The expression “flying high” takes on a whole new meaning when viewed in the light of the admission by the U.S. Air Force that its combat pilots regularly consume uppers and downers with its blessing. In fact, American bomber pilots are encouraged to take amphetamines, and upon return to base are sometimes offered tranquilizers to help them sleep.
This shocking announcement – apparently a longtime open secret in the military – came to the notice of the public during an investigation of two U.S. F16 pilots responsible for dropping a laser-guided, 500lb bomb on a Canadian unit in Afghanistan. Four Canadian servicemen lost their lives as a result.
Canada was outraged and demanded that the two American airmen face a justice. As part of the enquiry emerged the disturbing news that combat pilots in the U.S. military are encouraged by their own commanders to regularly pop amphetamine tablets. Once nicknamed “uppers” or “speed”, amphetamines are now known as “go-pills” in the U.S. Air Force.
An Air Force surgeon, a guest on CNN’s Q&A programme, had no hesitation in extolling the virtues of the innocuous sounding “go-pills” during combat missions. He explained that they often save the lives of exhausted pilots, and that fatigue kills. He also admitted that pilots are allowed to self-medicate and that reluctance by airmen to take such stimulants could mean that they would be excluded from a particular mission.
But do they increase the risk of “collateral damage” (a callous expression) at the hands of hyped up young men and women with their fingers on the button?
According to the makers of Dexedrine GlaxoSmithKline, they certainly do. It warns that the product may impair the patient’s ability to engage in potentially hazardous activity such as operating machines and vehicles.
The common side effects of Dexedrine may include, nervousness, insomnia, hostility, and addiction as well as feelings of suspicion and paranoia. The worst is known as “amphetamine psychosis”, which causes hallucinations and delusion.
One of the pilots under current investigation took 5mgs two hours before the mission, while the other popped 10mgs just one hour prior to take-off. Could the pilots have been hallucinating or paranoid when they believed that the Canadians were firing at them? The pilots recently sat through the first session of an official hearing so, presumably, we will shortly find out.
But the taking of amphetamines isn’t just limited to pilots in Afghanistan. The surgeon said that combat pilots in the U.S. military have been popping pills for the past 60 years. This, according to my reckoning, takes us way back to World War II.
It is common knowledge that the British issued stimulants to their pilots during the Second World War and, according to some reports may have offered sedatives to airmen during the conflict in the Falklands.
British back off
However, the British today take a very different view. The British Ministry of Defense said that the RAF does not give amphetamines to its pilots, while former pilot and assistant chief of defense staff Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden told The Guardian that the practice of taking amphetamines by the U.S. Air Force was “very odd”.
The head honchos in the U.S. military don’t agree. Although psycho-stimulants have been in common use in the military for six decades, it wasn’t until 1960 that they were officially sanctioned. The first widespread, although undocumented, use probably occurred during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
During the Vietnam War, the drugs of choice for members of the U.S. military were opiates.
A 1971 study undertaken by Professor Lee N. Robins, PhD, showed that almost half of those serving had been using either opium or heroin. While military commanders did in no way sanction the practice, they obviously chose to turn a blind eye.
Immediately following the Gulf War, U.S. pilots were given questionnaires in an attempt to quantify the use of Dexedrine.
Analysis showed that 65 per cent of pilots used amphetamines during combat. So, two-thirds of American bomber pilots routinely fly while under the influence of a potentially dangerous drug. A drug, which if ingested by a civilian pilot or even a driver would inevitably lead to a term of imprisonment.
Could these worrying statistics account for the fact that almost one quarter of American and allied fatalities during the Gulf War were caused by incidents of “friendly fire”?
There were also reports of pilots becoming addicted to amphetamines subsequent to the Gulf War. A former White House Drug Czar Dr. Robert DuPont said that he was amazed to learn about such widespread use of Dexedrine in the U.S. Air Force, adding, “This is speed. This is where we got the phrase, speed kills.”
Apart from “blue on blue” incidents, the war in Afghanistan witnessed a disproportionate loss of civilian lives at the hands of American bomber crews. Entire villages have been wiped from the face of the earth.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai – himself hurt by the explosion of a bomb dropped by a B-52 bomber – has officially complained on several occasions about the deaths of his own people cause by alleged American pilot error. Thus far, no U.S. pilots have been threatened with court martial for the killing of Afghans and in many instances, the Pentagon has refused to admit liability.
However, when Canada complains about its losses, the Pentagon jumps to attention, launches an investigation and institutes legal proceedings against the errant pilots. One is left wondering whether the lives of Canadians are considered more important than those of poorer third world citizens.
What does all this mean for the Gulf region where an American force of more than 250,000 is likely to be stationed in readiness for a probable war with Iraq?
There has also been a revelation that the use of “go-pills” is common among the members of other branches of the U.S. military too, which could translate into tens of thousands of “America’s finest” wandering around the towns and cities of their host countries in a heightened and volatile state. Add to this the mostly hostile feelings of those countries nationals concerning an attack on their fellow Arabs, along with the growing anti-Americanism on the street, and the picture isn’t pretty.
Perhaps more importantly what could this mean for the Iraqi people who still recall with enormous sadness Al-Amiriya bunker in Baghdad being struck by an American bomb which killed more than 300 civilians, mostly women and children?
This may have been due to faulty instructions from their command and control centre but even so, how can we be confident that crews “up high” in more ways than one won’t mistake Iraqi civilian targets for military ones the next time around?
We will probably never know the truth about the convoy of Kosovo refugees, which came under fire by an American F16 pilot, even though an RAF colleague had warned him that it was a civilian convoy. The bombing of the Chinese Embassy during that conflict remains another perplexing mystery. Few bought the ‘out-of-date-plans’ explanation, least of all the Chinese.
We are also left to speculate on whether drugs contributed to the alleged rape by members of the U.S. military of a 12-year-old girl on Okinawa in 1995, a gang rape on the same Japanese island earlier this year, as well as the crushing of two schoolgirls in South Korea by a 50-tonne U.S. military vehicle.
The perpetrators may not have been using amphetamines, or suffering withdrawal symptoms from their use, but, then again, we cannot rule this out.
This issue also provokes questions about the three servicemen and one woman who returned to the bosem of their families at Fort Bragg after a stint in Afghanistan. The ‘happy’ homecoming resulted in the murder of four spouses and two suicides. Studies have shown that there is also a far higher incidence of wife-beating among servicemen than in civilian life.
Ironically, the very country, which is leading the charge in the worldwide war against drugs, supports their use by members of its own military. Doesn’t this erode the credibility and sincerity of America’s narcotics agencies and pull away the carpet from any claim the U.S. may have to a moral high ground on the subject?
The US military is today assisting the Columbian army with its fight against the country’s own drug lords. The question is: are American servicemen in Columbia themselves on drugs? If so, this is surely a strange contradiction.
I can only imagine that litigation lawyers are having a field day imagining all kinds of lucrative possibilites opened up as a result of this admission, especially when they might contemplate what kind of effect alcohol would have when added to the mix.
Apart from the issue of collateral damage, there is also concern about the longterm effects on pilots used to living high. Used to the adrenalin rush of the job itself and the ‘I can do anything’ feelings which go-pills provide, we can only imagine how hard it must be for them to later adjust to mundane everyday existence.
The Pentagon should quit using the nation’s committed young people, who often put their country before their own wellbeing and lives, as just a means to an end. All the flowery praise, and all the medals in the world won’t make up for turning them into drug addicts or dysfunctional human beings. Dexedrine is psychologically addictive and, as we know, when one gets used to an altered state it is hard to come down to earth. Amphetamine use is often a prelude to the taking of harder drugs.
The philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr said: “We (Americans) have been so deluded by the concept of our innocence that we are ill prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us.”
Feelings of empowerment in the hands of those with deadly weapons is a heady brew, but power mixed with chemically induced false bravado is nothing short of a deadly and frightening cocktail.
Linda Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org