Go pills in land warfare

Many fighters in Syria appear to be high on the drug Captagon, including the supposedly "Islamic" fighters:
"So the brigade leader came and told us, 'this pill gives you energy, try it,' " he said. "So we took it the first time. We felt physically fit. And if there were 10 people in front of you, you could catch them and kill them. You're awake all the time. You don't have any problems, you don't even think about sleeping, you don't think to leave the checkpoint. It gives you great courage and power. If the leader told you to go break into a military barracks, I will break in with a brave heart and without any feeling of fear at all — you're not even tired."
(Context: Wikipedia about Captagon)

I imagine those who don't know much about land warfare will  be impressed by this, but I myself am not.

The challenge in land warfare isn't to be fit for a day or two. It's to avoid collapse after four days of mobile warfare. Common soldiers take a quick nap at every opportunity (learned in and beginning in basic training), but leadership usually doesn't want to be seen napping, and that's a huge problem after four days because they simply collapse and fall asleep then. This was part of the reason (next to logistics needing to catch up) why the invasion of Iraq was in 2003 wasn't particularly quick. Drugs could extend this by a day, but the following collapse would be even worse afterwards.

This is analogue to the difference between a 100 m runner and a 400 m runner. The former will lead at 100 m and probably still at 200 m, but will stand no chance over the full distance of 400 m. His only advantage would be in 100 m or 200 m competitions. In land warfare there's the technique of "delaying action"; slowing down and decimating the enemy while avoiding a decisive battle. This can be used by the "400 m runner" to defeat a "100 m sprinter".

The "no fear" feature is no less deceiving. Fear exists for a reason. You can have too much and too little of it, and "no fear" is no doubt too little. Fearless attacks are not the best attacks; smart ones are. Fear of defeat or death is necessary to react well in face of changing (worsening) circumstances. 

One might now think that the drug may be fine for enlisted personnel and junior NCOs at least (save for the long-term brain damage), but I disagree even with this notion. They would collapse after four days or so instead of taking naps whenever possible. Their decision-making is important as well; squads and even fire teams can and should manoeuvre as freely today as did platoons during WW2, so junior NCOs are important decisionmakers as well (unless your army had terrible rank inflation).
The decisionmaking of individual soldiers of the lowest ranks is important as well. This is why 'green' replacement troops had such horrible attrition rates in battles. It wasn't about them being poor shots; it was about them doing the wrong moves at the wrong time at the wrong place. A fearless private is a dumb private is a dead private real quick.

This was about land forces. Air forces need "go pills" only for air crews on stupidly long range missions and navies cope with problems with a much better shift system than established in either air or land forces (2 shifts on small warships usually, 3 shifts on many large ones).



  1. To be fair, the Wehrmacht was a big user of pills. Both for Landser and Panzertroops.

    And it was not uncommon to provide double alcohol ratios prior to an assault for many armies during the WW.

    I completely agree with all your points, the best soldiers don't use those pills. However they do help the lower tier, especially for poorly trained troops. As they are facing poorly trained troops them self, being decisive can be enough of an advantage.

    ISIS is a bit like light cavalry, they need certain circumstances to achieve results, but then it looks quiet spectacular.

  2. Medications that induce troops to sleep (when appropriate) are probably more useful than "uppers" and the like.

    Perhaps research will enable us to induce REM sleep on demand - that would be a profound advancement.


    1. The potential for manipulation of body functions is huge
      I even expect this to be the "next big thing" economically, as big in the 2030's as were computers in the 90's.

  3. For an army, you are correct.


    If memory serves, the Zulu Impies who broke the line at Isandluana were off their faces on a variety of drugs.
    Child Soldiers tend to be given a cocktail of gunpowder and cocaine

    For a real soldier, drugs are bad.
    For a gaggle of conscripted goat herders being charged through a minefield whilst under artillery fire by a general who would rather he didnt he have to feed them tomorrow anyway, drugs are likely a huge improvement.

  4. "Go pills" are still useful for extended campaigns. Amphetamines allow people to be functional and effective on much less sleep (naturally at the cost of long-term health) than is normally the case.

    I have a friend who sleeps three to four hours a night and functions effectively as a businessman owing to his regular usage of amphetamines.

    I am more concerned about my health and thus sleep eight to nine hours a night. I can function on less, but it begins to cause problems quite quickly. And if my occupation were physical (I'm a businessman), I'd have problems sooner.

  5. @Thorfinnsson
    That's a good point. It's very much possible to function on amphetamines for quite some time if you dose them mindfully. But I guess that discipline concerning dosage is exactely the problem for frontline troops.

  6. These drugs make sense if not everybody takes them, but just a number of select assault troops.