Highly trained and super fit, each one represents a huge investment by the nation that sends them into battle. A soldier who is too tired to fight effectively, who has gone mad or who is suffering from severe stress is like a broken-down tank, no use to anybody. What if soldiers could be made that did not break down?
The Pentagon is currently spending $400m a year researching ways to “enhance” the human fighter. The defence giant Lockheed recently unveiled its “Hulc” (Human Universal Load Carrier), a science fiction-like, battery-powered exoskeleton that allows a human to lift 100kg weights and carry them at a fast run of 16kph (10mph). The videos of the Hulc in action are truly impressive. Superman strength is one thing, but soldiers still need to sleep. In Afghanistan the average soldier in combat gets only four hours’ rest a day and sleep deprivation is the single biggest factor in reducing fighting performance. Not only are tired soldiers less physically able to fight and run, they make more mistakes with the complex weapons systems at their disposal – mistakes that can prove deadly to themselves and their comrades.
Using chemistry to attack fatigue is, of course, nothing new. Two centuries ago, Prussian soldiers used cocaine to remain alert and Inca warriors used coca leaves to stay alert long before that. Since then, nicotine, amphetamines, caffeine and a new class of stimulants including the drug Modafinil have all been used successfully, to the extent that American soldiers can now operate normally even after 48 hours without sleep. Now the chemists are trying to tweak the molecular structure of this drug so that it will switch off the desire for sleep for even longer.
Tiredness is not the only psychological problem faced by soldiers. Combat is immensely stressful and although proper training means that men and women can remain focused while in mortal danger, it is afterwards that problems begin. During the Vietnam War, one in three soldiers was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and in the Second World War a significant proportion of Allied conscripts never fired a shot in anger because of stress and fear before the battle had even begun. Up to now, PTSD has been treated by a mix of psychotherapy and antidepressants – effective techniques but expensive and time-consuming. But as with fatigue there may be a chemical shortcut for PTSD.
The trick is to erase unwanted memories, or at least take away their sting. Professor Roger Pitman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in the US, has been experimenting with a drug called propranolol, a “beta blocker” normally used to treat high blood pressure, which he believes can erase the effects of terrifying memories.
Professor Pitman has given the drug to young volunteers who have suffered extreme trauma in, for example, road accidents. Those given placebos suffered nightmares, and remained fearful of the road. When exposed to recordings describing their accidents they suffered typical stress responses – sweating, beating heart, dilated pupils. But those who had been on a course of propranolol showed no response at all. It was as though the trauma had not happened. For a soldier, memory-altering drugs such as this could mean violent combat becoming no more troubling, retrospectively, than a visit to the gym. “The problem is,” Professor Moreno says, “what else are they blocking when they do this? Do we want a generation of veterans who return without guilt?” You may not even need drugs to short-out the unwanted side effects of battle. Dr Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist from the University of Southern California, has created a “virtual Iraq” video game, in which veterans have been able to re-enact their experiences to release pent-up stress.
Generals not only want stronger, more alert and less stressed soldiers; they want smarter ones, too. One of the most bizarre neuroscience findings in recent years is that by immersing the human brain in a powerful magnetic field, its powers of reasoning and learning are almost magically enhanced.
No one knows exactly how “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS) works, but the Australian neuroscientist Professor Allan Snyder believes that magnetic fields in some way “switch off” the higher levels of mental processing that normally cloud our thoughts, allowing a “pure” form of reasoning to take over.