From its very inception, the term “War on Drugs” was engulfed by problematic irony. The declaration was made by President Nixon in 1971, not from any concern about the disease of addiction that was afflicting millions of Americans, but because of the increasing number of servicemen in Vietnam who had turned to narcotics to dull the psychological pain of a brutal and misguided war.
More than 40 years later, the unintentional punchline of Nixon’s phrase has duplicated itself thousands of times over. We now associate America’s “War on Drugs” with all issues that military interventions generate: an increase in terror, thousands of deaths, and an endgame that merely exists in theory.
Dessa K. Bergen-Cico, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Nutrition Sciences in the College of Human Ecology and lead faculty for the Addiction Studies Program at Syracuse University, has been studying the operative connection between combat and narcotics for years. We spoke to Bergen-Cico about her latest book, War and Drugs from Pluto Press, which tracks the hot-button association back through the centuries, and lays out some alternative blueprints for the future.
Motherboard: Is there a specific historic moment that you believe war and drugs were forever linked or has the connection been around since the beginning of warfare, in your mind?
Dessa K. Bergen-Cico: History shows a long connection between the use of psychoactive substances for the preparation of war. From an organized sociopolitical perspective the Opium Wars stand out as the initial link between war and drugs. Through these wars, England established the models of using the trafficking of drugs as a means of funding wars and funding colonial empires. It also established a model of using drugs as a tool of war to subdue and conquer a populous through population-level addiction.
This model was then adapted for use by the French colonization of Indochina, the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, and so forth. The Vietnamese partially funded their rise against the French through the opium trade. During the Cold War the region became known as the Golden Triangle [Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar] where opium was cultivated and sold to provide liquid assets to both pro-communist and anti-communist efforts.
No war illustrates the connection between war and drugs more than the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War opium, heroin, and cannabis were made readily available to American troops. This not only destabilized forces but it served as a refuge from the horrors of war. On the home front in the United States drugs were becoming synonymous with the peace movement and the counterculture. From this perspective I would say that war and drugs became linked in ways that really signify the profound ripple effects of war on society at large. For me, the Vietnam War has forever linked drug use as an expression of “rage against the machine” and a countercultural manifesto.
You have an entire chapter about drugs in the American Civil War. Despite mountains of commentary on the conflict, it is an aspect that is infrequently discussed. How do drugs connect to that war?
As with all civil wars, the fighting occurred in the homeland, and affected civilians as well as soldiers. There were significant casualties [620,000] and the dead and dying were physically and emotionally handled like cattle at a slaughterhouse. Psychological numbing was a means of survival; soldiers and civilians alike turned to alcohol and morphine to escape the horrors of war. Whiskey, sherry, and brandy were standards on the medical supply lists for each regiment.
The dead and dying were physically and emotionally handled like cattle at a slaughterhouse: Psychological numbing was a means of survival.
Similar to the proliferation of prescription opiate abuse today, the post-Civil War era saw the emergence of “morphinism” or morphine addiction. Although the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder was not recognized until after the Vietnam War, there is no question that the country was deeply affected by the trauma of the Civil War and trauma is a significant factor in alcohol and other drug abuse.
Drug abuse by Vietnam soldiers and veterans developed into a staple of war films years later, but was there much public awareness of the issue while it was happening? What was the scope of the war’s after effects, at home, within this context?
The 1960s represented a cultural turning point in how the world viewed military conflict and drugs. By the end of the 1960’s there was significant public awareness of drug abuse by soldiers, veterans, and it was prolific at home and was deeply enmeshed with the peace movement. Drug use within the United States grew in response to increased availability through connections with the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia. Heroin use readily spread to the U.S. through military transportation routes, allegedly including coffins and body bags carrying U.S. servicemen home for burial.
Between 1965 and 1972, heroin use escalated among both troops in Vietnam and civilians stateside. Between 1965 and 1969 there was a five-fold increase in the number of heroin addicts in the United States, and a growing heroin epidemic among servicemen in Vietnam. With concerns over a generation of soldiers about to return home from Vietnam with heroin and marijuana habits, President Nixon declared the War on Drugs.
Increased acceptance of drug use among Americans in response to the political unrest in the 1960s and the influx of pure and inexpensive hash, marijuana, and heroin from Southeast Asia created demand that grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s and has remained strong.
Do you see a lot of parallels between substance abuse in post-Vietnam War America and what is happening right now to veterans coming home from the current wars in the Middle East? It’s a topic that isn’t normally brought up, even when we have discussions about the costs of these wars.
There are unequivocally parallels between substance use in post-Vietnam War America and what is happening in America today. During Vietnam military personnel were introduced to opium and heroin during deployment; today the route to opiate addiction for military personnel starts with prescription opioids such as Oxycontin. The Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia has been replaced with the Golden Crescent [Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan] where 90 percent of the worlds opium is cultivated.
In my book, I map out the escalation of opium cultivation, transnational drug trafficking and drug use in response to war; this is a pattern repeated over and over the Vietnam War, the Soviet-Afghan War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.