Killer High by Peter Andreas

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The six drugs referred to in the subtitle of Peter Andreas’ Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs (Oxford University Press, $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) are alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine. Andreas, the John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University, begins by stating that he chose to study those substances because they have had the most intricate connections to warfare.

Andreas delivers a deeply researched, elaborately detailed, and carefully nuanced analysis of the relationships of war to drugs and drugs to war. Plus, Killer High is richly illustrated and moves the reader along with great energy from one surprising insight to the next.

For the reader who enjoys discovery, Killer High offers something on nearly every page. We learn, for example, that:

  • The Code of Hammurabi refers to twenty different kinds of beer.
  • Per capita alcohol consumption in Colonial America was twice what it is today.
  • At the height of the tsarist empire, alcohol taxes funded one-third of the Russian state budget.
  • The German advance in World War I was halted by French and African troops determined to defend vast caches of champagne, with which they were paid.
  • In 1917 alone, the French army consumed 1,200 million liters of wine.
  • Young William McKinley braved enemy fire to haul vats of hot coffee to exhausted Union troops at the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the beginning of his rise in politics.
  • U.S. troops consumed 75 million pounds of coffee during World War I.
  • The Blitzkrieg assault that collapsed the French Army so rapidly in May 1940 owed its success in large part to troops who were popping amphetamines, giving them the wherewithal to fight for four days straight with no fatigue.

The greatest gift of Killer High is not thousands of interesting facts, however, but the overriding themes that they support. One is that prohibition nearly always fails. Tsar Nicholas II’s efforts to stop vodka production after his drunken army’s defeat by Japan in 1905, for example, led to his bankruptcy. American Prohibition gave organized crime a boost. Mao Zedong closing down opium production in China chased the trade to the Golden Triangle before war caused production to shift to a Muslim country where it was little-known. That would be Afghanistan, which now produces 93 percent of the world’s supply of heroin. Making drugs illegal, Andreas shows, leads to a frustrating game of global whack-a-mole.

Another theme is that political ideology distorts our understanding of the economic forces behind the drug trade, especially when patterns of drug use go back centuries. When the collapse of the USSR in 1989 “deprived us of an enemy,” Andreas writes, political leaders of both parties turned the world’s best-equipped and trained military to chasing drug cartels and drug kingpins with little understanding of the intricacies of the problem.

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The pause that refreshes: U.S. troops in Italy in 1944 chugging Coca Cola

Controlling the drug trade “from the source” often ends up with supporting political elites that profit from the trade, as well as training and arming military and police who become traffickers. Along with hunting down peasant militias who may be inspired by communist or terrorist ideologies, but have little connection to illegal international commerce. The line between good guys and bad guys, which is necessary for effective military action, disappears when great wealth is generated through drug-dealing.

As long as the farmers in Afghanistan depend on growing poppies and those in Latin America rely on growing coca leaves, drugs and war, Andreas note, will continue to be codependent and addictive.

Andreas addresses the Vietnam War only sporadically, but does point out the role drugs played in that conflict. He notes that our war was the last during which the U.S. Army supplied free cigarettes in C-Ration packs and almost-free ones at PXs–at the came time that cigarette packs came with labels warning that smoking caused cancer.

Amphetamines, he notes, were “passed out like candy,” mostly in the form of more than two million Dexedrine pills, as well as what was readily available on the black market.  The Army alone ingested more amphetamines in Vietnam than all Allied forces combined did during World War II.

Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese military commanders made a very high-grade heroin from the nearby Golden Triangle available to American troops. In 1973, the Pentagon estimated that about a third of the troops in coutnry were using it. President Nixon began the nation’s first “war” on drugs, in part, to keep what he called our “crippled generation” from bringing their drug habits home and destroying the nation. He blamed the communists for the epidemic of addiction and blamed drug-addled Americans for not “winning” the war.

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Vietnam War smoke break

Alcohol, a legal drug, took a much greater toll on Vietnam War veterans after the war—mainly, according to Andreas, because only expensive, low-grade heroin was available in the States, while alcohol was legal and comparatively cheap.

Killer High opens the door to understanding how we got where we are in a most convincing and entertaining book.

–Jack Nolan

The reviewer, with served with the 525th MI Co (JTAD) in the Vietnam War, is the author of novels Vietnam Remix and There Comes A Time.