'Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare', by Lukasz Kamienski - Review

By Mallinson, Allan | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare', by Lukasz Kamienski - Review


Mallinson, Allan, The Spectator


'Of all civilisation's occupational categories, that of soldier may be the most conducive to regular drug use.'

The problem with this statement -- the first words of this book -- is the problem with the book as a whole: it may be correct, and there again it may not be. Even the captionless cover photograph is ambiguous: of an American soldier, in Vietnam perhaps, with a corncob pipe which may or may not contain a banned substance, though we are obviously meant to infer that it does.

Then there is the inconclusiveness: 'One may say that to a lesser or greater degree drugs shaped warfare.' Yes, one may; but to a lesser or greater degree one may say that about almost everything.

Historians have dedicated little or no attention to the use of psychoactive substances by combatants, armies, and states, since not only was the topic rather inconvenient but it was also rather taboo.

Again, why the hedging? Is it 'little' or is it 'no'? The book's extensive bibliography suggests it isn't 'no', but if drugs shaped warfare only to a lesser degree, might historians have been justified in dedicating little attention to it?

And so much of Lukasz Kamienski's history is speculative, vague and inconsistent. Of the first world war, for example, this professor from Jagiellonian University, Krakow, writes:

The rate of cocaine use by soldiers remains unknown, and there is no way to estimate the figures. What is certain, however, is that never before and never after did the military consume such large amounts of this drug as it did in 1914-1918, not only for medical purposes but also for the enhancement of performance.

Some assertions are wholly unsupported, such as that at Gallipoli, before attacks, 'Australian soldiers were administered significant amounts of the drug.' And what exactly is meant by the following?

The command of the British Army decided to try it [a mixture of cocaine and cola nut extract in tablet form] on the soldiers of the expeditionary force in Europe.

Kamienski cites no evidence other than Conny Braam, a Dutch author of fiction, who, 'based on research in numerous British archives and libraries', concluded that British soldiers 'got a cup of rum before they went over the top, and the cocaine might have been in the rum, because with alcohol it works doubly well.' (Presumably this was after the legendary issue of tea mixed with bromide to quell sexual arousal.) In Braam's 2011 novel The Cocaine Salesman a British officer, Robin Ryder, tells

how they'd coerced him into taking cocaine in the trenches to help overcome his mortal fear. …

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