Drug Use in the Vietnam War

I was asked yesterday whether I have ever posted “about opium use among combatants in Vietnam” and while I have been asked about drug use among American military members serving in Vietnam, I had yet to sit down and read about it.

Today I read a few articles from scholarly journals that addressed this very issue. I would like to include a few quotes from these articles below.

In an article examining and summarizing the study of heroin use by Vietnam veterans conducted in the 1970s by Lee Robins:

Heroin use in Vietnam
Just fewer than half (43%) of the random sample of veterans reported opiate use in Vietnam in the year before the study (38% used opium and 34% heroin). Heroin was of high purity and very cheap, so most often it was smoked in a cigarette (67%) or sniffed (24%), rather than injected (9%). Approximately 20% (46% of those who used an opiate in Vietnam) used heroin often enough and for long enough to experience symptoms of opiate withdrawal (e.g. sweats, irritability, trouble sleeping) for 2 days or more. Injecting heroin use was most common among those men who used at least weekly for 9 months or more (40%). The men said that they used heroin to get high and to deal with boredom, homesickness and disturbed sleep. Heroin was used generally when men were behind the lines or on leave, rather than in the field, so most used heroin less than daily.

Also:

Other drug use in and after Vietnam
Cannabis was the most commonly used illicit drug in Vietnam, followed by amphetamines and barbiturates. Heroin users were heavy uses of all these drugs. In contrast to heroin, the use of other illicit drugs continued at similar rates after Vietnam.
      The pattern of alcohol use changed in ways that probably reflected changes in its availability. Approximately one in four veterans reported heavy, sympotamataic drinking before Vietnam, but this proportion declined to one in six in Vietnam. While in Vietnam, heavy drinkers were less likely to use heroin and heroin users tended to be light drinkers. After the veterans’ return to the United states, heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems increased as heroin use declined and heavy drinking increased among veterans who had used heroin in Vietnam.

[Source: Hall, Wayne, and Megan Weier. 2017. “Lee Robins’ studies of heroin use among US Vietnam veterans.” Addiction 112, no. 1: 176-180. CINAHL Plus with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed March 29, 2018).]

In an article tackling the widespread notion that drug use in Vietnam was rampant:

Illegal drugs were readily available in Vietnam from the arrival of American combat troops in the early 1960s. Throughout most of the war, the military actually distributed amphetamines or “pep pills” to soldiers serving on long-range reconnaissance missions to prevent them from falling asleep or to help them lose weight. Many soldiers claimed that the pills increased their irritability, including one who admitted to killing women and children while high, though others recorded a more favourable effect. The most widely used intoxicant in Vietnam was marijuana of a high potency, which grew wild in the countryside. GIs developed nicknames such as “Pleiku Pink”, “Bleu de Hue”, and “Cambodian Red”, based on the province or locality in which it was grown. They got stoned overwhelmingly (more than 90 per cent) as a group activity, rather than in isolation.

Also:

…In September 1970 CBS News broadcast that American soldiers were  getting high from opium-laced marijuana inhaled from the barrel of their guns. A Congressional inquiry later determined that the event had been staged by the soldiers as an anti-war ploy and to shed light on the decline in troop morale. The reporter made no mention of this, however, and helped to inflame public fears of a fully-fledged GI epidemic.

Also:

Conclusion
It is no secret that soldiers in Vietnam, just like soldiers from time immemorial, got high, often to blunt the pernicious social effects of war. Contrary to popular myth, however, drug use in Vietnam was far from omnipresent, confined largely to the rear, and had little effect in shaping combat breakdown or the military’s collapse. As most historians have recognised, such collapse was contingent on deep-rooted variables such as the strength of Vietnamese nationalism and  the mobilising skills of the revolutionary leadership. Despite commanding a virtual monopoly of media interest, drugs were less prevalent than alcohol and less socially destructive.

[Source: Kuzmarov, Jeremy. “The Myth of the ‘Addicted Army’: Drug Use in Vietnam in Historical Perspective.” War & Society 26, no. 2 (October 2007): 121-141. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 29, 2018).]

TL;DR: 

  • Approximately 20% of servicemen in 1971 were addicted to heroin. This number is actually lower than what was portrayed by media.
  • The use of drugs in Vietnam by American servicemen has been exaggerated by the media and Hollywood.

  • Drugs were mostly used in rear areas, not in the field.
  • The famous (infamous?) shot of soldiers smoking marijuana from the barrels of their guns was staged by the soldiers.
  • Drug use “had little effect in shaping combat breakdown or the military’s collapse.”