Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Shooting Up by Lukas Kamienski

This is a fascinating book, a history of the approved use of drugs amongst militaries. There have been numerous studies of the illicit use of intoxicants by soldiers - it was well documented in the Vietnam War for example - but this is quite possibly the first study of drug use approved, to at least ignored, by the higher command.

From antiquity to today's wars, the author details in exhaustive detail how intoxicants of various kinds have been used for 'Dutch courage', to combat fatigue and stress, to treat PTSD, to name but a few. The book starts with Ancient Greece, Greek soldiers apparently used Opium before going into battle, and follows through to the present day. Some of this will be familiar to readers, such as Hitler's abuse of Amphetamines, but there are many aspects which come as a real surprise, not least recent use of narcolepsy drugs such Modafinil by the US military to heighten performance. The author also touches upon how illicit substances have caused wars, the Opium Wars in China, and Cocaine in Latin America.

For me the most fascinating parts of this study were the small details he brought to the fore from other works. For example, he reminds the reader of the passage in Homer's Odyssey where we're told how the grief and sorrow Greek soldiers felt for those who died during the siege of Troy was relieved by "Nepenthe" the "drink of oblivion". This, in fact, is one of the earliest descriptions of Opium as used to treat the effects of war, which they dissolved in alcohol to create an early version of what the Victorians' termed laudanum.  Similarly, in the early stages of the Second World War, we learn that "Blitzkrieg was powered by amphetamines as much as by machine."

This is a fascinating study of an important and neglected aspect of the history of warfare, a hidden history if you will, and I would advise anyone to read it.

5 out of 5 stars

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