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How Drugs Made American Warfare

From alcohol to amphetamines, a new book shows intimate links between the policing of substances and the waging of war.

John Moore/Getty Images

In 1971, the year President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs, “wherever they are in the world,” the House Select Committee on Crime found that, between 1966 and 1969, the Pentagon had distributed 225 million doses of speed to active-duty troops in Vietnam. “We had the best amphetamines available,” one veteran recalled, “and they were supplied by the U.S. government.” Doled out “like candies,” is how another put it. In just four years, the Army alone popped more uppers than all U.S. and British combat forces in World War II combined. With Dexedrine, the standard issue “pep pill,” almost twice as potent per milligram as the Greatest Generation’s “bennies,” Forrest Gump wasn’t the only all-American supersoldier bounding invincibly through hellfire in ‘Nam.

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $29.95

Those still habituated to sleep got by on milder stimulants. Many young Vietnamese women sold glasses of “Saigon tea,” which often contained regular tea, to lonely U.S. grunts. Outside the bars and brothels, the patriotic choice would have been instant coffee, a longtime trench-war expedience that had secured new shelf-life in the kitchens of Golden Age consumers. Protected for decades by the U.S. government, Big Tobacco stocked military rations with specially designed cigarette four-packs. And for caffeinated refreshment in the oppressive heat, there was always Coca-Cola. Centrally-planned WWII mobilization had underwritten the company’s dizzying overseas market conquests. And while 1971’s “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad beamed anti-war harmony from a literal hilltop, executives made sure to keep shipping cases to the soldiers bathing North Vietnam’s “trees and honey bees” in napalm and Agent Orange. 

Weed helped some G.I.s take the edge off. Heroin—trafficked primarily by anti-communist CIA assets in Hong Kong and the Golden Triangle, or else by U.S. soldiers—was cheap and pure enough to smoke. Nixon blamed these illicit depressants for a defeat he knew was inevitable. (His “public enemy number one” speech came just four days after the New York Times began releasing the Pentagon Papers.) But sanctioned substance abuse in the military was far more prevalent, and ultimately more destructive. “Everyone in Vietnam drank like fish,” an infantry private observed, “and every chance you got you drank yourself silly.” By 1971, Nixon himself had entered a racist, booze-addled spiral of desperation and paranoid rage.

Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs is Peter Andreas’s attempt to work backwards from the half-century prohibition disaster that followed—to understand how “war made drugs, and drugs made war,” long before there was such a thing as a worldwide War on Drugs. Diversely sourced and well-narrated, it explores the messy psychological dimensions of that ancient “drugs-war relationship.”  But Andreas’s headiest insights deal with the material logic of empire. All contemporary “major powers,” Andreas writes, “have at various times, in various ways, and to varying degrees, relied on drugs and drug revenue to carry out their state-making and war-making objectives.” In that sense, neither the immense chemical might of the U.S. military industrial complex nor its escalating fixation on drugs are wholly new or unprecedented.

The problem with this global analysis is that, of Andreas’s assorted “narco-states,” only the United States has pretended to impose drug control globally. Bolshevik Russia and Communist China had prohibitionist tendencies of their own. But that doesn’t tell us much about the enforcement regime under which we actually live. About why it applies to certain commodities, within specific circumstances. About why it inflicts “skyrocketing violence,” and against whom. In an otherwise urgent corrective to the “narrow focus” of drug war politics, Andreas seems to have neglected the most pernicious assumption of all: that “drugs” exist in the first place as a neutral, objective category, outside of history and the ideas and interests that shape them.

Andreas covers lots of battlefield in this relentlessly captivating, 266-page march of a survey, from Persia to Peru, imperial Japan to medieval Scandinavia, the rise of Mesopotamian grain agriculture to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Killer High is “necessarily selective.” The West towers over Andreas’s lineup of “state-building projects” in the global south. Aside from an offhand, critical reference to the “doped-up child soldiers” trope, Africa is virtually absent. Andreas rationalizes some of these choices—he excludes psychedelics because they are “niche rather than mass-produced drugs”—but one also suspects he’s avoided their implications for his argument. 

The protagonists of Andreas’s hazy chronology are the book’s six titular “war drugs,” each of which receives a dedicated chapter. There’s a brief social prehistory and physiological breakdown. Then Andreas traces the drug through the blood stains of martial history. Alcohol, the “oldest mass-consumption drug,” comes first. The Sumerian goddess Ninkasi presided over the making of both beer and war. In his sovereign Code, the conquering Babylonian King Hammurabi delineated 20 different types of brew. Nicotine is next to rival alcohol’s “addictive relationship to war.” Less than a hundred years after tobacco’s discovery by Spanish colonizers, Samurai knights were carrying ornate pipes, not unlike those that heralded conflict and inaugurated peace on the plains of North America. Caffeine is “the world’s most popular mind-altering drug”; opioids, “the focus of the world’s first true ‘drug war.’” The book’s only synthetic invention, amphetamines, coincides with the industrialization of warfare. And finally, as we advance through the American Century, “no drug has been a target of more war than cocaine.” 

Some readers might feel disoriented by the constant temporal skips and shifting geopolitical circumstances. But structuring the book around discrete substances allows Andreas to distill their essence, those attributes that render them “especially exploitable” for specific modes of warfare. He notes, for instance, how distilled spirits, an innovation of Islamic science, gave “compact, concentrated, and durable form” to European colonial ambition during the Age of Exploration. By mixing rum and sugar from their Caribbean plantations with bacteria-infested water and scurvy-preventing lime juice, the British stumbled onto a recipe for 18th century naval dominance—and for an early progenitor of the cocktail. Logistically superior to cigars while delivering a sharper buzz than pipe tobacco, the cigarette had undeniable military advantages, particularly after the advent of mechanized rolling. In Afghanistan as in Mexico, poppy happens to grow well in war-torn peripheral regions with immediate economic needs and deep historical grievances. 

The impression that emerges from this treatment is as rich in nuance as any biography. Rome’s Mark Anthony may have charged into his final battle “dressed up in fawn skins to impersonate the wine god Bacchus,” but drugs, in Andreas’s telling, transcend gods and mortals alike. They owe no allegiance to flag, hold no determinate purpose. As weapons, they are almost invariably “double-edged”—boosting morale and undermining readiness, consolidating rule and fomenting rebellion, capable of driving every side in a given conflict, often in contradictory directions.

Andreas provides useful, if blurred, categories to think through this intoxicating fog of drugged war. There’s “war while on drugs,” which refers to the many psychoactive prescriptions for grief, revelry, anesthetization, dissent, nerve, ceremony, and perseverance during wartime. “War through drugs” gets at the more instrumental possibilities of taxation and pharmacological strategy: Japan’s “policy of narcotization”—dumping heroin and morphine on occupied Manchuria—was prosecuted as a war crime following WWII. Russia’s “alcoholic empire” merited that title, not because of the infantry’s vodka charkas, or Peter the Great’s 30 daily glasses of wine, but the “state’s addiction to alcohol revenue.” Andreas is unsparing in his critique of Great Britain’s 19th century “war for drugs” in China, waged to balance out tea with opium in the East India Company’s trade ledgers. And he is weirdly apologetic about the “poor results” and “unintended” consequences of the “repeatedly failed” U.S. “war against drugs” in Colombia. “Drugs after war” completes the cycle, as traumas, spoils, and military patterns of supply and consumption spread through popular culture. French wine country was Gaulish beer country prior to Roman subjugation.

The sections on heroin and cocaine delve into the “shadowy underworld” of warlords, intelligence operatives, mercenaries, security officials, public-facing businessmen, politicians, and protected traffickers who organize the illicit drug trade. “Uneven criminalization,” Andreas proposes, introduced a “greater criminal element into war itself,” as open conflict between states gave way to irregular armies, off-the-books financing, and plausibly deniable covert alliances. Maybe the book’s strongest causal argument, it’s a difficult one to reconcile with the first two chapters—or with Andreas’ previous scholarship on the foundational importance of smuggling in U.S. political economy. Tax-evading North American settlers employed labor stolen from enslaved Africans to grow tobacco, stolen from Native peoples, on stolen Native lands. In open defiance of colonial and U.S. law, and as part of a deliberate campaign of Indian removal, traders at U.S. military outposts drowned the Wild West in liquor.

Outsourced, paramilitary violence and extralegal profiteering has since come to define the war on drugs, especially as experienced by the Indigenous and Afro peoples of the Americas. But the tradition of U.S. frontier expansion was very much alive at the outset. It was there every time a special operator dragged a cigarette beneath a Confederate flag in Vietnamese “Indian Country,” every time a returning patrolman exchanged the severed ears of purported Viet Cong for—in the words of one private—“all the free beer and whiskey they could drink.” “There are savages out there,” an Army captain told Congress in 1971, explaining the mindset that produced the My Lai massacre. That same year, Newsweek assured readers that the “drug epidemic” was “worse even than My Lai.” 

In the preface to Killer High, amid all the usual acknowledgements, Andreas quips that he never could have finished without “heavy daily doses of my own drug of choice, caffeine.” The joke is that people don’t consider caffeine a drug. And that Andreas, a tenured Ivy League professor and family man, doesn’t fit the conventional stereotype of a drug user. But Andreas isn’t a drug user—or rather, a fifth cup of coffee wouldn’t make him one. For the purposes of this book, he has in effect depoliticized its object of study, reduced it to the inoffensive language of “chemicals that alter the mind of the user.” But it was war that “made drugs,” not neuroscience. Chemistry doesn’t erase the difference between caffeine and cocaine, any more than it explains the disparity between criminal sentences for cocaine versus crack.

Whiteness, James Baldwin once said, “is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.” Drugs, too, are metaphors for power, and that’s just another name for the NYPD. Even before mass incarceration and the so-called militarization of domestic law enforcement, policing the ghetto and pacifying the Global South were understood in terms of the same basic counterinsurgency imperative. “We will not permit any part of America to become a jungle,” said President Lyndon Johnson, after Harlem rioted over the 1964 off-duty police killing of 15-year-old James Powell, shot three times by a Korean War veteran. At the peak of the Watts Rebellion the following summer, Los Angeles police chief William Parker noted that “this situation is very much like fighting the Viet Cong.” “Guerrilla fighting with gangsters,” said Governor Pat Brown. Assessing the “police problem” posed by actual Viet Cong, the Hudson Institute’s Frank Armbruster in turn cited Watts as justification for what would develop into the infamous hunter-killer Phoenix Program. 

This is the context in which to appreciate White House Counsel John Ehrlichman’s posthumous confession that the War on Drugs was “really all about” criminalizing “the antiwar left and Black people.” Because by the time Nixon entered office in 1968, his “two enemies” were, to a significant extent, one. In “Beyond Vietnam,” a speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in Harlem, just blocks from the precinct where the riots had started three years earlier, he imagined “radical departures” from the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” from settler colonialism and slavery as the basis for American freedom. The point, then, isn’t that the War on Drugs was launched under false pretenses. Or that it came to serve, as Andreas writes, “other strategic interests.” The United States was already fighting a drug war, and arguably always had been.