During the night of April 17, 2002, an F-16 flown by the U.S. Air National Guard dropped a 500-pound bomb on a squad of Canadian soldiers near Kandahar, Afghanistan. The explosion killed four Canadian infantrymen and wounded eight others. The pilot of the plane, Maj. Harry Schmidt of the Illinois National Guard, claimed he believed the ground forces were attacking his commander and he had to act. When the board of inquiry asked why Maj. Schmidt had engaged the target rather than pull away to safety, his defense was simple: He was high on drugs the Air Force gave him.
Go Pills and No-Go Pills
The drugs Maj. Schmidt took before what came to be known as the Tarnak Farm incident were amphetamines, which the pilots jokingly called “go pills.” Together with regular doses of “no-go pills,” such as Ambien, the military’s policy of dosing servicemen with performance-enhancing drugs created a situation where jittery pilots in confusing situations would be high on speed. For many Americans, the publicity around the case was the first time they’d heard about go pills, but the history of giving fighting men these drugs goes back much further than Afghanistan.
Amphetamines: From Failed Experiment to Modern Crank Drugs
Methamphetamine was first synthesized by a Romanian-German chemist named Lazăr Edeleanu in 1887 and, perhaps surprisingly, forgotten. Edeleanu was looking for a synthetic form of ephedra, but what he got couldn’t be absorbed by the human body and so he set it aside. It wasn’t until 1919 that Japanese chemists created a water-soluble form of the chemical that the body could absorb: the first iteration of crystal meth, which they called shabu. Within 10 years the new drug was being experimented with as a handy decongestant under the trade name Benzedrine.
During trials, it was noted that subjects using Benzedrine had more going on than clear nasal passages. The drug turned out to be a stimulant that could pep people up and encourage them to work at boring, repetitive tasks. Unfortunate side effects of Benzedrine use included aggression, agitation, paranoia, and sleeplessness. Given how useful all of those effects are on the battlefield, it was inevitable that speed was going to get a trial run with soldiers. The Japanese even listed shabu on official records as “senryoku zokyo zai” or “drug to inspire the fighting spirits.”
Pervitin, WW2 and Chocolate
By the late 1930s, several major powers were experimenting with early ‘go pills’ for their soldiers. Benzedrine was still popular in the United States, but the Germans had come up with a version called Pervitin that was easier to synthesize and had a longer shelf life. In Germany, it was commonly blended with bricks of chocolate. Bricks issued to aviators were called Fliegerschokolade (flier’s chocolate), while the army got Panzerschokolade (tanker’s chocolate).
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union lacked access to high-grade pharmaceuticals, so their army improvised a version of the drug for itself. The result was called vint, and it was a nasty brew of synthetic ephedra dissolved in formaldehyde and injected into the bloodstream.
At the time when this was happening, amidst a world war, there appeared to be less focus or care given to the distribution of addictive and aggression-inducing drugs to young men armed with rifles and artillery. It’s possible that the long-term consequences were not carefully considered. When war broke out for each country, which varied from 1937, 1939 or 1941, tens of millions of new recruits flooded into the military forces of the Japanese Empire, Soviet Union, United States, British Empire and Nazi Germany. Many of these men were issued combat arms and were sent off with hefty doses of speed to get them going.
The World War
Understanding World War II events may become easier, or at least take on a new light, when you realize that some soldiers on the front lines were using amphetamines. Ordinary people might wonder how a human being could stand up to the impossible hardships of cold, violence, terror and hard work men had to deal with on the Eastern Front, but frozen nightmares like Stalingrad are custom-made for amphetamines. Digging into the snow and fighting to the death over a rail station that had already been blown up a month prior are more tolerable when you have a drug that makes you feel hot and aggressive. Likewise, the suicide charges of Japanese soldiers are often depicted in historical documentaries by Western filmmakers as a depraved cultural mindset, no doubt leading to prolific racism against the Japanese. It is also depicted as being a part of the Bushido Code (a moral code of the samurai) that is until you realize the entire Japanese infantry was issued shabu as part of their rations. The British Army alone issued more than 72 million doses to its regular and colonial troops during the war.
Even some leaders’ actions can be partly explained by drugs. According to an in-depth study of Hitler’s associates and medical history by the American OSS, the German leader was getting daily injections of Eukodal, a cocktail of oxycodone and speed, for a heart condition. Similarly, it was discovered after the war that the Imperial Japanese High Command had sequestered millions of doses of shabu in nondescript warehouses all over the Home Islands, usually close to military bases, mainly for the use of senior staff officers and other officials who would have made decisions such as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
WW2 Meth Addiction Comes Home
People who come down after heavy amphetamine use experience a horrible drop in serotonin and other neurotransmitters. This is usually felt as depression and lethargy. For millions of German POWs working off their war debt in Soviet forced labor camps and discharged Gurkhas sent back to India without any more Benzedrine, the withdrawal undoubtedly hit hard.
In societies where ‘crank’ drugs were still accessible, veterans came home and went straight to their doctors to get prescriptions for their old standbys. Amphetamine prescriptions surged in America as the 16 million servicemen who were exposed to amphetamines during the war sometimes resorted to eating the contents of asthma inhalers to get their fix. In the USSR, returning addicts were severely punished and frequently driven into the underground of Soviet drug culture. To this day, ‘vint’ addiction is a major cause of death in former Soviet countries, and the ingredients to make it are sold from kiosks in major Russian cities.
The Modern Military
After the shock of the 2002 Tarnak Farm incident, the Pentagon reassessed its ‘go pill’ policy. Maybe feeding a daily diet of meth to pilots flying $50 million fighter-bombers was a bad idea after all, they reasoned. Use of amphetamines was phased out in the early 2000s in favor of a new synthetic drug called Modafinil. This is an anti-narcolepsy medication should only be used as prescirbed by a doctor. While it has much lower risk of dependence however it does come with side effects concerning mental health and similar symptoms as speed use.
Amphetamine addiction is serious, and the drug has dangerous complications with a high potential for abuse. If you’re struggling with amphetamine addiction, especially if you’re a veteran, the addiction professionals at FHE Health know what you’re going through. Start your recovery today by calling us at (833) 596-3502 anytime day or night.