Combat High – A Sobering History of Drug Use in Wartime


Drugs and warfare have always gone hand in hand – from Homeric warriors drinking wine and taking opium to Wehrmacht troops popping methamphetamines.”

By Lukasz Kamienski

THE PHILOSOPHER Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that the history of narcotics is a study of culture itself. He may very well have been speaking about military culture.

Although largely neglected by military history scholarship, intoxicants have been an integral part of the culture of war for centuries.

Stimulants have long been known to enhance combat performance, keeping personnel awake, alert, and hence alive after prolonged periods of fatigue. Intoxicants also “take the edge off” war, enabling soldiers to cope with the traumas of the battlefield. Drinking and drugging rituals have even helped soldiers bond, which is crucial for group cohesion and morale. And since long periods of boredom are also a part of war, soldiers have often reached for intoxicants because they simply have had not much else to do.

Drugs and warfare have always gone hand in hand – from Homeric warriors drinking wine and taking opium to Wehrmacht troops popping methamphetamines. The truth is, soldiers have been fighting while high for much of history. Consider the following examples.


Alcohol is the oldest and most popular pharmacological motivator of fighting men. For centuries, rations of spirits inspired “Dutch courage” that propelled troops into battle. Different nations had different drinks of choice. For the British it was rum. The Russians turned to vodka. Ancient Greeks, Romans and the modern French preferred wine. The Germans issued beer. Americans initially doled out rum but since the Civil War, it was whiskey. The fact is that until the mid-20th century, wars were rarely fought sober.

Zulu Courage

The experience of fighting with fierce and alien enemy pumped up on drugs is hardly new. When the British decided to subdue the Zulu tribes in 1879, they faced the ferocious foe who was seemingly immune to the modern rifle fire. What made the Zulus truly fearless warriors was not just their traditional belligerence but also their pharmacopoeia. Shamans provided spearmen with various herbs, such as intelezi (a traditional plant taken in purifying rites to boost morale), medicated beer, dagga (the South African variety of cannabis which had a stimulating effect), a potent painkiller and hallucinogen produced from the “bushman poison bulb,” and probably also toadstool known as Amanita muscaria or “fly agaric.” Had the British been familiar with the idea of zombies, they would have likely used the term to describe the Zulus. (Click to Article)

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