If there’s one thing synonymous with conflict, it’s substance use. The impact of drugs that fueled armies doesn't get a ton of publicity, but history is littered with armies that engaged in these behaviors. From ancient warriors tripping on bog myrtle to modern soldiers buzzed on chemical combinations, soldiers have long been availed of these various options.
In some respect, drugs that fueled armies almost seem necessary to engage in every form of structured aggression. Since science suggests people are basically good, it’s no small stretch to suggest the average person isn’t adequately equipped to go out and harm a bunch of strangers simply because a superior told them to. In some cases, historians argue several ancient cultures made their fierce reputations on the back of mind-altering remedies. In other words, they've fueled pretty much every army ever, and there’s no sign the trend is set to change any time soon. So read on to learn about drugs that fueled armies, and how drugs won wars.
When the might of the Germans during WWII was unleashed on the world, a new term was coined to describe their speed and efficiency: blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” At the time of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, the Wehrmacht was viewed with such fear they were considered to have superhuman stamina and strength, and willingness to fight without hesitation.
The basis for that reputation was a medication called Pervitin, which was widely used in German society as a way to improve mood. On the battlefield, it helped soldiers go abnormally long periods of time without eating or sleeping, while also keeping their spirits up in spite of the conditions around them.
Centuries before the Germans invented “blitzkrieg,” a small group of Vikings crafted a legend of ferocity unparalleled through the ages. They even got their own word to describe their assault: “berserk.”
Icelandic poet Snorri Sturlson once wrote of berserkers, “(Odin's) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and [eliminated] people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.”
While the theory is debated, some historians believe that one of the primary ingredients in Scandinavian alcohol, bog myrtle, may have caused the berserker behavior. They may have also taken psychedelic mushrooms to help sink into a state of frenzy.
In ancient Rome, citizens and slaves alike consumed an estimated three liters of wine a day, meaning everybody was at least a little inebriated all of the time. For low or high classes, there was basically no stigma associated with dependency. And everybody consumed. What’s more, ancient Roman wine (which was essentially just fermented grapes) had an extremely high alcohol content.
Since science was in its infancy, the popular belief was that Roman wine was medicinal. As such, Roman soldiers were rationed wine every day. The rations were meant to boost morale and help keep the soldiers energy up in time of duress and near exhaustion.
If you were to imagine the most harrowing existence possible, it'd be hard to imagine something worse than the fate of extreme young soldiers. Throughout the world, small squads of young boys—mostly orphans whose parents were felled in whichever conflict drew them in—are handed arms and told to fight for their country.
In the 11-year-long civil conflict in Sierra Leone that began in 1991, child soldiers were given a substance called "brown brown" to increase the intensity of their fighting and keep them loyal to whichever faction had them in their thrall. "Brown brown" is a potent mix of Coke and gunpowder. Former child soldier Ishmael Beah wrote in The New York Times:
We [used cannabis] and sniffed "brown brown," which was always spread out on a table near the [arms] hut, and of course I took more of the white capsules, as I had become [dependent on] them. The first time I took all these [substances] at the same time, I began to perspire so much that I took off all my clothes. My body shook, my sight became blurred and I lost my hearing for several minutes. I walked around the village restlessly. But after several doses...all I felt was numbness to everything and so much energy that I couldn't sleep for weeks.