Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War; Light It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq

In This Review

Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War
By Lukasz Kamienski
Oxford University Press, 2016
416 pp.
Light It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq
By John Pettegrew
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015
240 pp.

In his profound, troubling, and deeply informative book, Kamienski investigates the relationship between intoxicants and warfare. Military historians have long understood the role of alcohol as a source of “Dutch courage,” but Kamienski focuses on substances such as hashish, cocaine, and amphetamines, explaining their attraction for those in combat and the dark consequences of their habitual use. Drugs not only get soldiers in the mood to fight but also help them cope with the subsequent stress. The development of amphetamines in the first half of the twentieth century seemed to be an answer to the problems of fatigue and sleep deprivation in military forces; the drugs have proved especially appealing for aircrew members who need to stay awake and alert for long periods. With official approval and encouragement, the use of certain kinds of drugs has become widespread in militaries—and so, too, have addiction, sluggish and erratic behavior, and even hallucinations and paranoia. Kamienski’s rich study starts with ancient Greece but mostly examines events from the last few centuries, including the Opium Wars and the Vietnam War, which the author dubs “the first true pharmacological war.” He examines how Adolf Hitler, although a teetotaler and a vegetarian, became dependent on amphetamines; the challenge posed by drugged-up child soldiers in Sri Lanka; and the search for safe drugs to produce optimum performance in combat. The book concludes with a rumination on the addictive qualities of war itself. 

That theme is echoed in Pettegrew’s book, which considers, among other things, two very modern sources of stimulus and addiction: readily available videos of actual combat (“war porn”) and video games that seek to replicate the sensations and demands of war. Pettegrew examines how these technologies have affected the training and actual fighting of U.S. marines. He quotes a marine in Iraq in 2003: “I was just thinking one thing when I first drove into that ambush: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.” But in Iraq, unlike in a video game, the stimulus of combat had to give way to the restraint of counterinsurgency: marines had to turn off “the killing switch” and view Iraqis with empathy rather than as inhuman targets. Pettegrew’s book is filled with interesting and thought-provoking material, but his analysis is on occasion discursive and self-indulgent.

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