Sunday, 21 February 2016

Birdkill And The Drugs Of War

English: Look out! Look out! Pink elephants on...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Birdkill is about a teacher, Robyn Shaw, who has lost a chunk of her past to amnesia after her mind has shut a recent trauma out. Fragile and perhaps slightly unbalanced, she starts work at an institute for exceptionally gifted children where she finds herself increasingly disturbed by events.

As Robyn struggles for sanity, her friend Mariam tries to get to the bottom of the secrets surrounding Robyn and the Hamilton Institute. Handed a US Army whistle-blower, Mariam starts to investigate a secret battlefield enhancement and drugs program called ODIN. The more she finds out, the more dangerous her life gets.

The worrying thing is not what a tall tale ODIN is, but how similar it is to efforts by various militaries to create 'supermen' using drugs and other enhancement techniques - some of which have gone horribly wrong. It's a little like finding my lost Oka nuclear missiles in researching Beirut - An Explosive Thriller - the facts you uncover researching books at times make the fiction seem, well, a little dull.

Drugs have been a tool of war for hundreds of years. Our very own part of the world contributes its own tale of battlefield drugs, with the infamous Ismaili rebel Hassan Al Sabbah establishing his mountain fortress in Alamut Castle up in the craggy mountains of Northern Iran and sending his hashish-crazed warriors against the Seljuks. The soldiers, the hashishim, give us our word 'assassin' today.

Hitler was an enthusiastic convert to the use of drugs, despite Nazism's prudery in other aspects of bohemianism. The German rush to conquer Europe was fuelled on massive supplies of Pervitin, a synthetic methamphetamine. 35 million tablets shipped to German forces in 1940 alone, each packing a 3mg dose of good old fashioned speed.

By 1941, the German Supreme Command had realised that uppers came with downers and was restricting its enthusiastic use of Pervitin. But stories of remarkable achievements made by soldiers under the influence of the drug led to trials of other battlefield drugs, including one pill which packed a cocktail of 5mg of cocaine, 3mg of Pervitin and 5mg of painkiller Eukodal. Throughout the war, the Fuhrer himself was bouyed up by near-constant doses of Pervitin. Imagine Lemmy running Nazi Germany and you've got something like the idea of how much trouble everyone was in.

It wasn't just the Germans,  though. The British and Americans both used amphetamines for their bomber crews, including Benzedrine and Dexedrine. Even the Japanese got in on the act. Despite their usefulness as a stimulant for weary soldiers, the come-downs and addictiveness of amphetamines led to their being tightly controlled as a drug. And yet the Americans are still handing out Dexies to their pilots in 10mg doses today.

Other 'wonder drugs' routinely find their way into military use. Several have chequered histories, including Methylhexanamine (say that after a couple of stiff ones) or DMAA, which has been linked to a number of military and sporting deaths. The British army experimented widely with LSD in the 1950s, the Americans (aiming this time not at enhancing their own troops but at taking down the enemy) with LSD and other agents as weaponised aerosols in the 1960s.

Of the very many military enhancement programmes that have run since WWII, probably the most 'holistic' was DARPA's Peak Soldier Performance Programme, which ran in the early noughties. This looked at every aspect of performance enhancement, including genomic and biochemical approaches. A Presidential report at the time referred to the danger of 'potential development of drugs that could suppress the fear and inhibition of soldiers, effectively turning them into killing machines capable of acting without both scrutiny and impunity.'

The disastrous ODIN military trial in Birdkill is not only NOT far fetched, but scarily real and based on pretty solid precedent... Which is actually something of a worry...

More reading:
The Nazi Death Machine
Creating Supermen
The life death and rebirth of Amphetamines

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