Amphetamine and Heroin Use Amongst U.S. Soldiers in Vietnam

Growing up watching war movies I always viewed war as a glorified struggle of justice filled with absolutely baffling circumstances, each unique for a specific situation and specific war. My father would always tell me these wars aren’t what they seem: the closer in date each U.S. war involvement got to our current year the less justified the war was, but I didn’t understand what he meant until I started reading about it. I was allowed a brief glimpse into the chaos of Vietnam through the film Platoon, which unexpectedly portrayed a very accurate depiction of a specific common problem that occurred in many platoons in Vietnam: drug use. Drug use, in combination with conflicting ethics and interests of the individual soldier, often created issues in the cohesive function of each platoon or unit. These two situations marched hand in hand with the experience of young GIs in the heat of the horror in Vietnam. During this time, the military was not only turning a blind eye to recreational drug use (heroin, opium, amphetamines, cocaine, psychedelics, barbiturates), but they were also encouraging and rationing pharmaceutical drugs to improve soldier performance as well as pacify negative psychological effects of combat. GI issued amphetamine use increased soldier alertness and aggression, contributing to increased performance but also civilian casualties and friendly fire, while heroin was used to temporarily pacify the deep psychological trauma that later revealed itself to soldiers returning home as chronic stress or PTSD.

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Amphetamines had a direct impact on soldier performance in combat in Vietnam. Unlike the amphetamines used in WW2 (Benzedrine), Soldiers in Vietnam were issued Dexedrine (Dextroamphetamine) which is a derivative of Benzedrine that is double the potency[1]. These were issued at 20 milligrams each, which is roughly equivalent to 40-50 milligrams of instant release Adderall1. Platoons doing reconnaissance were commonly issued the most Dexedrine due to the long hours they had to be awake and tuned into their environment. A member of a reconnaissance platoon, Elton Manzione recalls a navy commando saying, “When I was a SEAL team member in Vietnam, the drugs were routinely consumed. They gave you a sense of bravado as well as keeping you awake. Every sight and sound was heightened. You were wired into it all and at times you felt really invulnerable.”1 A study determined 3.2 percent of arriving soldiers in Vietnam heavily used amphetamines, and after a single year of deployment that rate rose to 5.2 percent1. This rise in the heavy use of amphetamines was directly influenced by the US military rationing amphetamines to soldiers.

Amphetamines not only increased alertness, but aggressiveness as well. This aggressiveness contributed to incidents of friendly fire and the killing of many innocent civilians. Due to the high potency of Dexedrine issued, amphetamine comedowns left soldiers extremely irritated, some remarking that they felt like “shooting children in the streets.” 1 One soldier in the Green Beres was heavily addicted to amphetamines, taking roughly 100 milligrams per day (equivalent to more than 200 milligrams of Adderall). Comrades account he “was so jumpy after twenty-six sleepless, drugged hours on duty that, when startled by a noise, he machine-gunned an accompanying boat, ,” one comrade remembered, “ killing and maiming a number of his colleagues.” 1 When I recall scenes from Platoon, I now understand that the extremely aggressive behavior elicited in the scene where they burn the village could have been a reflection of how amphetamines amplified their aggression. The words “let’s do the whole village” are an accurate replication of first-hand accounts of overly aggressive reactions to amphetamine comedowns in combination to the situation and pressure they faced in Vietnam.

Regardless of the enhanced performance and increased aggression elicited from soldiers on amphetamines, they still had to deal with the consequences and psychological repercussions of guerrilla warfare. Most soldiers had conflicted feelings towards their objectives given by military commanders especially because there seemed to be a lack of direction in a strategic objective1. They were sent on “search and destroy missions” which was truly to push for maximum kill ratios, and firefight success was determined by body count. Add civilian casualties to the mix and this easily increased soldier’s feelings of resentment for the Vietnam mission. To make matters worse, commanders applied a depraved incentive to increase kill ratios: acquire a trophy from the body of the Vietcong (penis, ear, finger, etc.) and soldiers would receive extra beer rations1. The more trophies, the more rations. This crippled morality and lead to an increase in self-medication in Vietnam. 

Due to the reduction of marijuana, heroin use gained immense popularity among GI’s[2]. A whopping 79 percent of all soldiers who used drugs tried heroin1. Once the military caught on to the use of heroin, marijuana, although it was the drug of choice, was not the issue1. During 1970, drug trafficking routes from the Golden Triangle through Cambodia opened up allowing for extremely pure forms of heroin (94-98 percent) to be introduced to U.S. soldiers1. Labs were also opened up in Vietnam to meet the “rising demands of American troops” 1. An important aspect about this heroin was that it didn’t need to be injected intravenously. The purity of this heroin enabled it to be smoked or even snorted like cocaine1. This allowed it to be much more attractive to new users who didn’t like the idea of using needles to shoot up heroin. Only nine percent of drug users in Vietnam used drugs intravenously1. Although the new means of using heroin were more attractive to users, the increased purity was dangerous to users. Heroin accounted for over half GI overdoses1.

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Although soldiers were under pressure to be discrete about marijuana, heroin was odorless and hard to detect, allowing for less stress to the user1. Regardless of the regulations, users were fairly overt about their use: engraving messages on their helmets and lighters about being high1. My personal favorite:

Always ripped

Or always stoned

I made it a year

I’m going home1.

By 1971, heroin addiction had soared to an estimated 25000-37000 soldiers (10-15 percent of troops) and in some unites 20 percent were addicted1. 85 percent of all servicemen were offered heroin, 35 percent of them tried it, and 20 percent were habitual users1. By 1973 on out of every three soldiers used heroin[3]. A veteran recounted “Near the end of my tour, when everyone was doing heroin, I remember there was a pool of vomit outside our hootch that never dried up completely. Like for days on end. Because heroin makes you vomit” 1.

            Surveys were sent to veterans returning home asking them about their drug habits. It was reported that out of 43 percent that consumed drugs in Vietnam, 10 percent of them used drugs in the U.S. after returning home[4]. Although it seems fabricated, the results are accurate according to Kamienski. It’s speculated that Drug use in Vietnam was contextual and stress induced from combat1. Although many returning veterans didn’t continue to use drugs, many who suffered from PTSD did continue to use.

An aspect of drug use in Vietnam that differs from civilian drug use is that GI’s had no idea if they were going to die the next day. The uncertainty of death undoubtedly increased the likelihood of drug use and irrational decisions away from combat, but during that time those decisions were considered rational. The combination of the U.S. military issuing pharmaceuticals while being unable to detect heroin, the increasingly stressful environment of war, and the uncertainty of death on their next patrol introduced soldiers to a “live fast and die young” philosophy that embraced drug use. Vietnam proved to be a pharmaceutical lesson in military history that has changed how soldiers fight and unwind in foreign wars today. When reflecting on the challenges these soldiers faced day to day I’m impressed that some were abstinent from drugs at all. When living in a hell like that, how could you be?

[1] Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

1 Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[2] Musto, David F., and Pamela Korsmeyer. The Quest for Drug Control: Politics and Federal Policy in a Period of Increasing Substance Abuse, 1963-1981. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

1 Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[3] Shuster, Alvin M. “G.I. Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam.” May 16, 1971.

1 Kamienski, Łukasz. Shooting up: a Short History of Drugs and War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[4] Kuzmarov, Jeremy. The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009

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