April 12, 2007:
The U.S. Army is now issuing "Stay
Alert" caffeine gum to combat troops. This is the latest in a long line of
drugs troops have been given to keep them alert after long hours in a combat
zone. This fatigue problem has existed for a long time, and has become
particularly acute in the last century or so, as battles became endurance
contests, with forces engaged for days on end.
The air force has a similar problem. In the last
few decades, as long range bombers, and refueling in the air, became common,
pilots have had to face alertness problems during very long (30 hours or more)
missions. In sixty years of using "go pills" (amphetamines), the air force has
never had an instance where the stimulant caused a crash or accident. In
contrast, over a hundred crashes have been caused by pilot fatigue.
For over a century, one of the more popular fatigue
solutions has been amphetamines ("speed"). However, this drug can impair
judgment, making the user more aggressive. In the last decade, kinder and gentler
medications have become available. The most effective of these has been
Modafinil (sold as Provigil). This stuff is described as "a mood-brightening
and memory-enhancing psychostimulant which enhances wakefulness and vigilance."
Tests showed that user performance was degraded 15-30 percent, versus 60-100
percent for those who took nothing at all after 24 hours of being awake.
While the Modafinil did a pretty good job, the
dextroamphetamine was still a bit better. So amphetamines remained competitive.
A new stimulant, touted as superior to dextroamphetamine and Modafinil, CX717,
was tested by the Department of Defense and found not appreciably superior to
existing stimulants. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy, continues to use coffee, and
lots of it, to keep sailors on their toes during long hours of continuous duty.
But for infantry and pilots, a hot mug of coffee is not an option.
Wakefulness can be a potent weapon, especially for
commandos, or troops engaged in prolonged combat (like the Battle of Fallujah
in 2004). Without these wakefulness drugs, you would have to either pull troops
out of action so they could rest, or leave them in and risk having them make
fatal mistakes. Either way, you have a problem, because there are never enough
troops to get the job done. But with the wakefulness medications, you can solve
the problem, for a few days, anyway.
Prolonged use of these drugs is not healthy. But
neither is being drowsy during combat.