appear to be going away.
Note: There are many other examples of drugs in other conflicts, like amphetamine-pumped child soldiers in Sierra Leone, but this list covers mainly global conflicts.
French & British
The harsh discipline that came with serving during the Napoleonic wars was counterbalanced by the regular consumption of alcohol. Alcohol became very important for maintaining morale and discipline in the army. Army officials knew that if they attempted to regulate alcohol use they would be met with insurmountable resistance. Alcohol was the only way soldiers could escape. Many soldiers would spend their entire month’s wages on alcohol.
Officers had standing orders to avoid drunken privates since they would often attack their superiors. These orders lasted until the end of the war.
Source: British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars through the Crimea by Scott Myerly
World War I
Part of a daily ration for the average British soldier included a half-gill of rum which is the equivalent of a eighth of a pint. Additional rations of rum were occasionally served prior to soldiers ‘going over’ (The term used for exiting the trench to advance on the enemy.) The amount given was at the discretion of the standing general.
German soldiers had a worse diet in terms of food but a much more varied diet when it came to alcohol. German soldiers had a daily ration that included a pint of beer, half a pint of wine and a quarter pint of spirits.
World War II
Drug use in World War II is easily the most institutionalized in recorded history. This was especially true for German military. The drug of choice for the German army was a methamphetamine designed to keep soldiers alert and functional for several hours/days. 35 million tablets of methamphetamine were shipped to the army and air force between just April and July 1940 alone. These methamphetamines were later banned in 1941 under the Opium Law but despite the ban a shipment of over 10 million tablets was sent to soldiers later that year.
Germans & Americans
The use of alcohol was also encouraged by the military. Alcohol became a crutch for many of the men serving at the time. This prevalent and habitual use of alcohol led to many otherwise preventable deaths and injuries. Production of bootlegged alcohol became a serious issue as many producers didn’t know the difference between consumable alcohol and methyl alcohol. Men who consumed spirits made with methyl alcohol became blind or succumbed to fatal alcohol poisoning. [Source]
The drug of choice of American soldiers during the Vietnam War was marijuana. For a majority of the war, marijuana use was largely ignored by army officials. In 1968 a major government initiative forced the army the crack down on marijuana use. By this point the use of the drug had become far too prevalent for the army to effectively combat. Army arrests had reached 1000 per week at its height and treatment centers were inundated.
The army began a massive anti-marijuana propaganda campaign to try and curb its use among soldiers. Officials claimed it would cause harmful long-term psychological effects.
The main concern was that the use of marijuana was affecting missions. What many politicians and anti-marijuana lobbyists didn’t realize is that there was internal policing of marijuana use by the soldiers themselves. Marijuana did not affect military operations because it was only used in non-combat situations. The soldiers knew their lives were on the line and if men in their unit were using marijuana in combat situation it would compromise their safety. [Source]
Iraq II & Afghanistan
The statistics provided by the US military regarding the drug and alcohol abuse by soldiers is universally viewed as a gross misrepresentation of the actual problem that the military faces. Substance abuse is steadily on the rise and soldiers are returning home with life-altering drug addictions.
As it stands, there is a blanket ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy in the army and there are vastly differing opinions concerning drug use from one level of authority to the next. Medics are generally known to be the ‘dealers’ and as a soldier they’re your best bet if you’re looking to get drugs of any kind. [Source]