Don’t fight sober
- Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare by Łukasz Kamieński
Hurst, 381 pp, £25.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 84904 551 3
- Blitzed: Drugs In Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler
Allen Lane, 360 pp, £20.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 25699 2
In October 2013 a Time magazine article entitled ‘Syria’s Breaking Bad’ alerted Western media to the prevalence across the region of a little-known stimulant drug, Captagon. Lebanese police had found five million locally produced tablets, embossed with a roughly stamped yin-yang symbol, sealed inside a Syrian-made water heater in transit to Dubai. In October 2015 Captagon made global headlines when the Saudi prince Abdel Mohsen was intercepted at Beirut airport with 32 shrink-wrapped boxes and eight leather suitcases containing two tons of top-grade pills, valued at £190 million. By this time rumours abounded on all sides in the Syrian war that Captagon was fuelling a grim cult of battlefield atrocities. An investigation by Vanity Fair in France last April uncovered a trail of testimonies and video images of pumped-up soldiers and ‘zombies roaming, all smiles, across fields of ruins and severed heads’. Caches of pills in ports and abandoned villages supplied the evidence.
On 13 November 2015, when terrorists massacred ninety people at the Bataclan in Paris, Captagon was immediately suspected. To Professor Jean-Pol Tassin, an addiction specialist at Inserm, the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, the killers’ ‘empty expressions, their determination, their mechanical movements’ all suggested that an amphetamine-type stimulant was involved. Dozens of articles profiled ‘la drogue des djihadistes’, explaining that Captagon replaced fear, doubt and fellow feeling with superhuman confidence, an implacable sense of mission and visions of imminent awakening in paradise. Yet two months later, when the forensic reports on the assailants were released, it was clear that no trace of Captagon had been found. Asked about his snap judgment, Tassin was philosophical: ‘It’s true, it was reassuring to think they had taken drugs, that they weren’t fully conscious of the massacre they were committing. No doubt that’s why one subscribes so rapidly to such theories.’
Like many of the stimulants to which it is closely related, Captagon has made a gradual transition from pharmaceutical miracle to social menace. It’s a brand name for fenethylline, a compound synthesised in Germany in the early 1960s and originally marketed as a treatment for hyperactivity, narcolepsy and depression. Fenethylline is broken down by the body to produce amphetamine and theophylline, a caffeine-like stimulant, and because it is metabolised more slowly than pure amphetamine it was presented as a safer alternative to it, with milder effects on blood pressure and lower potential for abuse. The brand name Captagon was arrived at by combining ‘captain’ and ‘pentagon’, words chosen for their association with potency and their transcendence of language barriers. In the 1970s it circulated among Left Bank intellectuals, including Sartre and Bernard-Henri Lévy, as an aid to productive writing. In 1981 it was listed as a controlled substance in the US and in 1986, after it was scheduled under the WHO Convention on Psychotropic Substances, it was removed from prescription sale. After 1989 its manufacture shifted to the former Soviet bloc, Bulgaria in particular, where it was produced illicitly in the form of multicoloured pills, the fenethylline often combined with or replaced by other amphetamines.
Captagon (or whatever was now in the pills) was popular with Eastern European youths but its most lucrative market turned out to be the Gulf states, where, as with similar drugs in many other times and places, it found an overlapping set of cultural niches. Young Saudis adopted it as a recreational substitute for alcohol: energising and euphoric, and easy to take in public without tell-tale signs of intoxication. Other demographics used it as an aid to weight loss, a remedy for depression or an aphrodisiac reputedly superior to Viagra. Pills were commonly embossed with two crossed Cs, echoing the crescent moon of Islam. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, production shifted to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, typically in mobile laboratories with chemical precursors sourced online from India and China. In September 2011 the Saudi Ministry of the Interior announced that it had shot down a drone loaded with 700,000 pills, a quantity which it estimated was by then being consumed in the kingdom daily.
By 2014 it was clear that Captagon had become a significant source of funding for all sides in Syria’s civil war. It was less clear how extensively it was being used in combat, particularly by the jihadi forces. When Islamic State militants took control of areas of Aleppo province in August 2014 it was rumoured that a number of drug labs fell into their hands, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime subsequently identified IS as traffickers. But the rumours of drug-fuelled militias proved hard to substantiate. Marc Trévidic, a terrorism expert and former high court magistrate in Paris, interviewed dozens of returning jihadists who insisted that drugs were strictly forbidden: this was, after all, a regime which handed down public lashings merely for smoking cigarettes. They dismissed the stories of zombie killers on the battlefield as lurid fabrications of the Syrian state media designed to discredit their motives. ‘Even my mother thinks I’m on Captagon!’ one jihadi lamented on Twitter. But other eyewitnesses maintained that Captagon was widely available to jihadi fighters, connived at because it kept them awake during shifts and night operations. Among themselves they referred to the pill euphemistically as farawla, ‘a strawberry’.
The unreliable narratives that always build up around illicit drugs are compounded by the fog of war. Exaggeration, doubletalk and disinformation bend reality into mythic shapes. The image of the Captagon-crazed jihadi is reminiscent of the Assassins, whose story was imported to Europe by Marco Polo: they were said to have been brainwashed with a dose of hashish and persuaded by their fanatical leader that suicide missions would be rewarded with an eternity in paradise. Recent scholarship has established that ‘assassins’ (or ‘hashishin’) was a pejorative term applied to them by their enemies: in fact they were a strictly ascetic order whose adherents abstained from all drugs including alcohol. The appeal of the myth is obvious: if the drugs made them do it, their motives require no further investigation. Asked after the Bataclan attacks whether the killers had been on drugs, Montasser Alde’emeh, a Belgian-Palestinian expert on radicalisation, turned the question succinctly on its head: ‘Unfortunately, they don’t need it. Their ideology is their Captagon!’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 39 No. 2 · 19 January 2017
‘The invasion of France was the first officially controlled use of a chemical stimulant in warfare,’ Mike Jay writes (LRB, 5 January). He and the authors of the books under review appear to have missed a drugged-up military campaign earlier in the Second World War. In the Winter War of 1939-40, four million poorly armed and largely friendless Finns used a common domestic remedy to help them stand their ground against a million advancing Soviet troops: heroin.
The historian Mikko Ylikangas, in his book from 2009, Unileipää, kuolonvettä, spiidiä. Huumeet Suomessa 1800-1950 (‘Opium, Death’s Tincture, Speed: Drugs in Finland 1800-1950’), records that Finland consumed enormous quantities of prescription heroin from the 1930s to the 1950s, chiefly in the form of two preparations for chest complaints. Amazingly, there was hardly any abuse of the drug, although morphine and cocaine were used recreationally by the upper classes and in underworld circles.
International efforts to outlaw the cheap and useful medicine in the 1930s were resisted, and opium, morphine and heroin were stockpiled in large quantities, for fear of international prohibition. With war approaching, the Ministry of Defence took positive action, ordering millions of doses of heroin tablets, as well as morphine for the use of army medics. The steady calm of the largely amateur soldiers of the Finnish Defence Forces as they resisted Stalin’s war machine is explained to some extent by the fact that each soldier on the front line was issued with a packet of 5mg heroin tablets, with plenty more available from the medics. This didn’t excite much comment at the time – the use of heroin was seen as perfectly normal for a range of common illnesses. Temperatures approached minus 50°C in January, so using a cold remedy was quite natural.
The Finnish forces killed enough of the enemy and captured or destroyed enough equipment to claim a victory, but only at the expense of the Karelian Isthmus and other territories, many dead and wounded, and a heavy psychological cost to ordinary men forced to slaughter hundreds of thousands of hapless Soviet conscripts stuck in the snow. After a respite, fighting started again in 1941. The heroin was then supplemented with Pervitin, perhaps on the German model.
Jours en Vaux, France
Vol. 39 No. 3 · 2 February 2017
The Assassins weren’t, as Mike Jay writes, ‘imported into Europe by Marco Polo’ (LRB, 5 January). Europe already knew about them at least a hundred years before Marco Polo. The Holy Land chronicler William of Tyre had a chapter about them in his History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea, written probably in the 1170s, and William’s work was widely distributed in Europe in the early 13th century, largely via a translated French version. There was also a detailed account of the Assassins in a report about the Muslim Middle East written by Gerhard of Strassburg, an envoy from the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to Saladin c.1175. We know about this because it was copied into the chronicle of Arnold of Lübeck in the early 1200s, and also used as a source in an account of the Holy Land written by a German pilgrim from Westphalia called Theodoric/Dietrich c.1217. So it seems to have been quite well known in Germany. The envoy’s account of the Assassins does not mention the use of hashish: rather he suggests that members of the sect were segregated and indoctrinated from an early age, and spurred on by promises of the joys to come in Paradise.
University of Leeds
Vol. 39 No. 4 · 16 February 2017
Christopher Lord writes that Finnish soldiers acquitted themselves so well in the Winter War of 1939-40 partly thanks to heroin (Letters, 19 January). I treated heroin addicts at one time, and asked one of my first patients what the attraction was. ‘When I take enough heroin,’ he said, ‘you could put a gun to my head and it wouldn’t faze me.’ That can’t have been his regular state of mind – he ran a successful legitimate business – but it is rare for crimes of violence to be down to heroin’s pharmacological effects, as opposed to the need to find the money to manage an addiction. Too much alcohol encourages aggression: too much heroin, even by mouth, usually makes people sleepy and introspective. It is certainly much safer than alcohol in sub-zero temperatures, since alcohol accelerates heat loss. However, if the Finns were really so accustomed to heroin, their regular supplies may have protected them from anxiety and other unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
Last year, a unit of the Foreign Legion set up a first-aid post next to our house in Spain to minister to civilians doing a 100 km walk. One young legionario who had served in Afghanistan cheerfully confessed his fondness for the local cannabis. I suggested that might have made him a rather poor shot, but he replied that he was a machine-gunner and cannabis was just the ticket for spraying a group of presumed insurgents with bullets.
Vol. 39 No. 6 · 16 March 2017
Colin Brewer seems to have read my letter as suggesting that the Finnish Defence Forces were an army of heroin addicts (Letters, 19 January and Letters, 16 February). The technique was one of low-dose heroin use. There were a few cases of soldiers becoming addicts owing to the ready availability of the drug, but it was such a familiar remedy that most soldiers took it without giving much thought to the possibility of addiction, and indeed did not become addicted in spite of regular use. But the military purpose is in the name of the drug. Heroin banishes fear and in that sense can make users into heroes.
Jours en Vaux, France
Vol. 39 No. 7 · 30 March 2017
As Christopher Lord suggests, the name ‘heroin’ is well suited to a drug that banishes fear (Letters, 16 March). The name itself was originally trademarked by the Bayer pharmaceutical company, as they considered it heroisch that they had transformed addictive morphine into ‘non-addictive’ heroin by boiling it in water for a few hours. They marketed Heroin successfully for childhood bronchitis and for coughs between 1898 and 1913, before its effects were fully understood and even doctors were constrained from prescribing it.
Vol. 39 No. 8 · 20 April 2017
Craig Sams has reversed his chemistry (Letters, 30 March). It is heroin (diacetylmorphine) which, when boiled in water (or metabolised in the liver), is converted into morphine (via 6-acetylmorphine). It was successfully marketed by Bayer, but was first synthesised in England, by Charles Alder Wright in 1874.
I grew up on a remote farm in Finland in the 1950s. My grandmother was in charge of the medicine chest, where she kept supplies of various potions and powders. There were camphor drops that consisted of one part camphor, three parts ether and six parts spirits, that were taken on a lump of sugar and were good for ‘a weak heart’ and for earache in children. The powders or pulveri came in little envelopes and were for headache and low moods in adults. In the village lore, repeated in hushed tones, a farmer’s wife became addicted to the powders and was once found sleeping it off in a pigsty. In view of the previous correspondence about the heroin in circulation in Finland I wonder what was in those little envelopes.