The War Nerd: Captagon, the Beheading Drug!
BUDAPEST—After the slaughter in Paris, a new wave of Islamic-State panic started.
Everybody pretty much lived down to their stereotypes. Paris threw flowers at the problem ; Republicans tried to win a few hate-votes; and Joyce Carol Oates tweeted another demonstration of what happens when you take stupid and add senile:
All we hear of ISIS is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) November 22, 2015
When it starts raining stupid, you have to figure that pretty soon the stories about evil drugs will start pelting down. Something about that War on Drugs, the dumbest war since . . . oh, since about 2003, let’s say . . . always rears its wizened Reagan-looking head. And sure enough, here come those “Captagon” stories.
Here’s a headline from the NY Daily News:
Amphetamine Captagon pills help fuel Syrian civil war while giving ISIS fighters who pop them ‘a kind of euphoria’: reports
The story can barely get its breath, it’s so shocked and horrified that drugs might be “fueling the fury of Islamic State fighters.” When you consider that the article was probably written by a nervous American who’s been on Ritalin or Adderall since the age of eight, you have to admire the sheer shameless hypocrisy. You middle-class kids, you never bought any ADD pills from your friends to finish an overdue essay? You blue-collar heartlanders, you never inhaled a line or two to get through a long shift? We’re all speed veterans, but we pretend that their amphetamine, this creepy “Captagon” stuff, is somehow totally different from our safe & sane speed.
Here is a description of Captagon, via email from Paris-based writer and longtime friend of The eXile, Thierry Marignac:
“Man I don't believe it, this was second rate speed, compared to other appetite-suppressants like Fringanor which was almost pure amphetamine. You could go straight to death with Fringanor; Captagon was for suckers when I grew up.
“I can't believe it. Seriously. How many false prescriptions did we forge for Fringanor? When it disappeared, we turned to Captagon. It was out of despair. Captagon is nowhere near anything serious. Can't believe that is this third rate dope from the 60's is what they're giving to the fighters. For junkies, it's laughable. And it turns them into supermen?…
“I assure you that captagon was a diet pill and not the best quality, as opposed to Fringanor which was the real thing (Unbelievable what they gave to overweight housewives in those days). That was my point. That "dope" is shit. It keeps you from sleeping, that's about it, it's the kind of stuff students would take to pass their exams. Tells a lot about media hype. Supermen indeed!…
The reason stories like this get written is that people want to find a way to explain the horrific stuff IS does without admitting that it’s the sort of horrific stuff young males with god on their side have always done. It’s much more reassuring to blame some drug than to face the grim fact that, in the next few generations, before Islamic culture is mulched into the global norm, there’s going to be a lot of ultra-violence from young Muslim men who are just smart enough to see that the tide is running against them, but not smart enough to come up with any better response than killing a lot of people eating pizza in Paris.
That’s a very grim way of looking at what’s happening, mostly because it implies it’s going to happen again, and again, before settling down a couple of generations from now. It’s much more reassuring for people to tell themselves what they always do when they hear a story about a horrible murder: “Oh, he must’ve been on drugs.”
What real druggies will tell you is that people take drugs to do things they wanted to do anyway. Even the Daily News story has a description of Captagon’s effects that will sound familiar to anybody who grew up with Ritalin-supplying friends: “You're talkative, you don't sleep, you don't eat, you're energetic."
That’s what you did when you bought a few pills to finish that term paper, or get through that shift. Those were things you planned to do anyway. The speed just made them easier. You didn’t behead anybody, because that wasn’t on your to-do list.
The truth is this dreaded “Captagon” is just an ordinary amphetamine, very similar to any speed you’ve done. It doesn’t contain any special murder-encouraging ingredients. In fact, Captagon is processed by the liver into two compounds, one pretty much identical to Adderall and the other almost identical to caffeine. So taking a Captagon pill is going to be almost exactly like what you felt when you bought a couple of Adderall from your friend who was lucky enough to be diagnosed with ADHD, and then gulped two cups of Nescafe.
In your case, it helped you pretend like you knew something about the topic of the essay that was due; in the case of a Syrian jihadi, it helps him stay awake and happy a little longer. It doesn’t give him the idea of burning captured pilots in a cage and filming the resulting screams and flailings. That little idea came from the real culprit here, the one nobody wants to face: his own little head. Militias skew very male and very young, and, as studies show,
“Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in…affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others' feelings.”
Toss about 50,000 dumb, devout, ultra-conservative male adolescents into a war and they start dreaming about the fun things they can do to a helpless captive. And in the case of Islamic State, their older, smarter commanders encourage those thoughts because sheer horror is what the DoD would call a “force multiplier.” Hell, half of IS’s recruits were probably having pretty nasty dreams before they ever got to Syria. Jihadis tend to be very ordinary guys, the middle of the curve. Like I always say, think real hard about the guys in your ninth-grade P.E. class before you start thinking like Joyce Carol fuckin’ Oates, about the “celebratory & joyous” contents of a young, male, armed, god-backed human mind.
Pills like Captagon are useful in a war, not because they turn you into Dracula, but because war involves a lot of long shifts, a lot of boredom and bad smells and fear. And speed can help get you through those long, scary, shifts. War is worse even than a Christmas-season job, because it involves shifts that have no designated finish—except, you know, death. If you’re in a firefight, there’s no factory whistle to tell you when it’s over; you can’t punch out like the sheepdog and coyote from Looney Toons. You have to stay there, keeping the weapon working, making sure there’s ammunition, checking for flank attacks, watching the weak links in the squad for signs of collapse. It’s a situation that just cries out for a few little white pills.
And that’s why every army since the discovery of speed has been gulping them like Milk Duds. Before there was speed, there were natural stimulants like khat, which is still one of life’s necessities for every Somali or Yemeni fighter. Other drugs like hashish, a peace-drug to the hippies, were used by the Shia sect called “The Assassins” (Hash-hashin) to convince their killers that a better world awaited them after they completed their missions and were executed.
But Amphetamines are, hands down, the best war drug ever invented. They’ve been around since the late 19th century, but didn’t go mainstream in military circles until WW II. When it comes to speed, those guys really were the Greatest Generation. They were sped like shrews. If you’ve ever wondered how the poor bastards fighting in Stalingrad could stand the miserable conditions—well, part of the answer is that they were genuinely fearsome soldiers, both sides, but another part of the answer is that they were pinned, sped, high. The Japanese called their military-issue speed “Shabu” and it’s still called that in some parts of Asia, where it’s got the usual stories about its magical, evil effects. But like Captagon, “Ice,” and all the other fads, it’s nothing but simple ol’ Amphetamine.
The Germans had several ways of serving up speed. They baked into chocolate (don’t ask me why, some German thing) and called it “Tanker’s Chocolate.” Their generic term for speed was “Pervitin,” and as I’ve written, there are Wehrmacht soldiers’ letters asking mom and dad to get more of that wonderful Pervitin from the corner drugstore and send it to the front.
There have been articles hinting that the Axis was evil because its soldiers were doing these evil drugs—a thesis very close to the current Captagon hysteria—and it’d be a nice, reassuring idea, except that the Allies were just as sweaty, talkative, sleepless, and anorexic—sped, in other words—as their enemies. The Soviets handed out “Vint” like candy to their troops (and the nickname survived, as I can testify, into the 21st century in Moscow). Oh, but that was the Soviets, who were almost as eeeeevul as the Germans or Japanese, right? Surely the good allies, the Americans and British, wouldn’t have resorted to these bloodlust-pills?
Well, you can guess the answer to that. Of course they did. British soldiers gulped more than 70 million speed pills in WW2, and the US was mighty liberal with the Benzedrine and Dexedrine, too.
Returning vets had such a taste for the stuff that doctors prescribed speed, under all kinds of trade names, to civilian patients right through the 1950s, until the hippies came along and ruined things for everybody. Those were the white picket-fence days, the whole Eisenhower-grin stuff. It helps if you remember that those lean, smiling bores were as high as any Islamic State beheader.
IS’s nasty habits come out of the miserable history of sectarian war in the Middle East, the disastrous 2003 invasion (thank you Mr. Cheney), the rage of dethroned Iraqi Sunni, the general rottenness of young males in armed groups, and the effectiveness of well-publicized horror shows in irregular war. If you were to isolate a little molecule of amphetamine and ask it, as it spins around in its joyous, endless dance, “Did you know you make these guys behead captives?”—why, that poor little molecule would glow with righteous rage and yell at you, in its little voice:
“You ungrateful bastard! I got you through your Honors Thesis!”