global politics, relationally

Drugged to Kill?


A militant group is considering a move from drugging to electroshock therapy to promote awareness and functionality in its spies and its killers. For more than half of the organization’s history, it has been using stimulants to provide its militants with the alertness and motivation to fight. The stimulants are in the food, in chewing gum, in drinks, often without the knowledge of the militants consuming them. These stimulants have been a key part of motivating the militants to work, fight, and kill, but the leaders of the group are concerned that it is not enough – and other drugs aren’t working as well as they had hoped. They have been exploring more radical programs of DNA-based injection and now shocks to the brain.

The leaders describe the shock program as “non-invasive” but “complicated” especially in terms of knowing “what to turn on and what to turn off.”  A Harvard Medical School professor suggested that the shock process “seemed to work” to increase awareness and motivation among militants even though there is “almost no data” about long term effects. Concerned with “performance issues,” the militant organization continues to drug its militants, and is working on the sustainability of the shock program.

That militant organization is the US military.

The stimulants are caffeine, ritalin, adderall, and various sorts of speed. And the electric shock substitute story has been reported by several news outlets and verified by those doing the testing.

One more time: the US military has been drugging its soldiers for decades, with and without their knowledge, and is now exploring the potential performance benefits of electric shock therapy, which is controversial among medical professionals for cases of severe psychological disturbance, recommended rarely for bipolar disorder and depression by the American Psychological Association, and nowhere on the internet that I could find recommended to keep people awake.

I read this and wonder two things: 1)  how differently does that story read when the US military is the assumed subject of it versus some organization that is understood to be terrorist? and 2) whose version of security is this?

On the first point, I worry that it is easy (especially for Americans) to get a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ where we can only imagine that terrible, unconscionable things are done by the ‘enemy,’ and ‘our’ military, when it does those same things, is doing them because it is ‘necessary’ to ‘protect’ ‘us’ from ‘our’ enemies. This feeling is both simple (we know who to hate and who to be proud of) and comforting (we can feel safe if we are being protected); it gives us a sense of pride for our soldiers (who are being brave and doing what they must) and ease about their agency (‘our’ soldiers are ‘volunteering,’ right?). Stories like this show the messiness and complication of those accounts, though. There is, instead, a complicated science (and social science) to turning ordinary people into killers, and it is performed as much by ‘the good guys’ as by ‘the bad guys.’ Any advocacy for war and violence that doesn’t understand that is naive; any advocacy that does understand is has to see war and violence as (among other things) manipulative and (in important ways) involuntary. To me, the story is no less ethically problematic because its subject is the US.

On the second point, perhaps I’ve become too comfortable in the literatures of critical security, human security, narratives of security, and feminist security studies – but it is so foreign to me that someone thinks that anyone can be made more secure by drugging people into doing their military service better. The level of objectification of body (and the reification of the body/mind dichotomy) that has to go into the decision that these practices are okay is impressive. I think it makes both the soldiers and me (who they are in theory protecting) less secure. It doesn’t matter to me if it is happening to five soldiers or five thousand or fifty thousand – it is an institution that claims to be the guardian of security violating its mandate.

I’m reminded of that scene in “Good Will Hunting”  where Matt Damon’s character talks about why he shouldn’t work for the NSA. Why shouldn’t the US military shock soldiers to stay awake to run drones more efficiently?

Well, the soldier that gets drugged ends up jumpy, because even mild stimulants make you jumpy. The jumpy drugged soldier, at best, says something offensive to people he is supposed to be caring for (because that’s never happened before) and at worst, shoots someone he didn’t mean to by accident (because that has also never happened before). The act of insensitivity provokes a violent reaction that intensifies a conflict (again, unprecedented) which causes political instability, economic fragility, and prolonged military conflict (because those are never linked). The conflict causes economic problems in the US, which causes joblessness, homelessness, and general malaise and depression. So the jumpy soldier goes to PTSD treatment because he feels guilty for senseless killing next to a suicidal lawyer who lost his job in the downturn caused by the war. The two sit around and actualize the clash of civilizations, because, after all, their only recourse is to drugs and electric shock therapy.

I don’t mean to be glib. I really think this is a bad idea. And even if none of that (likely) stupid bad stuff happens, this seems not only like a bad idea but on face normatively wrong. Certainly, I think it causes more insecurity than security.