Don’t fight sober

Mike Jay

  • 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!’

In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines. ‘Dutch courage’ – originally the genever drunk by British soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War – has many components. With alcohol, soldiers can tolerate higher levels of pain and hardship, conquer fear and perform acts of selfless daring they would never attempt without it. It promotes disinhibition, loosens cultural taboos and makes troops more easily capable of acts that in civilian life would be deemed criminal or insane. The distribution of alcohol and other drugs by medics or superior officers has an important symbolic function, giving soldiers permission to perform such acts and to distance themselves from what they become when they’re intoxicated.

Opium, cannabis and coca all played supporting roles on the premodern battlefield but it was only with the industrialisation of pharmaceutical production that other drugs emerged fully from alcohol’s shadow. Morphine was widely used for the first time in the American Civil War and the 19th-century cocaine boom began with research into its military application. Freud was first alerted to it by the work of the army surgeon Theodor Aschenbrandt, who in 1883 secretly added it to the drinking water of Bavarian recruits and found that it made them better able to endure hunger, strain and fatigue. During the First World War cocaine produced in Java by the neutral Dutch was exported in large quantities to both sides. British forces could get it over the counter in products such as Burroughs Wellcome’s ‘Forced March’ tablets, until alarms about mass addiction among the troops led to a ban on open sales under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916.


During the 1930s a new class of stimulants emerged from the laboratory, cheap to produce, longer-acting and allegedly less addictive. Amphetamine was first brought to market in the US by Smith, Kline and French in 1934 in the form of a bronchial inhaler, Benzedrine, but its stimulant properties were soon recognised and it was made available in tablet form as a remedy for narcolepsy and a tonic against depression. As with cocaine, one of its first applications was as a performance booster in sport. Its use by American athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in 1936 brought it to the attention of the German Reich and by the end of the following year the Temmler pharmaceutical factory in Berlin had synthesised a more powerful variant, methamphetamine, and trademarked it under the name Pervitin. As Norman Ohler relates in Blitzed, research into its military applications began almost immediately; it was used in combat for the first time in the early stages of the Second World War. Ohler’s hyperkinetic, immersive prose evokes its subjective effects on the German Wehrmacht far more vividly than any previous account, but it also blurs the line between myth and reality.

Pervitin, like Captagon, initially established itself in civilian society through its versatility: it found a range of applications spanning medicine, work and pleasure. It was distributed free to doctors and prescribed for depression, as a weight-loss drug and to boost energy, as amphetamines were in Britain and the US. It became the ally of shift-workers, students, writers and anyone struggling to keep pace with modern life. For a while Pervitin-laced chocolates were marketed to housewives. The Reich’s stringent anti-drug laws designated cocaine as ‘alien to the country and the race’, but Pervitin wasn’t added to the list of banned substances. In some quarters it was considered a patriotic necessity. As one doctor wrote, ‘We live in an energy-tense time that demands higher performance and greater obligation from us than ever before.’ Others stressed the need for the medical profession to spread the word: ‘In these eventful times of conflict and expansion it is one of the doctor’s greatest tasks to maintain the performance of the individual and where possible to increase it.’

In 1938 Otto Ranke, director of the Research Institute of Defence Physiology attached to the Academy of Military Medicine in Berlin, ran a series of tests on student recruits comparing the effects of Pervitin, caffeine and a placebo in combating exhaustion. Pervitin was easily the most effective, though its subjects made rather more errors in cognitive tests. Ranke concluded that it was ‘an excellent substance for rousing a weary squad’ and his test subjects concurred, stocking up on it and spreading it through the ranks of young officers. Ranke began taking it himself, two tablets per long working day, and found that with its help he could stay awake for 48 hours at a stretch. When he suffered from sleeplessness and depression, rather than blaming Pervitin he took another dose. It took doctors a while to recognise that a mild stimulant that was benign when used moderately and occasionally could, at higher and repeated doses, produce delusional thinking, suicidal depression and physical collapse within days.

Such cases were by now coming to the attention of the director of the civilian Reich Health Office, Leo Conti, who also failed, though in a different way from Ranke, to grasp the distinction between occasional use and dependence: ‘Anyone who seeks to eliminate fatigue with Pervitin can be quite sure that it will lead to a creeping depletion of physical and psychological performance reserves, and finally to a complete breakdown.’ In November 1939 Conti restricted its use to medical prescription to prevent ‘an entire nation becoming addicted to drugs’.

Ranke halted his experiments and urged the Military Medical Academy to forbid the use of Pervitin on active duty, but in advance of the attack on Poland in September 1939 medical officers who had witnessed Ranke’s trials bought up all available pharmacy stocks. It circulated widely and for many soldiers proved ‘an ideal companion on the battlefield’ – sharpening attention on night marches, supplying energy and enthusiasm for routine tasks and removing inhibitions that might have interfered with the killing of tens of thousands of Polish soldiers. As one medical officer put it, ‘where the last drop has to be squeezed from the team, a unit supplied with Pervitin is superior.’

Despite the new civilian controls, the use of Pervitin became official military policy for the invasion of France in 1940. Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the army’s commander in chief, requested a directive detailing the optimal doses and frequencies in order to maximise the drug’s benefits and minimise its negative consequences. On 17 April a ‘stimulant decree’ written by Ranke was sent out to more than a thousand medical officers; corps doctors recommended two tablets at night, with another two after three or four hours, if necessary, ‘for the interruption of sleep’. Health was a consideration, but a secondary one; the alertness induced by Pervitin could ‘in certain situations be more important than concern for any related harm’.

Between April and July, 35 million pills were ordered from the Temmler factory, which could now press them at the rate of 833,000 a day. On the night of 10 May the Panzer Group von Kleist, led by 1222 tanks (the largest motorised unit ever assembled), was supplied with twenty thousand Pervitin pills. The tank general Heinz Guderian had convinced Hitler with his daring proposal to concentrate the battalions on a push through the supposedly impassable mountains and forests of the Ardennes, a strategy Churchill would later refer to as the ‘sickle cut’. This was extremely risky: if it failed it would leave them at the mercy of the enemy. Success, on the other hand, would offset their numerical disadvantage by neutralising the Allied force that was massing to the north. The tactic required the Wehrmacht forces to move with unprecedented speed. They burst through the Belgian lines in a bold frontal attack and kept moving at full throttle, leaving their opponents scattered and unable to regroup. High Command expected the Panzer divisions to slow down and be absorbed into the wider advance party, but Guderian ignored orders to stop and kept them going at full pelt. Three days later, 850 tanks crossed the Meuse into France. The ‘sickle cut’ continued to the English Channel, barely stopping, ploughing through 240 miles of rough terrain in 11 days.

Ohler isn’t the first to note the role of Pervitin in the Blitzkrieg; he cites and quotes the work of historians such as Werner Pieper, Peter Steinkamp and Karl-Heinz Frieser. Blitzed adds some new and valuable archival detail but Ohler’s most original contribution is stylistic: he puts Pervitin at the centre of the narrative and the way he talks about it draws on the sensibilities of today’s drug-culture. The contemporary resonances are obvious but he spells them out anyway, as his English title suggests he will. Throughout the book Pervitin produces ‘buzzes’ and ‘comedowns’, prewar German pharmaceutical companies are ‘dealers’ and Heinrich Böll’s occasional use of Pervitin to stay awake during night watches is ‘substance abuse’. It’s an engaging approach that exposes and exploits a blindspot in the historiography; it also gives Ohler licence to slip into a novelistic mode in which Blitzkrieg and Pervitin merge in a high-octane frenzy. Neurochemical storms burst across synapses, tank gears mesh, jaws clench, radios chatter, hearts pump furiously and skin flushes hot and cold. War becomes a drug experience.

This makes for exhilarating reading but not for a clear delineation of Pervitin’s role. Of course contemporary drug terminology is anachronistic here – that’s the point and the pleasure of deploying it – but it imports assumptions that conflict with the evidence. One of Ohler’s favourite conceits is that Pervitin is the substance known today as ‘crystal meth’, which he tells us is ‘usually ingested nasally in high doses’. To modern eyes methamphetamine use is delinquent and out of control, with messy chemical burnout inevitably round the corner (a view oddly similar to that of Leo Conti’s Reich Health Office). But ‘crystal meth’ isn’t a powder, it’s a preparation specifically for smoking or injecting that yields a very different effect, much briefer and much more powerful. By invoking the chaotic and shocking extremes of modern drug use Ohler distorts the picture considerably. When Pervitin is recommended to drivers to remove fatigue, he expostulates: ‘Crystal meth to avoid road accidents? Really?’ No, not really.

Such tendentious language, combined with Ohler’s breathless narrative overdrive, creates the impression that the western Blitzkrieg was an 11-day drug rampage. At times Ohler seems to make this claim explicitly. The sickle cut, he writes, ‘only had a chance if the Germans could drive day and night. No stopping, and, above all, no sleeping.’ But even with an unlimited supply of Pervitin no soldier could have stayed awake that long; they would have hit the wall after a maximum of three or four days. The stimulant decree stated that in exceptional cases sleep could be ‘prevented for more than 24 hours’, after which a recovery period would be needed. Even when Guderian urged his divisions to override all previous orders and keep moving at full speed, he only extended the limit to a maximum of three nights.

So Pervitin can’t have propelled the Blitzkrieg as literally as Ohler implies, but beneath the Sturm und Drang there is a more plausible claim. When the sickle cut began ‘no one had yet mentioned the notion of “Blitzkrieg”; nobody really had any idea what it was.’ In this scenario the tank divisions, dosed with Pervitin for the initial advance, created the momentum for a daring tactic that wouldn’t otherwise have been attempted. After that their impetus was maintained not by continual drugtaking but because slowing down would have increased the risk of getting stuck in the mud behind infantry battalions and horse-drawn vehicles or being picked off by Allied airstrikes. In a more qualified judgment, Ohler suggests the outcome resulted from ‘a kind of ad hoc planning, in which methamphetamine played a crucial part’. This assessment accords better with Guderian’s astonished declaration after the event: ‘I had ordered you not to sleep for 48 hours. You kept going for 17 days.’

The invasion of France was the first officially controlled use of a chemical stimulant in warfare, and it achieved everything the traditional rum ration ever had and more besides. Ohler’s ironic and censorious approach doesn’t quite allow him to say so, but by any impartial measure one has to conclude that it was well managed for maximum effect. As hostilities loomed, soldiers on both sides dreaded a return to the attritional horrors of the Great War; the irresistible velocity of Blitzkrieg banished the fear of combat and replaced it with a sense of invincibility. In the words of one participant who recalled crossing into France with Luftwaffe sirens shrieking overhead, ‘We felt a kind of high, an exceptional state.’ To their opponents the spectacle was terrifying. Winston Churchill was ‘dumbfounded’, and French morale collapsed along with their defensive formations.

Some observers guessed straightaway that stimulants had played a significant role. The British psychiatrist William Sargant, who had been experimenting with benzedrine in London, recalled press reports of German soldiers and parachutists emerging ‘drugged, fearless and berserk’, and wasn’t surprised when the tablets they were carrying turned out to be amphetamines. He also guessed that their use was closely supervised: ‘The Germans had been prudent enough to sustain their men’s capacity for occasional prolonged effort.’ British, American and Japanese forces all rushed to develop amphetamines for combat. Most chose dexamphetamine (and later Captagon) over methamphetamine, for shorter duration and more manageable after-effects.

Pervitin’s use was eventually halted by an order from the Reich Health Office. Conti learned from a report in the Italian press that the Germans were using a secret ‘courage pill’ and was shocked to discover the quantities involved. He commissioned articles about ‘the Pervitin problem’ in which doctors described its use as ‘degenerate’ and highlighted cases of dependency. The Wehrmacht resisted, pronouncing it ‘decisive for the outcome of the war’, but Conti’s views were more closely attuned to those of Hitler, at this point still a valetudinarian teetotaller and determined to keep his generals on a tight leash. In 1941 Pervitin was classified as an intoxicant and made subject, alongside cocaine and morphine, to the Reich ‘opium law’.

In the second half of Blitzed, Ohler delivers an unsparing chemical comedown, tracing Hitler’s descent into chaotic dependence on a constellation of stimulants and narcotics. The German army’s peak of success coincided with its most vigorous period of drug use; in Hitler’s case the equation was reversed. His personal doctor, Theodor Morell, turned to stimulants and narcotics only when his trademark health regime of vitamins and hormones was no longer able to keep his patient going even at massive doses. Hitler dreaded becoming an addict and it’s unclear how far he recognised he had even in the later stages. As defeat closed in, the German navy turned to the use of combat drugs, but this time in desperation. In December 1944, with the war in the Atlantic already lost, a brutal series of drug experiments concluded with teenagers from the Hitler Youth movement being given cocaine and Pervitin chewing-gum in advance of suicide missions as human torpedoes. The drugs were designed to ‘boost the soldier’s confidence and mobilise his reserves of strength’ but they only confirmed their own limits. They could lift a rising tide of morale but they were unable to refloat it once it had sunk.

Since the Second World War stimulants have become ubiquitous in warfare, and Kamieński tracks their use in contemporary theatres across the globe. Basuco – crude cocaine base – has been both currency and combat drug in the Colombian civil war; khat has played a similar role in Somalia and Uganda, as have the amphetamines supplied to child conscripts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The same is presumably true of Captagon in Syria, to an extent that can only be guessed at. In Kamieński’s assessment it’s ‘a good combat drug’: it ‘numbs the fear and suppresses the pain, alleviates hunger, reduces the need for sleep, and induces strength’. He assumes, on the basis of the usual unsatisfactory evidence, that it’s ‘a real fuel of war not only in terms of funding military operations but also propelling fighters into battle’.

Just as alcohol has been ubiquitous in the history of war, stimulants seem an inevitable part of its future. They may not be able to turn their subjects into brainwashed zombies or instil an ideology that hasn’t already taken root, but their judicious deployment is undeniably effective for extending military capability to its limit. Yet drugs also transcend rationality in the ways that war itself does. As both Kamieński and Ohler suggest in their different ways, war is itself a drug: combat engenders an altered state of consciousness, fuelled by endogenous chemical stimulants such as adrenaline and testosterone, in which identity and rationality are surrendered to an intoxicated group mind. If you’re also young and male and already high on weaponry and firepower, it’s hard to imagine anything more ecstatic than war on drugs – as long as you’re winning.