10 Ways Drugs Have Been Utilized in Warfare Throughout History


When it comes to the military, throughout history, leaders are always looking for that little something extra to get the edge. Many military forces thought that edge would be drugs. From ingesting herbs to the new world of drugs made in labs, soldiers have been going into war high for centuries… with varying degrees of success.

10. Greeks and Opium

Opium derived from poppies was a very important substance to the Ancient Greeks. Three of their deities, Hypnos, Nyx, and Thanatos, who are deities of sleep, night, and death respectively, had wreaths of poppies.

The Greeks used opium in several ways. For example, priests thought that the sense of euphoria that comes with taking the drug was somehow supernatural, while Hippocrates, who was called “The Father of Medicine,” saw the medical uses for opium; specifically, it helped with diarrhea. It’s also thought that Greek soldiers used opium. In Homer’s Odysessy, which contained real Greek customs, the soldiers drank wine mixed with opium after battles to calm their nerves and help them forget the horrors of war.

9. Vikings Might Have Used Magic Mushrooms

The term ‘Berserker’, which means “bear shirt,” is a Viking term for a violent trance-like fury they would enter into during battle. When they went Berserk, they would shiver and their teeth would chatter. Then their faces would become swollen and change color. They’d howl like wild animals, charge into battle without armor, and then attack anyone who came near. After the battle, their minds would become dull and feeble for a few days.

In the late 18th century, Swedish scholar Samuel Lorenzo Ødman was researching the Berserker state and he noticed that their trances were similar to the trances that the tribes of Siberia entered into after they ingested Amanita muscaria mushrooms, also known as fly agaric mushrooms, or magic mushrooms. The Serbian tribes would consume dried mushrooms for ceremonies and rituals. Ødman theorized that the Vikings ingested a large amount of the mushrooms to coincide with the heat of the battle. Afterwards, the warriors needed to take a few days off because they had mushroom poisoning.

Evidence to back up Ødman’s claim is that the mushrooms grew in Scandinavia during the time of the Vikings. Secondly, the Vikings did come into contact with people from Asia, because that is who introduced them to the concept of their god Odin, so it’s possible they would have learned about the hallucinogenic properties of the mushrooms from people who had contact with the Serbian tribes.

In the years since the initial theory was published, other researchers have tweaked it. Famed Norwegian botanist Frederik Schübeler suggested that the Vikings drank wine made from the mushrooms. Then in 1994, John Mann suggested that instead of Amanita muscaria, the Vikings ingested Amanita pantherina, which makes the user much more manic.

Many of you reading this are probably thinking that this is a ton of crap, and that may very well be because it’s just a theory. However, Ødman says that the inner circle of the Viking elite would have kept it secret as an advantage, so that is why the Vikings never wrote about it and that is why it is not a commonly known fact.

8. Napoleon’s Grande Armée Drank Heavily and Used Hashish

Keeping your army happy is key when conducting a military campaign; especially a campaign as expansive as the one run by Napoleon Bonaparte of France. While Napoleon wasn’t focused too much on getting his men their food rations, he did his best to get them their daily rations of wine to keep them happy.

In June 1798, 36,000 members of the Grande Armée were in Egypt. This was a problem for the men because Egypt, as it is today, was largely an Islamic country, so there was no alcohol available. Instead, the locals ate, drank, and smoked hashish, which is resin taken from a marijuana plant.

The problem was that hashish made the men sluggish and lazy (and presumably they also wouldn’t stop eating junk food and giggling over nothing). This led to Napoleon prohibiting the drug not long after arriving in Egypt. But that didn’t stop his men from using it, and when the men returned to France, they brought the hashish with them and introduced it to French culture. Artists and writers were the first to use it and they set up hashish cafes. The use of hashish as a hallucinogenic then spread to other areas of Europe.

7. Inca Warriors Chewed Coca Leaves

The Inca people first appeared in the 12th century in the Andes region of South America. Because of their military strength they were able to build an empire that, at its peak, stretched from northern Ecuador to central Chile, with a population of 12 million people that was made up from 100 different ethnic groups.

When Europeans came upon the Incas for the first time in 1499, they noticed they were chewing on some green leaves. In 1544, during the conquest of Peru, the Europeans learned what the green leaves were – they were coca leaves, which is where cocaine comes from.

By chewing on the coca leaves, it enhanced endurance, made them less fatigued, and gave them resistance to pain. It also allowed them to travel long distances, at high altitudes, in a short amount of time.

Unfortunately, the coca leaves weren’t a strong enough edge for the Incas and they were overtaken in 1572.

6. The Zulu Warriors Were Pretty Much Wasted in Battle

In 1816, Shaka became the chief of the Zulu tribe, which consisted of just 1,500 people in South Africa. Shaka was a masterful military strategist and within seven years he managed to take over the Zulu’s neighboring tribes and ruled over the area that is today known as the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. However, Shaka was killed in 1828, by his two half-brothers after he went insane.

At its peak, the Zulu Kingdom, or Zululand, had over 10 million citizens. The size of their population became one of the most alluring reasons the British wanted to invade Zululand, because they wanted to use the Zulu people to work their diamond mines. They also wanted to create the South African federation to get a better foothold in Africa. This led to the Anglo-Zulu war, which started in January 1879.

The Zulu warriors were known to use a variety of drugs before, during, and after a battle. Before going to war, they would have a ceremonial meal where they ate and smoked various herbs and also drank special medicated beer. The Zulus believed that the beer would protect them against the enemy and make them resistant to their weapons. They may have also ate or drank teas containing Amanita muscaria, or magic mushrooms, and they did use the mushrooms after battles as a painkiller.

They were also known to use dagga, which is a strain of cannabis that is found in North and South Africa. They would either smoke it or drink it in a broth just before battle. Some of them even took dagga with them into battle.

An expert on the Zulu, Alfred T. Bryant, witnessed them smoking dagga before a battle and said after they smoked it, they acted like they could do anything. Other people said that they fought like they were immune to bullets.

There are some people who even credit dagga with helping the Zulus defeat the British at the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879. After smoking dagga they sent waves of fearless men at the British, who had slow loading rifles and cannons. The Zulus, high on pot, mushrooms, and buzzed on medicated beer, overwhelmed the British forces. They killed 710 men, making it the British Army’s bloodiest day of the Victorian era.

Ultimately, the Zulus were forced to surrender just months after they were invaded in July 1879.

5. Kamikaze Pilots Used Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine was first synthesized in 1893 by a respectable Japanese scientist when he isolated the stimulant ephedrine from the Ephedra sinica plant. In 1919, one of his proteges synthesized the crystalline form of the ephedrine, making the world’s first crystal meth.

Amphetamines wouldn’t become popular until World War II, when military forces on both sides of the war used them. The Japanese form of amphetamine was called Philopon and the government stockpiled it and gave it to their soldiers when they got tired and hungry.

They also found it was helpful with their special unit – the Kamikaze pilots. The unit had special planes, the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka, which were essentially drivable missiles where the pilot was sealed into the cockpit. They were attached to a bomber and then flown to the battle. Once they were released and close to their target, they hit the booster rockets, flew past enemy gunfire, and would hopefully slam into an enemy ship.

Obviously, not all Kamikaze pilots were super pumped about killing themselves by flying into a wall of steel; especially because they may have been sealed into the small cockpit for several hours before getting to the target. That is a lot of time to think and reconsider your commitment to the mission. So they were given high doses of Philopon to keep themselves alert, sharp, and aggressive until they got to their target. Then, we have to assume, they had one of the wildest drug trips ever taken.

4. The Nazis Used A Lot of Amphetamine

When planning invasions of World War II, based on their experiences in the first World War, the German generals knew a big problem was fatigue after the first few days of battle, so they gave their soldiers Pervitin, which is a form of amphetamine. When the Nazis invaded France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in the spring of 1940, they brought 35 million Pervitin tablets with them.

While it may have been a good idea to start with, the problem was that the soldiers became strung out and it would take them longer to recuperate. So as a long term strategy, soldiers high on amphetamine wasn’t exactly the best plan for world domination. Perhaps they chose that route because their leader was supposedly a junkie.

According to Norman Ohler, who is the author of Blitzed: Drugs In Nazi Germany, Hitler was constantly with a doctor named Theodor Morell, who provided him with opiates, steroids, and other concoctions that were specifically made for the Fuhrer. In 1944, Morell was giving Hitler very powerful cocaine eye drops, which explains Hitler’s erratic behavior at the end of the war. Apparently, Hitler committed suicide while he was going through withdrawal.

3. Americans Used Amphetamines During Vietnam

Like the other armed forces, Americans used amphetamines during World War II. Benzedrine was given to servicemen who were doing long range reconnaissance missions and attacks. After the war, not much research was done on amphetamines, but that didn’t stop it from being used in Vietnam.

According to a 1971 report by the House Select Committee on Crime, between 1966 to 1969, American forces had used 225 million stimulant tablets. Most of them were Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), which is an amphetamine derivative that is almost twice as strong as Benzedrine. If you break it down for pills per person, it was 21.1 pills for everyone in the Navy, 17.5 for the Air Force, and finally 13.8 for people in the Army. One soldier said that the amphetamine pills were being given out like they were candy.

The drugs were used to ensure that the troops didn’t get combat fatigue. It would keep the soldiers wired, alert, and they also felt invulnerable. Finally, it also made them aggressive. A soldier said that after the high wore off, that he felt so frustrated that he felt like “shooting children in the street.”

It should also be noted that the Vietnam War was notorious because the American forces were accused of committing many atrocities against Vietnamese civilians. While it’s tough to say if methamphetamine played a part in these atrocities, and we certainly aren’t suggesting it as an excuse for their actions, but amphetamines are known to make people act violently.

2. Amphetamines are Being Used in the Syrian War

The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011, and since its start over 400,000 people have been killed, while a further 11 million have been displaced. During the civil war, ISIL (also known as ISIS) was able to move into the war torn country and gain some territory.

In part, one reason they were able to gain the territory is because their soldiers are high on Captagon, which is a drug that is usually only used in the Middle East. There are two components to the drug and as the body breaks it down, it activates the drugs. The first component is theophylline, which is similar to caffeine. It also helps open the user’s airways and sometimes theophylline is used to treat asthma. The second drug component is amphetamine, which speeds everything up and makes the soldiers more alert. They also need less food and less sleep while they are using amphetamines.

However, Captagon isn’t very strong. It is weaker than Adderall and it was used to treat attention deficit disorder in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, it is still considered to be helping fuel violence in the area.

1. The Future of Drugs in War

Currently, the American military spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to create “super soldiers” and part of that spending goes to chemical upgrades. One drug, sometimes called a wonder drug by the military, is modafinil. The drug was developed in France and in 1998, it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Modafinil is sold by Cephalon under the name Provigil and it is a psycho stimulant that enhances wakefulness. It also improves memory and mood. Supposedly, soldiers can use it to stay awake for 48 hours. Unlike other stimulants, like cocaine and amphetamines, it doesn’t make the user drowsy and there is no “crash” at the end of the high.

Another problem facing soldiers is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the military is working on a drug to treat PTSD in a very Black Mirror-type of way. A psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School believes that a “beta blocker” called propranolol, which is normally used to treat high blood pressure, can be used to erase, or at least weaken the impact, of horrific memories. Currently, the drug is undergoing memory-erasing trials. That can only end well.

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