Research Paper: War and Drugs

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War Drugs

Drug Use, Addiction and the Vietnam War

During the mid to late 1960s, the movement of radical activism would become the most apparent demonstration of crisis in the United States, filling America's streets increasingly throughout the 1960s with civil demonstrators desiring to enact revolutionary change in the domestic policies of racial inequality and political exclusivity as well as foreign policies pertaining to the Cold War, and especially to the war in Vietnam. Key examples in our memory illustrate that, indeed, the United States was all but engaged in a civil war, with its citizens producing a significant counter-culture movement which had set as the target of its frustration the government itself. That was the frustration that would gestate over the course of the following decade into increasingly violent and confrontational incidence, beginning with the police riots in the deep south, fomenting in the student riots at Berkeley and finally erupting decisively at events like the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the 1970 National Guard shooting of students at Kent State University. These events would be indicative of a burgeoning youth culture of revolt and civil disobedience, highlighted by such lifestyle decisions as active resistance to war, sexual liberation and heavy recreational drug use. Though the soldiers who trudged through the jungles of Southeast Asia would seem to have existed on the opposite practical and ideological end of this spectrum during the 1960s, many shared this latter proclivity with the radical movement. Available research on the subject and metafictional memoirs by noted authors such as Tim O'Brien note that as was the case with the counterculture movement, drug use was a casual and permeating presence among soldiers in Vietnam. And once again, as with the counterculture movement, as the 1960s wore into the 1970s, many who had endured the cultural height of recreational use in Vietnam would suffer its long-term consequences.

With respect to the close correlation between the behaviors of Vietnam soldiers and members of the protest movement, Langdale (2009) notes that "the drug of choice of American soldiers during the Vietnam War was marijuana. For a majority of the war, marijuana use was largely ignored by army officials. In 1968 a major government initiative forced the army the crack down on marijuana use. By this point the use of the drug had become far too prevalent for the army to effectively combat." (Langdale, 1)

So reports the article by Robins et al. (1974), which addressed the patterns relating to drug use and its consequences for men just then returning from the war. Robins et al. found that "at interview 8 -- 12 months after their return, 83% were civilians and 17% still in service. Nine hundred were personally interviewed and urine specimens collected for 876. Almost half of the 'general' sample tried heroin or opium while in Vietnam and one-fifth developed physical or psychological dependence." (Robins, 235) This demonstrates two patterns that connect service in Vietnam to drug use in a proportion comparable to that perceived in connection to the counterculture movement. First and foremost, we find that the culture amongst soldiers serving in Vietnam provided heavy exposure to drug use and accessibility to highly addictive substances distinct to southeast Asia such as heroin and opium. We also find in this research that for many, this exposure and access would be a first, with the experience of the war itself producing the opportunity to experiment with substances which would otherwise not have been available.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, this exposure would lead to heavy abuse and addiction among a significant number of those returning from the war. And for just as many, this addiction would become highly entangled with many of the same psychological responses to the experiences of the war itself. The horrors to which soldiers had been exposed, the rigors of attempting to return to civilian life and the dependencies developed during the war would coalesce into a single complex of traumatic response mechanisms. This helps to underscore the role that substance abuse should play in our understanding of the combat conditions in Vietnam, the culture amongst soldier and the experiences endured by these soldiers in the years to follow. Robins reports that for those who actively continued to use drugs upon their return from Vietnam as a product of habits developed during service, the penetration of addiction and dependency were high. Robins contends that among his respondents, "in the 'drug positive' sample, three-quarters felt they had been addicted to narcotics in Vietnam." (Robins, 1)

These findings would be produced in 1974 but show some consonance with more recent research on the same topic. The investigation of drug use and abuse amongst veterans across the thirty year period immediately following the war would demonstrate that those who used drugs during the War in Vietnam were significantly more likely to have used drugs on multiple occasions in the years which were to follow. According to a set of findings produced by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2001, veterans who had surveyed affirmatively regarding wartime drug use would demonstate this far greater vulnerability for evidence of later abuses. Accordingly, the American Psychiatric Association reports that "45% of the men who had used illicit drugs while serving in the war reported having used cocaine at least five times since 1972, 14% of the veterans who had not used illicit drugs during the war reported the same." (APA, 1)

This differential underscores the argument that exposure during the Vietnam War would coincide with experiences specific to the war and to an era in which American recreational drug use catapulted into the mainstream and that this would result in patterns of persistent drug use even in the long-term aftermath of this cultural movement and of the war itself. The text by O'Brien, a memoir of his time spent in Vietnam is particularly compelling on this point, as it demonstrates the absurdity of even reflecting on the longterm consequences of drug abuse where life expectancy was so categorically low.

O'Brien's the Things They Carried ( illustrates a period in the life of one platoon, traversing a duration of death, peril, illness, mental degradation and physical attrition. The constant threat of ambush, the weight of supplies piled atop each man and the slow, neurotic awareness of a land mine here or a tripwire there all stamp O'Brien's piece with an immediacy that resonates tension. The effect is to draw the reader into the struggle, making him intimately conscious of the urgency spawned by perpetual danger. And in the awareness, the reader gains a greater appreciation for the irony of drug abuse in a context where death lurked around every corner.

The scene which contends with the death of Ted Lavender is important in this regard, weaving the implications of wartime drug use into the vivid portrait which O'Brien paints of the war. Detailed and harsh in its exposition, the never leaves any doubt as to its context. The concrete and often blunt description of humping and battling reminds the reader of his temporal and geographical location while the dialogue's frequent appeal to slang and vernacular lends its speakers authenticity. These are features which are apparent in the description of Ted's death. Here, O'Brien relates the manner in which the soldiers cope with the death of a comrade. O'Brien tells that "they talked grunt lingo. They told stories about Ted Lavender's supply of tranquilizers, how the poor guy didn't feel a thing, how incredibly tranquil he was. There's a moral here, said Mitchell Sanders. They were waiting for Lavender's chopper, smoking the dead man's dope. The moral's pretty obvious, Sanders said, and winked. Stay away from drugs. No joke, they'll ruin your day every time." (O'Brien, 20)

The scene carries multiple levels of interest to our discussion. Among them, the humor that colors the discourse of the soldiers demonstrates a recognition of the absurdity in such cautionary concerns as the use of drugs. For many, the omnipresence of death rendered the risks associated with substance use as something laughable. Sarcastically attributing Ted Lavender's death to his drug abuse while they used his supply of marijuana to get high, the soldiers seemed implicitly to acknowledge that the war itself was the only real reason for Ted's death. Indeed, for any of the men that would not survive, this would be a common condition, irrespective of Ted Lavender's characteristic affection for drugs.

Yet another degree of relevance may be attributed to this sequence. The notation of Ted Lavender's serenity seemed to suggest that in the face of war's absurdity, the insulation provided by his drug abuse was not something to be overlooked. Quite in fact, the utter permeation of substance abuse during the Vietnam War seems to have served a need felt by soldiers serving at the time. Whether this need was stimulated more because it converged with the increasing mainstream presence of drugs in American culture or because of its newfound availability in Southeast Asia, the heavy transition into regular… [END OF PREVIEW]

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War and Drugs.  (2010, May 4).  Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/war-drugs/371106

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"War and Drugs."  Essaytown.com.  May 4, 2010.  Accessed June 18, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/war-drugs/371106.