In the modern era, discussions about performance-enhancing technologies tend to take place primarily in the context of sports. Indeed, it is within that context that we have covered the issue in previous columns. But as technologies evolve, the subject merits attention beyond the athletic fields.
From the very beginning, a link has existed between the battleground and the playing field on the issue of performance enhancement. The amphetamines that helped soldiers push beyond their human limits during World War II soon made their way into athletics. Whether on the gridiron or at the baseball park, postwar athletes turned to amphetamines whenever they needed a pickup. And this is just one example in a very long relationship between sports and the military that remains today. During the recently concluded Pyeongchang Olympics, Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky tested positive for a banned substance that had been developed for Soviet-bloc soldiers during the Cold War.
Lightning War: Fueled by Speed
Military deployment of performance-enhancing substances became widespread during the Second World War. According to Norman Ohler in his pathbreaking book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, at the outset of the war, German researchers began looking into the battlefield potential of Pervitin, an amphetamine-based drug sold by the Temmler pharmaceutical company. As the head of Germany's Research Institute of Defense Physiology, Dr. Otto Ranke asserted that "we may grasp what far-reaching military significance it would have if we managed to remove natural tiredness using medical methods." Informed by the stimulant's utility in Germany's invasion of Poland the previous year, an April 1940 memorandum signed by German army Commander-in-Chief Walther von Brauchitsch declared that issuing Pervitin was a military necessity given the demands of the modern battlefield. In preparation for the campaign against France that would soon begin, an order went out for some 35 million tablets.
The astonishing success of the Wehrmacht's blitzkrieg tactics might be at least partially explained by the pharmaceutical advantage its soldiers enjoyed. After reviewing reports on the matter, historians Nicolas Rasmussen and James Pugh wrote that British authorities began studying the benefits afforded by Benzedrine (essentially Pervitin under a different brand name). The Royal Navy authorized its use in September 1941, and the British Army and its Army Air Corps did so the following year. By the end of the conflict, British forces had distributed some 72 million doses of the stimulant. For its part, the United States never officially sanctioned the use of pharmaceutical stimulants during World War II. But Rasmussen asserts that through off-the-record means, U.S. servicemen got hold of amphetamines, using them in even larger numbers than their British counterparts. Historians have confirmed amphetamine usage during the war by Japanese and Finnish forces as well. According to political scientist Lukasz Kamienski, the Soviet Union was the sole exception on the matter of wartime adoption of amphetamines.
But in the postwar era, the U.S. military came to formally embrace the distribution of stimulants, first during the Korean War — in this case mostly Dexedrine from the Smith, Kline & French pharmaceutical company. Several years after the conflict, the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Air Command approved the use of amphetamines to address the increasingly long mission times its aircrews faced; tactical units followed suit in 1962. But it was in Vietnam, says Kamienski, that American military personnel began to use performance-enhancing drugs in truly astonishing numbers. A 1971 governmental report noted that 225 million doses of stimulants had been handed out during that conflict between 1966 and 1969 alone.
"Using drugs to enhance performance in sports may be 'immoral,' but war is not a sporting event."
Refining the Process in the Modern Era
As pharmaceutical research continued, the use of performance-enhancing technologies by the military became more refined. Comparing his experience in the Vietnam conflict with the situation that he faced two decades later during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and 1990, dubbed Operation Just Cause, Air Force pilot Paco Geisler asserted, "I don't know if the difference is dose or drug formulation or what. But there were no noticeable side effects during Just Cause; we just felt wide awake. But there was none of the nervousness –– no feeling 'wired' like I remember in Vietnam."
U.S. aircrews who deployed to the Middle East after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait expressed similar findings: in one survey, 60 percent of respondents who used amphetamines declared the drug "essential" to mission success. After reviewing this history, a 1997 article in Airpower Journal (the U.S. Air Force's flagship professional journal) drew a sharp distinction between pharmacological preparedness on the battlefield and doping by athletes:
While amphetamines could help boost a soldier's alertness, they could also extract a cost. A number of side effects accompanied their use, and, despite the positive reviews from personnel who used them, they were at least potentially addictive. A 2002 friendly-fire incident in which four Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan after U.S. pilots mistakenly attacked their position brought the matter to public attention. During disciplinary hearings regarding the event, the pilots argued that they had been compelled to take Dexedrine tablets for the 10-hour mission. In a 2005 interview with Chicago magazine, Maj. Harry Schmidt bitterly recalled that the Air Force "gave them to us like they were nothing. . . . I don't know what the effect was supposed to be. All I know is something [was] happening to my body and brain."
Beginning with a 2003 decision by the Air Force, a sleep-fighting drug called Modafinil has gained popularity as an amphetamine replacement in the U.S. military. The British followed suit the next year. And within the past few years, military researchers have begun work on cognitive enhancement via electrical stimulation of the brain.
What Lies Ahead
In a December 2015 speech, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work described the results of an 18-month study of what it would take to win the wars of the future in light of digital revolution in modern society. "The theme," he said, "that came out over and over and over again, is what we call human-machine collaboration and combat teaming. .... [A]nd our work suggests that artificial intelligence and autonomy will allow entirely new levels of what we refer to as man-machine symbiosis on the battlefield."
Robotic exoskeletons serve as one example of the type of performance-enhancing technologies that are being developed under this framework. Another is a controversial effort by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create an implantable neural interface that will directly link the brain to the digital world.
The new generation of performance-enhancing technologies will require considerable societal debate. "Our adversaries," Work said, "quite frankly are pursuing enhanced human operations. And it scares the crap out of us, really. We're going to have to have a big, big decision on whether or not we are comfortable going that way."
A point of connection between the military and sporting world in the context of performance-enhancing technologies now and in the future was provided by the Australian Army Research Center's Dr. Jason Mazanov, one that he says merits reconsideration: