Zombie fighters: the drugs of the new wars and the old ones

The war in Ukraine has triggered rumors about the use of psychoactive substances between the contenders on both sides.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
16 September 2023 Saturday 10:33
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Zombie fighters: the drugs of the new wars and the old ones

The war in Ukraine has triggered rumors about the use of psychoactive substances between the contenders on both sides. These rumors have been especially persistent in the case of the Wagner Group. His mercenaries have been accused of not standing on bars in the face of machine gun fire, but of climbing over the corpses of their comrades, stepping on them, wave after wave, to dig new trenches and regain ground.

A report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, points out that Putin uses some of his men as “disposable soldiers.” For their part, the Russians say they have discovered laboratories where Ukrainians manufactured methamphetamines. It has also been known about the appearance of new drugs such as desomorphine (an easy-to-produce synthetic opiate sometimes called “the poor man's heroin”) or alpha-PVP or “flakka” (an amphetamine-like stimulant also known as as “gravel” due to its appearance, similar to a crushed stone).

However, some of this information has been hoaxes used by both sides to discredit the adversary.

The reality is that many drugs circulate in Ukraine on both sides of the trenches. Based on this evidence, the truthful information circulating about the use of old and new drugs in current wars is scarce.

It is known, for example, that Somali militias, in addition to ingesting psychoactive tablets (for example, benzodiazepines) and inhaling solvents, have the habit of chewing khat. The buds and leaves of khat (Catha edulis), when chewed, cause euphoria. Traditionally this plant was used for medicinal and recreational purposes, until it became very popular during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea (1998-2000).

But it must be insisted that, despite the abundant information circulating on the Internet, especially about Ukraine, it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. When the communication department of the Ministry of Defense was consulted on this matter, it stated that it "had nothing to comment on the matter."

On the other hand, Christian D. Villanueva López, director of the magazine Ejercitos, states: “Whether we like it or not, drugs are commonly used in almost any army, place and date. The war in Ukraine is no different in this sense. In fact, there are reasons to think that there are structural factors that make it even more favorable. For example, the enormous pressure to which the infantry of both sides is being subjected by the action of artillery and drones.”

“At the end of the day, drugs – continues this expert – are nothing more than a 'solution' to the problem of facing death or boredom.”

According to Villanueva, a former Spanish soldier who studied Political Science and was deployed in Afghanistan, drugs are an essential part of any war. “Experience tells me that all armies have easy access to all types of products: from synthetic drugs to pollen, even ordinary medications,” highlights this expert, who has coordinated the book The War in Ukraine. The 100 days that changed Europe (Catarata, 2022).

Any video about the trenches that Ejercitos magazine posts on the social network X (formerly Twitter) explains the stress that soldiers endure better than a thousand words. Stuck in holes dug in the ground and surrounded by rubble, it is difficult to imagine how one can sleep, overcome fatigue or overcome fear when a hail of projectiles from an armored vehicle falls very close to where they are. It is the horror of war.

And also the explanation of why soldiers of all eras, without previous experience with drugs, end up consuming any substance that allows them to stimulate themselves, relax or forget, as the case may be. It can be alcohol, the oldest and most popular military narcotic, or it can be anything available that helps endure a situation for which no one is prepared, especially when conscription is forced.

"If we look at what is happening in Ukraine, we have armies of recruits in many cases forced by force, the impossibility of leaving the trenches (rotations are not carried out as would be desirable), the stress of the need to carry out assaults on positions very well defended with a high probability of suffering injuries or something worse... That being the case, the logical and normal thing is that drugs are something very common,” Villanueva admits.

The unwritten rule is: the greater the brutality of the conflict, the greater the number of soldiers who take drugs. With another variable applicable to Ukraine: when the armies are irregular (a category that would include the Wagner Group, the Taliban, the rebel groups of Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone or Niger, the Chechen combatants and terrorists, the Somali militias...), increased chance of zombie fighters.

Case in point: US Marines were forced to modify their operational tactics after discovering that many of the insurgents they fought in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004 were drugged. Despite being seriously wounded, they continued to fight, so the standard procedure of shooting the body was not enough to stop them. From then on, the Marines had to aim for the head.

The Americans are the textbook example of the need to get high when fighting an elusive and unpredictable enemy, like the Vietcong. As the German physiologist Georg Friedrich Nicolai stated in Biology of War (1918), what makes war exceptional is the “unlimited capacity for self-sacrifice of soldiers,” since to fight with deadly weapons is to do so against “the instinct of life". Hence, since the beginning of time, no war has been sober.

The ancient Greeks, for example, fought drunk on wine (also with opium mixed with wine and honey, a concoction given as reinforcement to athletes training for the Olympic Games), while the Vikings resorted to hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The fiercest Viking warriors were known as berserkers, after the mythical Berserk. Legend has it that this powerful hero of ancient Scandinavian mythology, grandson of Starkodder, the eight-armed, went to battle dressed only in bear skins (ber sark) and without armor of any kind, and that he fought with audacity and reckless fury. Surely, there have been no warriors more ferocious and ruthless beyond all limits than the Viking mushroom eaters...

Returning to the Americans, during the Vietnam War (1965-1973), the greatest threat to the discipline of American troops was not the much vaunted drug addiction, but alcohol, something that remained silent for years. But, in general, the excesses with drink were much more common and repeated than those committed with drugs.

Commanders often turned a blind eye, in part because the internal war of American forces in Vietnam was not against alcohol, but against marijuana and heroin, considered public enemy number one. Research commissioned by the Department of Defense revealed that 73% of rookie recruits and 30% of officers were “problem drinkers” or “immoderate and intemperate.”

According to the same department, in 1968 half of the soldiers deployed in Vietnam took drugs. In 1970 the rate increased to 60%, while in 1973, the year of withdrawal, 70% of soldiers used narcotics. Apart from drinking alcohol profusely, 51% smoked marijuana, 28% used hard drugs (mainly heroin) and almost 31% took psychedelic substances.

As for amphetamines, they were distributed almost like candy, especially dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), a derivative almost twice as powerful as the benzedrine used in World War II.

Many of these pills (as still happens in so many wars) were distributed by the high command. Soldiers who wanted to supplement their dose of amphetamines could easily obtain them on the black market. Today there are new generation psychostimulants such as modafinil, whose effects are similar to amphetamines, although it does not raise the heart rate as much or cause as much insomnia.

A reference book is Drugs in War. A global history (Crítica, 2017), the work of Łukasz Kamieński, a documented investigation into the military history of drugs, which is like saying about humanity itself... The book raises how effective some substances have been in the war effort.

For example, the experience with hashish by the Napoleonic army deployed in June 1798 in Egypt (where alcohol was prohibited), whose conquest was seen as the prelude to an attack against British India, was a real disaster. Marijuana did not encourage the Gauls to fight, so Napoleon banned local hashish in October 1800. On the other hand, alcohol, cocaine or methamphetamines (pervitin and benzedrine) have proven to be much more “quarrelsome” drugs.

Broadly speaking, there are two pharmacological categories: stimulants and depressants, or in other words, substances that prevent or help you fall asleep or, as American pilots call them, go pills and no-go pills. .

One of the conclusions of Kamieński's book is that there is a multitude of research underway to obtain a “magic bullet” capable of revolutionizing the performance and mood of soldiers. But also that war is for many (especially for politicians and soldiers interested in fighting) the most formidable of narcotics, in the sense that, despite the horror and atrocities, they conceive fighting as something extremely addictive.