Wars in Which Drugs Fuelled the Fighting

Drugs have a long history as part of war. These days, their main role is a medicinal one, but down the centuries they have often been used to fire the fighting spirit.

Viking Raids – the Drug Fuelled Berserkers

The Viking legacy is a vast one. From the 8th to 11th centuries, their raids and conquests shaped the politics and culture of northern Europe. Long after their power ended, they left behind a fascinating mythology, tales of fearsome warriors, and beautiful ruins where buildings had once stood.

Part of their legacy is the word ‘berserk’.

The word ‘Viking’ refers to the raiders and settlers who emerged from Scandinavia from around 790 AD, spreading across the North Sea and beyond. Their arrival usual took the form of sudden, violent attacks in which local communities were pillaged. The berserkers were the ultimate expression of this wild, furious raiding.

Dressed in bear skins as tribute to the god Odin, the berserkers were the shock troops of many Viking raids. Apparently losing control in the heat of battle, they moved wildly around the combat, showing no fear or mercy.

Religion, psychological trauma, and shared culture may all have contributed to the behavior of berserkers, but drugs also played a part. Consuming the hallucinogenic fungus Amanita muscaria as part of their rituals, they gave in to the derangement the drug brought. It was easy to become wild and fearless when reality was vanishing behind a religious hallucination.

Vikings in Battle. Jakub T. Jankiewicz / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Vikings in Battle by Jakub T. Jankiewicz. By Jakub Jankiewicz – CC BY-SA 2.0


The Crusades – Hashishin, the Orginal Assassins

One of the deadliest threats the European Crusaders met in the Middle East was the order of assassins known in western tradition as the Hashishin.

A group of Muslims based in Persia and Syria, the Nizari were formed in the 11th century, and soon came into conflict with other Muslim powers in the region. To defend themselves, they began training young acolytes known as fidai, turning them into covert killers. Smart and deadly, the fidai infiltrated enemy positions and took out their leaders, often at the cost of their own lives.

14th-century painting of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by an assassin.
14th-century painting of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by an assassin.


To ensure their cooperation in this work, the fidai had to be particularly dedicated to the cause. Exactly how this was achieved is controversial, and so many myths abound that the truth may never be known. Drugs have long been believed to have played a part.

According to this version of the Hashishin story, the fidai were drugged and shown a beautiful garden, causing them to believe that they had witnessed paradise. Only once they died for the cause of their leaders could they return there. Believing that only death in a righteous cause could recreate their drug-fuelled euphoria, they were ready to die taking out the infidels.

The Napoleonic Wars – Fighting Drunk

British soldiers relaxing at a sutler’s booth, 1808. (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)
British soldiers relaxing at a sutler’s booth, 1808.

Alcohol has helped motivate European troops for centuries. When a town fell, the pubs and breweries were often among the first places to be ransacked by soldiers celebrating their victories. But the high point of drunken warfare was the Napoleonic Wars.

Alcohol was commonly used as a reward and motivator among the armies fighting for and against Napoleon. Troops received rations of alcohol as well as food. This could be used to stiffen their resolve in particularly tough situations – some of the French divisions at Austerlitz were fed a triple ration of brandy, nearly half a pint each.

This did not always work out well. Following the storming of Badajoz in 1812, the Duke of Wellington lost control of part of his army for the best part of two days, as they went on an epic drinking spree. But most notable was the case of Corporal Shaw, a cavalryman in the British Life Guards. Shaw got so drunk on the morning of the Battle of Waterloo that he went on a drunken rampaging, hacking down French cavalryman until he himself was killed.

The American Civil War – a War Fought on Coffee

Men of the Army of the Potomac line up for Coffee in this picture from 1863 . Library of Congree / No known restrictions
Men of the Army of the Potomac line up for Coffee in this picture from 1863.

Coffee is mostly remembered for its absence during the Civil War, as soldiers were forced to improvise substitutes to see them through. But the passion with which they sought out these substitutes highlights just how dedicated they were to getting their caffeine fix, and the generals believed it could help them to win.

While the Confederates struggled to obtain coffee, the Union troops were well supplied, as it was thought that this would keep them marching. The Union Army issued soldiers around 36 pounds of coffee a year. General Benjamin Butler went so far as to order his men to carry coffee in their canteens – there would be no decaf in Butler’s force – and he planned his attacks around when the men would have the best caffeine buzz.

One wartime coffee run would later become famous. On 17 September 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, a group of Ohio troops found themselves exhausted from a long morning of fighting, and the battle far from over. Suddenly, a young soldier appeared, rushing up to them under heavy fire, delivering two vats of steaming coffee to reinvigorate the troops. That man would later use the incident to help him run for political office, and is known to history as President William McKinley.

Vietnam – the Herb Goes to War

US Soldiers and a Helicopter In Vietnam. Sadly, drug use was rife throughout the conflict. Flickr /manhhai / CC BY-2.0
US Soldiers and a Helicopter In Vietnam. Sadly, drug use was rife throughout the conflict. By manhhai – CC BY 2.0

American involvement in Vietnam came just as drug culture was blooming in the United States. As a foreign extension of the USA, its armies were riddled with drugs.

For the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, drugs provided an escape from a grueling, demoralizing war that many wanted no part of, and which it became increasingly clear they could never win. Marijuana was particularly popular, allowing soldiers to escape harsh reality in a cloud of pot smoke.

But marijuana also helped to reduce inhibitions, turning smokers into deadly killers. The army struggled to fight drug use, even as its influence created a brand of killer far more deadly than the clean living recruits arriving from the States.

Andrew Knighton

Andrew Knighton is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE