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Points Bookshelf: Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He adds to our Points Bookshelf series, where we examine and review recent books about alcohol and drug history.

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In Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University, probes the “symbiotic relationship between drugs and war,” or “how drugs made war and war made drugs.” Over the last two years, this area of interest has garnered tremendous attention. Two blockbusters that come to mind are Shooting Up: A History of Drugs and War, a general history of drugs and war throughout the ages, and Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which, as the title suggests, hones in on Nazi Germany’s love-hate relationship with psychoactive substances, particularly methamphetamine. Shooting Up has some close parallels with Killer High, as the two dip their toes in the same stream so to speak, but Killer High is different in its approach, emphasis and aim. Andreas concentrates on six drugs—alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamine, and cocaine—detailing his interpretative lens through five types of relationships, including the complementary and often contradictory link binding war with drugs throughout history. 

His first relationship—war while on drugs—is pretty straightforward: the use of psychoactive substances by soldiers (also civilians) in war, typically encouraged on the ground by someone in the military hierarchy specifically, and often aided by the state more broadly. This can be in seen General John Pershing’s memo to Washington during WWI: “You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer tobacco as much as bullets. Tobacco is as indispensable as the daily ration; we must have thousands of tons without delay.” Other conspicuous examples of war while on drugs include alcohol and cigarettes packaged as standard issue items in soldiers’ rations or, in the case of amphetamines, integrated into larger strategies, such as the Nazi’s lightening-like Blitzkrieg that startled other European powers for its speed.  

The second relationship model is war through drugs: drugs to finance wars or weaken enemies. Among stateless actors such as the Taliban, control over poppy fields and control of the opium trade, are critical. In the case of modern states, tax revenue is used to fund larger war efforts. Here Andreas make the provocative claim—by his definition at least—that Britain was the first narco-state, even narco-empire, considering its reliance on the caffeine (in the form of tea), the opium trade, and tobacco taxes to fund itself and by extension its wars for centuries. Russia too relied on vodka for state-building, but, as Andreas notes, this caused problems of its own. While “the more Russians drank, the more money poured into state coffers”–which, from a revenue perspective, was good–a “drunk nation also meant a drunk army.” Alcohol “became embedded in Russian military culture,” with some attributing its defeat in the Russo-Japanese war to drunkenness.  

Third, he develops war for drugs, meaning controlling and securing drug markets, from nation states to stateless actors whether in Syria or Mexico. In the eighteenth century, it meant Britain, forcing China to open its markets to opium at the barrel of a gun. Today, it is rival cartels battling in turf wars, corridors, and points of entry into the US. While we do not conventionally label this war, Andreas makes a strong case that, given how heavily armed the cartels are and the sheer death toll involved in these battles, we should consider it “war” by any conventional definition.

 The fourth category, the one we all know and love, is the war against drugs, which Andreas attributes to a specific era, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and created by the US. He attributes its creation and use as a strategy to the end of the Cold War, when US military resources shifted away from the evils of communism and toward a war against drugs across the globe. The drug war provided a pretext for Reagan to invade Panama and influence central and south American countries by showering them with aid, training, new equipment—or using force when that failed to generate desired results. Also, with the end of the Cold War, accusing adversaries of drug trafficking was an abracadabra phrase the United States used to take action, even when we offered nothing else in the way of evidence. 

Andreas’s final category captures the repercussions of the previous four, labeling the fifth drugs after war. Some drugs proved harmful, leaving a lasting mark on soldiers who came home after war with dangerous, deadly habits. Conquering powers picked up deadly habits, including tobacco smoking from indigenous Americans after first contact, which was then exported throughout continental Europe. 

Drugs after war can also be more innocuous, ascribing certain qualities to drugs, and tying them to things like patriotism or self-reliance. One example of that is how “by the early eighteenth century, whiskey had replaced rum as the most popular spirit in America.” Rum was foreign, whereas whiskey “came to be seen as more patriotic… associated with self-reliance and independence.” Another cherished ritual of American culture, the coffee break, was an outgrowth of defense industry workers, who turned it into a routine during World War II before it was later institutionalized in the workplace.

Andreas’s concluding chapter reiterates what is now standard in these histories. It collectively acknowledges that all the measures used to fight the drug war have failed, even by their own metrics, though this has not deterred the fight. But who cares—it has a lot of benefits for the state and others to gain from. As Andreas suggest, why would they want change? Drugs and war serve and perpetuate state authority, “greatly enlarg[ing] and empower[ing] the security apparatus of the state,” to the point where the traditional divide between “war fighting and crime-fighting” is indistinguishable. 

And what the public views as a failure, whether you support escalation or de-escalation, of the drug war, that is the point. To win the drug war would mean denying the US military tools to control other governments, including denying them staging ground for military bases, surveillance, and monitoring in the area. The drug war is nonthreatening to groups that politicians listen to, such as the national security state or military contractors like Boeing or Google, that are hired for the machinery or cutting-edge technology. And pharmaceutical companies are exempt from war against drugs. Some middle-aged pharma CEO will never been awakened by the thunderous rattle of their windows from some well-armed tactical team rappelling from a helicopter above their home.  

There is no real roadblock standing in the way to stop a failed policy from becoming a never-ending failure. In many way, it would be terrible thing if the drug war was a success—it would anger the military, various private contractors, and I’m sure others I haven’t even considered. Instead, the ideal situation is the one currently ongoing, where the US becomes more integrated inside and outside the country, obtaining and selling more sophisticated satellites, drones, and other technologies while cartels figure out the newest level to the cat-and-mouse game and devise alternative methods for delivering their products, whether that means submersibles at sea or something else. Each side can win battles and chase the clout; no one can win the war. 

By the measures he sets for himself, “to incorporate and illuminate the often-overlooked or misunderstood psychoactive side of the history of war,” Andreas can confidently claim success. More than that though, the book nicely weaves together narratives stretching centuries, blending past and present seamlessly. Stylistically the writing is clear and his arguments are lucid. He selects anecdotes that keep a reader’s attention, many of which are often dark, ugly, or just plain ridiculous. Often academics can approach these sorts of books with skepticism, arguing that they bog down the reader or give off a “this book is for students in graduate school” kind of vibe. I didn’t detect any of those problems in Killer High. Instead, when a scholar can fulfill the objectives they set for themselves and make 330-pages fly by, that’s a success.


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