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Drug Intoxicated Irregular Fighters: Complications, Dangers, and Responses

Authored by Dr. Paul Rexton Kan. | March 2008

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The complexity of many ongoing and persistent conflicts in the post-Cold War is partially attributed to the widespread presence of drug intoxicated irregular fighters. Drug consumption in contemporary wars has coincided with the use of child soldiers, has led to increased unpredictability among irregular fighters, provided the conditions for the breakdown of social controls and commission of atrocities, and caused the lessening of command and control among the ranks. Although the nonmedical use of drugs by combatants has a long history, recent encounters of professional armed forces have demonstrated the need to reinvestigate the reasons irregular combatants consume drugs, the type of drugs they consume, how they acquire drugs, and the consequences for professional militaries.

Intoxication among combatants continues to be a part of today?s conflicts and occurs in minimal, acute, and unrestrained degrees. The perceived benefits felt by combatants consuming illegal narcotics on the battlefield have few pressures to constrain them. Pressures like social norms, legal controls, expense, and availability, along with individual fears of addiction, toxicity, and concerns about the lack of knowledge about a drug and supervision of its use are often mitigated by the nature of contemporary wars which tear down each of these by focusing attacks on the institutions and people who comprise them. However, drug use and abuse in wartime still depend on the law of supply and demand which is distorted due to the type of consumer (a person engaged in armed violence) and the areas (zones of conflict) where a drug is available.

?Combatant demand? is comprised of four main reasons that drugs are sought by those engaged in armed conflict: stimulation, reward, recruitment, and relaxation. The supply side for drugs in today?s wars falls into at least one of four categories: traditional, transshipped, looted, and manufactured. The result is the use of marijuana, khat, hallucinogenic mushrooms, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and looted pharmaceuticals to stoke a variety of conflicts. Drugged fighters are a significant feature of protracted conflicts, presenting challenges for Western militaries to overcome since such protraction creates conditions for drug use among their forces as well. Lengthier times spent in the field can generate personal hardships among troops that can be soothed by drug use. A type of drug quagmire can develop where protraction creates an atmosphere for the greater demand for drugs among irregular and professional forces.

Although militaries from developed countries are beginning to acknowledge the strategic and tactical effects of drugged combatants, little has changed in the way military and political leaders have conceptualized the role of illegal narcotics in warfare. What is needed is greater cooperation among agencies of the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of Treasury, and Department of Homeland Security to monitor and assess the ways drugs are being used by irregular forces so that new strategies can be added to the plans of conventional forces who may intervene in such operational environments. More techniques from law enforcement to track and trace combatant supply and demand will prepare militaries for encounters with drug intoxicated combatants by developing early warning signals in order to adjust their tactics in particular conflicts.

Additional institutional measures should be put in place before the next intervention in environments that include drug intoxicated irregular fighters. Such measures could include nesting operations targeted at reducing drug use in campaign plans from the beginning, while including new training to consider new military objectives like patrols along smuggling routes and securing hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies during an intervention. In situations where nation-building and stability operations are mandated, the main goal of governments in responding to these conflict environments should be to reduce the level of violence through a reduction of the use of drugs. By lowering the demand for drug use, command and control can be strengthened among irregular forces, thus increasing the likelihood of adherence to the parameters of any potential peace accord. To reduce the potential for a drug quagmire, greater institutional support is needed for the professional military to monitor, treat, and provide long-term care for active duty troops and veterans who may develop substance abuse disorders.

Much has been written about armed irregular groups funding their operations by turning to the drug trade.1 However, participation in drug trafficking is not the only way that drugs complicate contemporary armed conflicts. Widespread drug use by these types of combatants also contributes to conflict environments that challenge policymakers and military leaders. As one psychopharmacologist has argued, the desire to seek intoxication may be a ?fourth drive? in human beings after hunger, thirst, and sex.2 Such a drive appears to have an abiding link to warfare.

The nonmedical use of drugs by combatants has a long history. In 1781, a South American Indian militia refused to fight against the Spanish unless they were resupplied with coca leaves.3 Peyote was routinely used by various Native American warriors before armed clashes with British, French, and American colonial armies. The Zulu warriors of Isandlwana cooked a cannabis broth, emboldening them and making them unpredictable to British troops in 1879. Commanders of European forces, however, were reluctant to permit their own troops to partake in the local drug of choice.4 While in Egypt, Napoleon noticed the smoking of hashish among the lower classes and forbade it by his troops.5

However, paralleling the trade of opium to fund European imperial expansion, opium use flourished particularly among the British and French officer corps. Many American Civil War soldiers became addicted to opium as a result of being given morphine to treat their injuries.6 In fact, opium and morphine became so closely associated with the military profession that those who became addicted were said to have contracted the ?soldier?s disease.? Western forces were not the only forces who succumbed to the intoxicating benefits of the poppy; opium took its toll on the forces of the Chinese emperor during the time of the Opium Wars. Many of the Chinese soldiers fighting to defend the empire against opium were addicted themselves. More than 10 years after the First Opium War, the successes of the Taiping Rebellion (whose members touted their sobriety as a virtue) may be explained in part by the nearly 90 percent addiction rate among the Chinese emperor?s army.7

Drug use among conventional forces also has roots in major 20th century conflicts. Cocaine use has links to World War I. The fear of cocaine abuse among British Imperial Forces was spread by the media of the time by portraying it as part of a German plan to demoralize their adversary.8 During World War II, amphetamines were widely used among all sides to keep the fighting men alert and were provided in ration kits of American troops.9 Methamphetamine was widely used by Imperial Japanese forces in World War II.10 During the Korean War, American servicemen stationed in Korea and Japan invented the ?speedball,? an injectable mixture of amphetamine and heroin.11 U.S. troops in Vietnam preferred marijuana, but when subject to a sudden marijuana ban, they turned to heroin. Discipline problems quickly rose; as one commanding officer lamented 2 years after the marijuana crackdown, ?If it would get them to give up the hard stuff, I would buy all the marijuana and hashish in the Delta as a present.?12

While conventional forces struggled (and continue to struggle) with drug use among the ranks, warfare today occurs in a different context, meaning that drug consumption by combatants has differing effects that military leaders and policymakers must take into account. Contemporary wars feature new actors employing differing tactics than conventional militaries and doing so for a variety of different goals.

Martin Van Creveld argues that war has become ?transformed? as we enter a ?new era, not of peaceful competition between trading blocks, but of warfare between ethnic and religious groups? waged ?not by armies but by groups whom we today call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits, and robbers.? Barbara Ehrenriech, too, points to a ?new kind of war,? one ?less disciplined and more spontaneous than the old,? and ?one often fought by ill-clad bands more resembling gangs than armies.? In a similar vein, Mary Kaldor writes about ?new wars,? ones centrally about ?identity politics,? fought in a context of globalization by ?a disparate range of different types of groups such as paramilitary units, local warlords, criminal gangs, police forces, mercenary groups, and also regular armies including breakaway units of regular armies.?13 These are rich environments for the presence of widespread drug use. This monograph examines the reasons irregular fighters consume drugs, the types of drugs they consume, how they acquire drugs, and the effects on conflict.


1.See, for example, Svante Cornell, ?Narcotics, Radicalism and Armed Conflict in Central Asia: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,? Terrorism and Political Violence, Winter 2005; Indra de Soysa, ?The Resource Curse: Are Civil Wars Driven by Rapacity or Paucity,? in Mats Berdal and David Malone, eds., Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000; David Keen, ?The Economic Function of Violence in Civil Wars,? Adelphi Paper 320, Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press, 1998.

2.Ronald K. Siegel, Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind Altering Substances, Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2005. See also Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978; Thomas Stephen Szasz, Ceremonial Chemistry, New York: Anchor Press, 1974.

3. Parliament of Canada, ?Conflict, Drugs, and Mafia Activities,? Contribution to the Preparatory Work for the Hague Peace Conference, May 11-16, 1999, March 1999, available a www. parl.gc.ca/37/1/parlbus/commbus/senate/com-e/ille-e/presentation-e/ labrousse2-e.htm.

4.Alcohol was the preferred drug of choice among European troops during the colonial era. As American and British forces faced each other over the independence of the colonies in 1776, both militaries included in their respective doctrines that men could not be expected to fight without their regular rations of rum. Presaging contemporary episodes in today?s conflicts, the British routinely sought to destroy General Washington?s stores of rum as a way to affect American morale. See Ian Williams, Rum: A Social and Sociable History, New York: Nation Books, 2005.

5.The word ?hashish? is apocryphally associated with the corruption of the Arabic word for ?assassin.? The assassins of the 11th century were said to have been recruited after long smoking sessions of hashish. See Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire, New York: Random House, 2001, pp. 172-173.

6.Matters were made worse by the fact that morphine and opium were cheaper than alcohol and widely available in the United States at that time. See Paul Gahlinger, Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use, and Abuse, New York: Plume, 2001, p. 26.

7.W. Travis Hanes III and Frank Sanello, The Opium Wars, Naperville, IL: Source Books, 2002, p. 171.

8. Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, New York: Picador, 2001, p. 155. Reflecting the change in societal attitudes toward narcotics more generally at the beginning of the 20th century, drug use by soldiers was viewed as harming the war effort and disruptive of good order among the troops. These attitudes were strengthened when some returning veterans in Europe and America sought out cocaine as a way to ?cure? their addiction to morphine and heroin acquired after treatment of their war wounds. In fact, drug addicted veterans in the United States often scrounged for junk metal to pay for drugs, earning them the nickname ?junk men? and then simply ?junkies.? See Gahlinger, p. 60.

9. Bruce Eisner, Ecstasy: The MDMA Story, Berkeley, CA: Ronin, 1994, p. 127.

10.This liquid form allowed the body to more quickly absorb the drug than amphetamine pills, but was more highly addictive. The addictive quality of the drug was felt particularly acutely in Japan when returning soldiers arrived home, and methamphetamine supplies stored for military use became available to the public at the conclusion of the war.

11. L. A. Young, L. G. Young, M. M. Klein, and D. Beyer, Recreational Drugs, New York: Berkeley Books, 1977.

12. Edward Brecher, Licit and Illicit Drugs, New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1972, p. 189. In addition, with the current ?zero tolerance? of drug use and possession by the U.S. military combined with more frequent deployment rotations, some troops have resorted to unorthodox ways to achieve intoxication. There have been episodes of troops using over-the-counter cough and cold medications like Nyquil to get intoxicated.

13. John Mueller, Remnants of War, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 86.