Whether you love or hate history, we have all been exposed to it at some point. Maybe it was through history class or maybe it was from a grandparent’s long-winded anecdotes. No matter where or how you learned about human history, there is a noticeable trend: war is a predominant topic.
Admittedly, we can only speculate about why war plays such a prominent role in our historical study. Some believe we learn about war to prevent history from repeating itself. However, the fact of the matter is that history is repeating itself everyday. Conveniently for us, the Western world is privileged enough to be ignorant to this idea, since much of this day-to-day violence occurs thousands of miles away from us.
With that said, war predominates history, not because it is a futuristic warning, but because social, religious, political and cultural impacts are most dramatic and notable following war. War incites changes that might otherwise take centuries to achieve — those changes can be for better or for worse. For example, during World War I, women were brought into the workplace because there was quite literally a shortage of men to do those jobs (they were overseas at war). During World War II, on the other hand, technologies such as nuclear weapons were rapidly developed for military use. We now experience the consequences of this through the looming threat of nuclear warfare.
However, one of the most under-studied aspects of war’s impact is how it has influenced the use of drugs.. There is a great availability of information on war and on drugs, but rarely do we see an overlap between these topics, despite how intertwined they are. Peter Andreas, a political scientist at Brown University, asserts that “we can’t understand the history of war without including drugs, and we can’t understand the role of drugs in society without including war.”
In the case of soldiers at war, the traumatizing work they are exposed to can cause them to search for an outlet to numb their emotional and physical pain. Alcohol is widely used to distract from the stressful job; up to 43.2% of active duty military personnel engage in binge drinking, with most of the people contributing to that statistic being between the ages of 17 and 25. As a matter of fact, governments have historically been enablers in this. Take, for example, the British Royal Navy’s rum rations or the Russian czar’s buildup of his army using vodka revenue that accounted for one-third of the state’s revenue. Russian soldiers became so dependent on alcohol that they took some embarrassing losses due to their incoherent states.
During World War I, some doctors and military personnel even encouraged smoking and chewing tobacco for soldiers as a way to build morale and to bond socially with one another. Despite being aware of the detrimental health impacts, they argued that the benefits of camaraderie outweighed any negatives. This was perfect for the nicotine industry to begin to truly profit and flourish. The U.S. government quickly became the world’s top purchaser of cigarettes, as they imposed the industry on soldiers. Similar trends occurred during the Civil War, with the nation’s first opioid epidemic taking place as a result of widespread use on the battlefield. Though morphine was useful for war purposes, soldiers returned home with harmful addictions.
War evidently exacerbates the issue of addiction, with more than one in ten veterans experiencing substance abuse problems (which is slightly higher than the statistic for the general population). This relationship is not highlighted enough in our education. It is possible that history dulls the link between war and drug addiction because the topic is uncomfortable; it potentially undermines our government, our leaders, our medical professionals and our confidence in our military.
This is not to say military service is the root cause of alcoholism and drug addiction, as there is a wide range of other contributing environmental and genetic factors. In fact, our ancestors figured out ways to ferment different plants to create alcohol in their own manners based on the country they were in and the resources they had access to. This unified experience paired with a lack of communication between various civilizations could point to some shared cultural phenomenon — the universal desire to let go and de-stress through some force beyond ourselves.
For that reason, I urge the public to be cautious with history because history is typically written by those who emerged victoriously. Though this idea may not always be true, history was certainly not written by the veteran whose life was destroyed by addiction. This is why we often breeze over, or never even touch upon, topics like this. Due to their ingrained nature, we will likely never eliminate these issues entirely, but we do have greater awareness of substance abuse issues now more than ever before.
In the past, addiction was written off as being for weak, unproductive social outcasts with no self control. With time, our perceptions changed and allowed us to understand that the physical properties of these drugs cause them to overpower a person no matter how weak or strong they may be. Continuing to build upon this knowledge has allowed us to open our minds to better resources for those experiencing addiction and look to a better future. Hopefully, this trend continues, and the history classes we all must endure tell a more accurate, holistic story of global wartime events.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.