The topic of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and the debate surrounding them has come up frequently over the course of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). The era of perpetual conflict we find ourselves in has led to an unprecedented and rapid growth of military technology and tactics. But the urge to make the warfighter bigger, stronger, and faster to maintain the edge on the battlefield continuously is no new phenomenon.

As our military technology has advanced, armies are still confronted with a limiting factor: human beings. The human body’s ability to operate under stress and without sleep for long periods of time has been a factor of war since time immemorial.

At the beginning of WWII, before Nazi Germany had truly unleashed its new ‘Blitzkrieg,’ or “lightning war” across Europe, a German military doctor named Otto Ranke was studying the effects of a new drug called Pervitin on university students. Pervitin contained methamphetamine, now commonly known as crystal meth, and enabled his test subjects to stay awake for hours on end without sleep. Of particular interest, Pervitin also imbued its user with greater levels of self-confidence, concentration, and encouraged risk taking, all extremely desirable traits for combat soldiers.

Ranke took his idea of supplementing soldiers with this wonder drug to the front lines just before the German invasion of France, Holland, and Belgium in the summer of 1940. Key to the German strategy of attacking through the Ardennes required exceptionally long movements to occur rapidly over the course of a few days. Millions of Pervitin tablets were distributed to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. When the invasion kicked off, not only were the Germans moving quickly and decisively destroying their enemies, they we were not tired, did not slow, and showed exceptional aggressiveness, some of which at least can be attributed to the widespread use of the methamphetamine.

Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front. Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Of course, the Nazis were not the only ones using drugs to keep their warfighters functioning on little to no sleep for days. There are reports of widespread use of a drug called Benzedrine among American air crews. Benzedrine, also an amphetamine, was supplied to the Army Air Corps flying missions out of the U.K. by the British.

Fast forward to the modern-day, ask any GWOT veteran about the use of sleep-inhibitors, and you will assuredly be given a trove of anecdotal information about being issued pills that could keep them awake and alert for extreme lengths of time, or at least being aware of their use. Jack Murphy has written about some more controversial uses of uppers in SEAL Team Six. But in the event that doc was not issuing prescribed doses of uppers, soldiers were still getting their fix through energy drinks like Rip-Its and Wild Tiger, a staple in the diet of many soldiers who have deployed. I popped Rip-Its readily while trying to stay awake on long night missions. While a Rip-It is not crystal meth, it is certainly something that has to be experienced firsthand.

Future articles will look further into the military’s widespread use of sanctioned amphetamines and sleep inhibitors and how that has affected soldiers’ health, and possible complications from their use on the battlefield.

Featured image courtesy of Deutsches Bundesarchiv