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Hacking The Mind Of The Soldier

This past week, several interesting articles on how drugs can alter human performance in soldiers in the field have appeared. Time magazine has an article about America's Medicated Army, describing how the use of antidepressants has grown among US troops in Iraq and Afganistan. Wired's Danger Room has a complementary article describing the use of performance-enhancing drugs - Top Pentagon Scientists Fear Brain-Modified Foes.

The Time article has a nuanced discussion that contrasts treating individuals with a drug therapy that can provide real help with the Pentagon goal of keeping troops in the field for a longer period of time.

For the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The medicines are intended not only to help troops keep their cool but also to enable the already strapped Army to preserve its most precious resource: soldiers on the front lines. Data contained in the Army's fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report indicate that, according to an anonymous survey of U.S. troops taken last fall, about 12% of combat troops in Iraq and 17% of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope. Escalating violence in Afghanistan and the more isolated mission have driven troops to rely more on medication there than in Iraq, military officials say.

The Wired article describes the other end of the discussion; whether or not the military should make active use of drugs to enhance the performance of troops.

But these new drugs will certainly have extensive off-label use for improvement of memory and cognitive performance. [They] may have the additional effect of weakening or overwriting existing memories. Depending on the ultimate performance of these drugs, adversaries might use them in training programs or field operations... to increase troop effectiveness or modify troop behavior and/or emotional responses.

SF writers have also described the use of drugs by military forces; Joe Haldeman, who fought in Vietnam after being drafted in 1967, wrote in The Forever War about the use of drugs like stimtabs that could keep troops functioning under extreme conditions - at a price. I'm sure there are others that I've forgotten - readers?

I hope that military planners and commanders in the field are actively thinking about the consequences of providing these medications to troops deployed overseas.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/10/2008)

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