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The War Nerd / July 14, 2008
By Gary Brecher

War & Drugs: flying while you’re dying

Hey, I’m back! For a few weeks there, the War Nerd was unhorsed, pulled over to the side watching life’s rich convoy zoom by. Thanks to the damn ungrateful Russian government, the old exile got shut down. I was particularly pissed because I’d just done my most Russia-friendly piece, a long respectful article about the Soviets’ big victory in Manchuria in 1945. I was proud of that article. I’d spent weeks researching this campaign that nobody in the West even knows about, and if I do say so myself, I wrote it up pretty clear, pretty solid. So I thought those Russkies would be happy, for once, if they’re even genetically up to it. But noooo! Ames sent me some translated comments from Russians who’d read my article in translation on Russian blogs, and I couldn’t believe the bitchy comments. One jerk said, “The author is just trying to show that he knows a lot about Russia.” Gee, sorry, Ivan! Next time I’ll try to be more ignorant.

Truth is, I shoulda knowed the Russians would screw us over. Look at the record and you’ll see the Russians always treat their friends bad. The Soviets handed over the membership lists of the whole Egyptian Communist Party to Nasser’s secret police as part of a weapons-trading deal in the early 1960s. They lived just long enough to sing “The Internationale” in falsetto while getting their teeth pulled out with pliers in Egyptian prisons.

With allies like Russia, you’re nothing but a bargaining chip. They hate themselves, so naturally they hate people who stand up for them. You’re better off being their enemy. They respect that. Half of them are still in love with Hitler, who wanted them killed off like gophers.

So from now on, it’s no more Mister Nice War Nerd. This new site,, is going to be based in Panama, the sleaze capital of the Western Hemisphere, the homeland of one of the ugliest warlords ever hatched, Manuel Noriega. Noriega used to be one of the biggest drug dealers ever to wear olive drab-and that’s no mean feat, let me tell you, when you start looking into how many generals have dabbled in dope. So I thought it’d be fun to kick off the new Panamanian exiled with a look at war on drugs. Not THE war on drugs, which doesn’t even deserve to get called a war, any more than the war on poverty did, or the war on people picking their noses in public, or whatever public-service “war” they’re pushing in unsaleable ad slots right now. No, I’m talking real war, as it’s done with real drugs.

You can go back in history as far as you want, and you’ll find warriors high as a bunch of blood-spattered kites, smiting and getting smit while buzzed out of their little minds. Or you can go forward to the most high-tech military machinery and you’ll find the people in those machines couldn’t pass a urine test either. Seems like war and drugs just go together, no matter what the DEA has to say about it.

The Vermacht’s Vending Machines

Armies these days don’t like to publicize their druggin’ ways, so the truth only comes out when something goes wrong. Like in April 2003, when a USAF F-16 dropped a 500-pound bomb on Canadian troops near Kandahar. Four were killed, eight wounded-nothing too serious-but you should have heard those Canucks whine about it, especially when it came out that the USAF pilot who dropped the bomb without noticing the Canadian troops’ little red berets had been high on “go pills,” as the USAF calls its Dexedrine-that’s “speed” for us mere civilians. These namby-pamby Canadians claimed that having pilots flying around hour after hour, high on speed and itching to find a target for their ordnance was irresponsible or something. It seems that the F-16 pilot, Maj. Harry Schmidt, had been told to “stand by” while the USAF command verified that the target was Taliban, not SCTV-but for some reason Schmidt was impatient, and dropped his 500-pounder before he got clearance.

If you ever had to deal with speed freaks-and I did, the one summer I tried to make money for college working construction-you can imagine the conversation between Schmidt and his ground contract. Schmidt would be jabbering a mile a second, not listening to anybody, pouring sweat and chewing his own cheeks off: “Yeah yeah yeah, they’re Taliban, of course they are, they’re drinking Moosehead beer and wearing dumb little Maple Leaf badges and bitching about how dumb Americans are so of course they’re Taliban! C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, lemme blow’em up! What’re you waiting for? You’re so slow!”

When I was working the site-which wasn’t long; I only lasted three weeks-my job was lugging stuff up to a framer, Don, who started off every morning with a nice cup of coffee and two lines of crystal meth. Don believed in working fast. And talking fast. Don was also totally insane, and had been on the bench press team at one of California’s finest medium-security institutions, so I did my best to keep him in timber. He wasn’t much on waiting for permission, and eventually went back to his old cell block for hacking up his girlfriend with a framing ax, so I can kind of see where the Canucks are coming from on this one. You definitely could argue that that stuff makes people a little trigger-happy. If Don had had 500-pound bombs available, he’d have used them on the job, no hesitation: “Yeah yeah yeah, we need a basement?? I’ll give you a fuckin’ basement, shithead, just stand back!”

So yeah, it’s possible Schmidt was a little over-eager when he hit the release button, but you could just as easily blame the fact that he was National Guard. Never trust a dentist with 500-pounds of HE; that’d be my moral for the story. Besides, they put up a special monument for those four Canadians in Kentucky, their names on it and everything. It’s like the damn Russians: these foreigners, they’re never satisfied.

Most of the drugs soldiers like to take in combat are over toward the “go pill” end of the spectrum. Well, I mean, duh! What would you want to do, dose your troops with ecstasy before battle? From what I understand, ecstasy’s for girls, or guy-girls, the whole “I’m a fucker, not a fighter” demographics. Give something like that to your troops and they’d dance into battle all painted up with flowers on their faces, walk into machinegun fire with supporting fire from a formidable bank of giant speakers blasting house music at the enemy lines: “Groove is in the heart!” closely followed by .50 caliber bullet, also in the heart. Nope, ecstasy is the kind of drug you slip into the enemy’s water supply, so they’ll “understaaaand what you meeeeeeean” while you stroll onto the dance floor and slit their throats.

I have to say, though, I’ve come across some cases where hippie-type drugs get used in battle by some pretty respectable warriors. The classic example is the Scythians, sort of the Ukraine’s pre-Hun Huns, who were like the first heavy-metal dudes, with leather pants and a real stoner way of passing the long nights: tossing a whole hemp bush onto the camp fire and inhaling deeply till they passed out. Yet they were very good fighters, using the classic combination of composite bow and small, durable ponies to turn all kinds of urban armies into pincushions. I’ve seen plenty of stoners in my high-school days, but they didn’t seem like very good military material. I guess pot was all the Scythians had, and it didn’t stop their natural bloodlust. But it must have made for some real bad Cheech’n-Chong post-battle campfire routines: “Hey, did you see that Persian I shot in the eye?” Long giggle. “Yeaaaah, that was….an’ he was all, ‘Eeeeee! Eeeee!”…and his horse was all, ‘Neigh!’…funny shit, man….” Damn, the nights must have been long out there on the steppe when da chronic was in da house.

So most armies prefer to go with the go-pills, not peacenik drugs. Before speed came along, there was cocaine. If you recall that great last scene in Scarface, with Al Pacino introducing those Bolivian roaches to his little (40mm) friend M203, firing away even when he’s been peppered with dozens of bullets, you can see why cocaine is such a morale booster. Seems to work best in short-term intense combat situations where you’re not too worried about fine distinctions, because it kind of encourages people to blast away at anything that moves. It’s real popular in West African irregular forces, along with speed. The coolest, most military drug mix I ever read about is something they call “brown-brown” in West Africa, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. Now that is cool, snorting up gunpowder. I have to tell you, the notion of getting high on that and running into an enemy village, firing from the hip-I can’t lie, that sounds pretty good to me. Africans know how to have a good time. Over here, seems like all people do on coke is dance around like a bunch of goons or come up with Hollywood’s dumbest movie ideas.

Of course it all depends on what you can get, and what you’re used to. In Somalia they don’t have coke, at least not that I ever heard. What they’ve got instead is khat, some kind of low-grade speed that comes in the leaves of this local shrub. In Yemen, most of the population is on this stuff. They say you can’t walk the streets there without squelching on big mounds of chewed khat leaves, and everybody has a big wad of the stuff in their cheeks like a nervous ninth-inning closer warming up in the bullpen. They’re Islamic as hell in Yemen but for some reason Allah’s not against this stuff, maybe because it seems like it makes good warriors. The Somali kids who zoom around in technicals lighting up enemy gangs are especially big on chewing khat, which is why people call them “quick-quick,” because of the way they jabber when they’re high. And of course it gives them extra encouragement to pull the trigger without waiting to see if it’s a goat, an old lady, or a Canadian soldier in their sights. Which is all part of what makes life in Somalia so varied and interesting, whether you want it to be or not.

Hitler’s brain on drugs

Now, those plants, like coca and khat, they’re for primitives, of course. We over here in the developed world, well, we developed some stuff that makes that stuff look like grandma’s chamomile tea. The big breakthrough came when a German chemist synthesized amphetamine in 1887. God. I love the Germans, I mean I love the Germans the way they used to be, pre-1945, when they got gelded (nice pun, huh, “gelded”? Cuz that’s Germans now: Money but no balls.) Back before ’45, German scientists were working night and day to make the world a weirder, faster place, and this discovery was one of their biggest. Unfortunately, nobody realized the possibilities of speed in combat in time for World War I, but by 1919, Japanese chemists had come up with a water-soluble version, good ol’ crystal meth, redneck work ethic in pill or injectable form. So by the time WW II came along, every army was well-stocked with go pills. The British used 72 million speed pills in the war, pretty impressive when you consider how bad they fought. But the serious armies were also bigtime speed dealers.

The Japanese, who’d discovered the stuff, started handing out speed (“Shabu”) like candy to the Imperial Forces, which actually explains a lot about why they were good at suicide charges but not so good at thinking through a tactical problem. When the war was over, and lost, there was so much of the stuff left in the Army warehouses that Japanese civilians broke in and started popping speed to keep their minds off the fact that there was no food, no shelter, and the Emperor wasn’t a god any more. It’s taken about 50 years to get them off the habit, and they say the Yakuza, the closest thing to a military elite Japan has these days, still has a soft spot for the ol’ speed.

Drugs make WW II a lot easier to get. How did those huge armies fight so long and so hard, when people these days are so weak? Cuz, among other things, they were high, dude. In fact, I never understood how either side could have stood up to the misery of a battle like Stalingrad until I found out that every damn soldier on both sides was high on speed. Once you know that, Stalingrad is a whole lot easier to understand. If you’d given my construction-site boss Don a submachinegun and told him to hold our construction site to the death—and supplied him with enough meth for the duration—he’d have been all for it.

And that’s how the Eastern Front was fought: ten million insane speed freaks blasting each other at close range in frozen fields and blownup cities. I bet they didn’t even feel it when they were hit, because I once saw Don, toward the end of the day, smash his own hand with the framing ax. He hunched over, didn’t yell, went to his truck and came back in five minutes totally fine with it, sniffing a lot and talking real fast. It was easy enough to figure out what his magic pain reliever was. The rest of the week he worked with just a dirty bandana around the cut in his hand, till they threatened to fire him if he didn’t go to a doctor on the weekend.

The Nazi version of speed was called Pervitin, and when you read letters from German soldiers on the Eastern Front most of them are full of urgent requests for the stuff. Weird to think about guys writing home to Mom and Dad asking for Meth, but those were different times, and there was nothing hippie-dippie about Pervitin. It was a good, healthy work drug, just what Germans like, just what you need when you’ve been ordered to hold an untenable position to the death, in the middle of a Russian winter. For me and you, that might not seem like fun, but when I remember Don, I can see what a kick it must have been, as long as the Pervitin held out. But man, what a Monday morning it must have been when von Paulus’s guys were rounded up and marched to Soviet camps where the ration was one bowl of gruel per day if you were lucky—and no Pervitin, ever. “Bummer, man.”

And if the Japs were handing out speed LIKE candy, the Wehrmacht was literally handing it out AS candy. That’s right—I love this, it’s such a cute little cuckoo-clock touch—the Wehrmacht had special speed-fortified chocolate bars for pilots and tankers, called “flyer’s chocolate” and “tanker’s chocolate.” I wonder what those candy bars looked like—little cartoon figures of happy pilots waving from their Me-109s, grinning away with big pupils and chocolate stains on their jumpsuits, while they strafed refugee columns.
The Soviet solders had their own speed, which they called “Vint.” I was surprised to find that out, because you think of Stalin’s guys as being so strait-laced, but of course they loosened up on a lot of stuff once the Wehrmacht was at the gates of Moscow, and I guess the drug laws relaxed along with the ban on religion. From what I’ve read, this “vint” was cheap stuff, not as good as the Pervitin, so when Soviet soldiers captured Wehrmacht forces, the first thing they did—well, most of the time the first thing they did ws shoot’em all, and you can’t really blame-em—but the very next thing they did was search the bodies for Pervitin. The postwar West German economy missed a major opportunity there: they should have gotten Col. Klink to build on the brand identification they’d won on the Eastern Front and sell the stuff to the Warsaw Pact nations with some slogan like, “The stuff that made Stalingrad fun!”

The one time you don’t want to be using speedy stuff in wartime is when you’ve got serious strategic thinking to do. That didn’t stop Hitler, who was getting daily Pervitin injections himself. You can understand that little weirdo a lot better, in fact, if you realize what a little tweaker he was: “Poland! Yes! France! Yes! Now Russia!” “But Mein Fuhrer, ze situation is not qvite ze same…” Aw, fuck that old-lady whining, Jodl, I’m high as an edelweiss and loaded fer bear! After we take Russia we give the Sun an ultimatum: you shine on Deutschland all year or we invade! The Jews are buying up all the good real estate on the Sun anyway!” That was Adolf’s brain on drugs, a tiny little egg frying up real hard.

The postwar era meant that Germany was condemned to downer drugs for a long time and the speed fad moved west. JFK was on the stuff most of the time, which supposedly gave the Soviets the shakes during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They’d had kind of a bad experience dueling with one speedfreak from the west, and now they were facing another, only this one had nuke-tipped ICBMs. No wonder Khruschev backed down.
Then came Nam, the war that gave war on drugs a bad name. See, the difference was that in all these other wars I’ve been describing, soldiers were using drugs to enjoy their work and do a better job. Naturally after the battle they’d do other stuff, drink mostly, to come down from the excitement. But that wasn’t usually part of the battle, though you have to figure that most modern European armies were mostly drunk, since most Europeans up to 1945 were drunk from the time they woke up to the time they passed out in the gutter at night. But that was R&R, not battle drugs. In Nam, our guys started out using the same good healthy warlike speedy stuff the Japs and Germans and Soviets had used, but as they got increasingly bummed out by the war, they switched to Thai sticks, which were pot mixed with opium, or even heroin—total downers, not right for a soldier at all. The low point came when they started bring heroin into the States in the bodies of dead GIs. That’s a good benchmark here: that’s how you don’t want to use drugs in wartime.

But thanks to all those after-school specials, we’ve got a new, cleaned-up generation going into battle with the proper buzz, thanks to the medics in the USAF who’ve got a whole new generation of go pills to hand out. Not to mention Prozac. Now you don’t need to listen to your buddies shrieking all night about something they saw in the trenches. Prozac’em up, stuff a few speed pills in their mouths and adjust their attitudes. When you think about the possibilities of night vision optics combined with hi-tech go pills like the Army’s developing, that allow soldiers to stay alert for 40 hours straight, it just makes your mouth water. And I hear this stuff kills your appetite too! Damn, I’m in the wrong line of drugs, because I’ve been sticking to food. That’s my drug of choice; once I’ve inhaled four or five cheeseburgers, I get a lot calmer. Maybe I should’ve enlisted in the USAF, gotten high as a buzzard in a forest fire and played Halo 3 with some Canuck infantry.

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