All posts by Charalambos Asimakopoulos

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

Tobacco & Alcohol

In this blog post I’d like to focus on two of the readings, ‘The Alcohol Republic,’ and the section on Tobacco in Courtwrights ‘Forces of Habit,’ in order to determine the differences and similarities between the two drugs and their effects and affects on the US. ‘The Alcoholic Republic’ was personally a bit of a shocker for me. I knew the US has had a history of drinking and inebriation, but this reading really opened my mind to the extent to which Americans and colonists drank alcohol. It was extremely common for a male to have 8 shots for whiskey a day and for women to have around 2. Cider was also drunk regularly, and its alcohol percentage was around 20 percent. Everyone was drinking, even children. Most men were introduced to alcohol at a very young age to get accustomed to the taste and to prevent them from becoming drunkards. This may have had the opposite effect in the long-run. Some even considered alcohol to have medicinal value. This was mostly preached by Cotton Mather, who suggested it in small quantities for he considered overindulgence in rum was a threat to social existence when consumed in high quantities.

People who visited from across the ocean commented frequently on the common state of drunkenness that seemed to have spread like an infection everywhere they went. In truth, these tourists were not exaggerating. Public intoxication was very common. It was so common in fact, that during court hearings if someone was too drunk, they would just have them go sleep for a couple hours then return after so they were a little more sober.

            Americans loved alcohol so much that we would even fight for it. After the revolutionary war, the US was in a lot of debt that they couldn’t pay off with just tobacco. So instead they proposed a new tax, this time on alcohol. After the first Whiskey Tax in 1791, Pennsylvanians were livid at the new costs. They retaliated by tarring and feathering a tax collector and policeman as an act of defiance against the tax. This would later spark the Whiskey rebellion in 1794 causing further turmoil and government involvement in American alcohol consumption.

The section on tobacco in ‘Forces of Habit’ spent time discussing the origins of tobacco and its effect on the US, proving tobacco’s impact on our economy. John Rolfe produced the first successful tobacco crop, unknowingly starting the beginning of the backbone for the US economy. The colonists loved tobacco. After the first crop was produced, many others began growing the crop. Soon, slaves were being imported from Africa to work on the tobacco fields which made tobacco even more profitable because of the free labor. But it wasn’t all ‘smooth sailing’ for tobacco crops. Harvesting tobacco took a whole year, and farmers kept replanting crops on the same soil robbing it of its nutrients. This caused a lot of farmers and slaves to relocate to different areas.  

            Alcohol and tobacco are both very comparable. Socially, they both began as hierarchical drugs in the eyes of social status. Tobacco was used by high class citizens and later spread to the masses. This is the same case for alcohol, except alcohol had been around for much longer so by the time it reached the colonies, everyone was drinking. Alcohol had a much larger effect socially because of what it does to people in high quantities. Public drunkenness was much more chaotic than any buzz brought on by tobacco and caused much more disruption in society. Economically, Tabaco has had a much larger effect on the US, immediately and in the long run. Not only was it a staple in our economy but it developed a chain of events that affect the civil war and reconstruction. This was due to the harvesting methods of tobacco (using slaves). Slaves made tobacco incredibly profitable, but also was a major issue of human rights in the US and changed the future of the country forever, leading to the Civil war and reconstruction. My one critique is I wish the quantities of alcohol drank by the colonists that were described were easier to identify with modern alcohol measurements. I have no idea how many drinks are in a barrel and had a lot of questions when it came to those descriptions. As for tobacco, it would have been very interesting to translate the amount of tobacco they were smoking to single cigarettes per day. I think it would have put things into perspective and been more riveting.