The Third Eye Making Super-soldiers at a high cost
Samiul Bashar Samin
Having grown up reading the Asterix books, I wondered about supplements that turned normal soldiers into heroes. Valour, bravery and virtue were all prized characteristics in the ancient texts that captivated me. In fact, in Greek and Latin, the words for courage derive from the word for man. Being a man in the classical world meant being brave. Heroes such as Hector, Ajax, Agamemnon and Odysseus relied on their wits, muscles and character alone. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Augustus likewise took difficult decisions, earning the respect of both their lieutenants and their foot-soldiers.
Use of drugs to improve military performance continued following the Second World War. Although large parts of the Soviet and US chemical development programmes have remained classified for the post-war period, it is clear that considerable attention has been paid to research into ‘supplements’ that can have a positive effect on members of the military. The US Air Force, for example, has administered dextroamphetamines to its pilots undertaking long missions, to improve their alertness and reduce fatigue. And of the US pilots who took part in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, 65 per cent used stimulants, with just over half reporting that they were either beneficial or essential to operations.
Not all experiences proved positive. Serious side-effects can include confusion and psychosis. Investigations into an exercise at the Tarnak Farms training camp in Afghanistan in April 2002 that left four Canadian servicemen dead and eight wounded as a result of friendly fire revealed that US F-16 pilots had been sanctioned to use Dexedrine. The development by the US Army of chemical stimulants has also not been without consequences: two soldiers died after being issued with a performance-enhancing drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
So extensive is the research into better, more focused combat forces that, for more than a decade, the US has supported a biochemical programme whose aims include finding ways to allow servicemen to function better in hostile environments, use less energy, and improve battlefield performance.
Given the well-documented, widespread use of narcotics in modern warfare, it is no surprise to find ISIS also supplying soldiers with stimulants. In the fall of 2015, the largest drug bust in Lebanese history took place at Beirut airport when a Saudi prince tried to board a private jet that was about to fly to Ha’il, in northern Saudi Arabia. Two tons of Captagon were recovered – a drug whose use outside the Middle East is negligible, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Originally developed in the 1960s, Captagon was designed to treat narcolepsy and attention-deficit disorder. It was banned in most countries because of its addictive nature. Captagon produces feelings of euphoria, a boost in energy and heightened awareness – as well as surging aggression levels, says Richard Rawson, co-director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Programme at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Reuters report from 2014 demonstrated just how widespread the use of drugs has become in Syria since the start of the civil war, and especially how production of stimulants for use by rebel and ISIS forces has soared. The fact that the levels of violence have risen, too – not only with videotaped beheadings, but also mass executions and indiscriminate slaughter – might not be entirely coincidental.
Most certainly, trying to become superhuman involves playing with fire. Attempting to be stronger, better, more focused and more brutal in conflict situations might be understandable. But as Getafix used to chide the villagers in northern France, performance-enhancing drugs are to be used only on special occasions, and only when all else has failed. Always trying to achieve military supremacy means losing the ability and willingness to negotiate, compromise or rely on (and develop) native wits. As Buddy, the evil genius in the movie The Incredibles puts it: when everyone’s super, no one is. Maybe it’s time to address a challenge more difficult than making temporary supersoldiers: making people better at peace.