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.