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We had an experience of a power outage that lasted 2 days. It was miserable.

“Grid emergency” is not a household term. At least, not yet. A grid emergency is an event that threatens to shut down all electric power in a specific area, which could be a few states or the entire country.

A grid emergency could come from a cyberattack from an enemy state, terrorists, or just hackers. It could also come naturally from our neighbor in the galaxy: the sun. An electromagnetic storm on the sun — called a Carrington Event — could shut down all electrical systems on Earth.

On Dec. 17, 2017, no enemy — just a fire in an electrical switch room — caused a blackout at the Atlanta Airport stranding thousands of passengers in the dark terminal and disrupting thousands of flights all over the country. The power outage lasted 12 hours. That nightmare was just a micro-example of what could happen in a grid emergency.

The Federal Power Act (FPA) gives the president the authority to declare a grid emergency and to delegate the authority to deal with it to the secretary of Energy. In 2015, Congress passed a law with a delightful acronym: the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act. This law authorizes the Energy Department to issue rules governing the secretary’s actions in a cyberattack.


After deliberating for about three years, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a final rule two weeks ago defining the powers of the secretary if the president declares a grid emergency.

Let us say that an enemy state realizes that they could never physically invade the United States, but that they could bring the country to its knees by detonating nuclear weapons overhead at high altitude creating electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that would cripple our power grid. (Best selling author, Brad Thor writes about this scenario in his 2014 novel Act of War. Over 30 years ago, another novel, Warday, also dealt with high altitude detonation of nuclear weapons knocking out our power.)

And so we learn of this threat. The secretary of Energy gets a grid emergency declaration from the president. As the threat gets closer, the secretary orders all electrical generating and distribution systems — all power systems — to shut down to avoid being fried by the EMP.

When this happens our power goes out. What happens to those running businesses from their computers? What about those on life support devices like dialysis machines or medical monitors that suddenly quit or go dark?

Next the secretary advises all electrical systems that deliver critical human services — such as drinking water — to go to back-up power, such as generators, that would not be so vulnerable.

There are over 52,000 community water systems in the United States. Many are very small. More than 31,000 systems have fewer than 10,000 customers. How many of these small systems do you think have back-up power?

The common denominator with all of these consequences of grid emergency scenarios is to realize what could happen and to take preventative action today, long before the trouble starts.

With the dialysis machine or health monitors it’s a battery or a home generator. With a business, there’s a real problem. A battery or generator will get the computer back on, but if the Internet is gone, what good will it do?

What about fuel for a generator? If someone doesn’t have it, they have to get it. Drive to a gas station? An EMP will fry the electrical system in their car. No driving; they’ll have to walk.

Finally, when people get thirsty from all of this anxiety and hassle, they go get a drink of water. They turn on the tap. Nothing happens. The board of directors of the water system in their small town didn’t want to raise rates to pay for a back-up generator.

What’s the secretary of Energy going to do about the dialysis machine or the health monitor, internet businesses, and drinking water? Some of these problems — like the dialysis machine — are easy. Others like the businesses can be very difficult. The drinking water problem is a question of money.

So what advice should we give ourselves today, before there is any threat of a grid emergency?

“Let’s not wait until the cyberattack happens!”

Michael Curley is a lawyer and visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. He teaches and has written four books about environmental and energy law and finance. He has published over 40 articles. He served on the Environmental Financial Advisory Board at EPA for 21 years under four presidents. He is also on the Advisory Board of the 501(c)(4) corporation “Protect Our Power”.

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Volatility is on the rise, thanks in no small part to N. Korea and Trumpster exchanging threats of plunging into nuclear war.

Who knows what will happen.

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Ordinarily, politics and economics influence each other with economics being more of a driver on politics than politics is on economics—e.g., bad economic conditions normally lead to political changes—and normally we don’t need to pay much attention to politics to get the economics and markets right. However, there are times when politics becomes the most important driver. History has shown us that these times are when there is great economic, social, and political polarity within a country and there is the selection of populist leaders to fight for “the common man” in a battle against “the elites.” These conditions exist now. The 1930s were the last time this happened in the developed world and globally.

As we described in the study we did on populism (accessed here), our examination of this phenomenon made clear that the conflicts between the common man and the elites typically take place a) during times of economic stress due to wealth and opportunity disparities, b) when the common man believes that the country’s core values are being threatened by foreigners, and c) when government seems so dysfunctional that radical change is widely believed to be necessary. Those conditions typically lead to a strong-minded, confrontational fighter being brought to power to represent the underserved constituency, typically by pursuing more nationalistic, protectionist, and militaristic policies, which typically leads to more domestic and international conflicts. In some cases it led to democracies becoming dictatorships, and wars.

I am not saying that we are on that path, but I am saying that it has to be watched out for because if it is in the works, it is a really big deal. In watching out for it, in the early stages of a new populist administration, the main thing to look for is whether conflict moves to the point that it is detrimental to the effectiveness of government and the economy. The potential for government to become dysfunctional is unique in democracies because the relatively open checks and balances system (which, under normal conditions, is a strength of the system) and because the free media (which is normally a strength of the system) can operate in a way to incite emotional conflicts rather than encourage orderly resolutions of conflicts through the legal system. Even when it is operating well, the legal system can move very slowly, dragging out the period of conflict rather than leading to the prompt resolution of it. These conditions can reinforce emotional and antagonistic polarity because the goal of beating the opposition supersedes the goal of working together to try to find compromises that are good for the country as a whole, and that can create a self-reinforcing downward spiral. That has to be watched out for because, if it were to occur, it would have profound implications for economies, capital flows, and markets. Right now there is a whiff of it in the air.

In my opinion, the trend toward conflict leading to greater dysfunctionality, leading to greater conflict, in a self-reinforcing way is increasingly apparent in the US and UK. Over the last 24 hours we’ve seen developments in the US (pertaining to the issues surrounding Jim Comey’s testimony) and the UK (concerning no UK party having a ruling majority and the threat of a left populist leader emerging). While in both cases, so far, the political and legal institutions and systems have worked as intended—e.g., Special Counsel appointed and electoral system delivering a rebuke of a sitting government—nonetheless these developments entail the risk that political conflicts will lead to reduced government effectiveness in these two countries at especially challenging times for each of these countries (e.g., for the UK exiting the union and needing to redefine its economic and geopolitical place in the world, and for the US needing to clarify its domestic and international directions).

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While it is clearly not a black swan, black swans being a random surprise, N. Korea could certainly be under-estimated by investors.


While the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 Index and Nasdaq Composite index hit all-time highs (again) last week and with volatility hovering near a 24-year low, Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave an underreported speech that should cause investors to rethink their complacency.

In an address to a security conference in Singapore, the retired Marine Corps general who headed Central Command from 2010 to 2013 called North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear program a “clear and present danger” and an “urgent military threat.”

By my reading, that ratchets up the already sharp war of words between the Trump administration and North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said failure to control North Korea’s accelerated testing of missiles and nuclear weapons could have “catastrophic consequences.” In April, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, said the problem of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is “coming to a head” and that it poses a “grave threat” to the U.S. and its allies.

All three officials stressed that diplomacy, particularly with North Korea’s chief ally, China, was the best way to deal with the problem. But earlier this year, Tillerson declared that the policy of “strategic patience” was over and that “all options are on the table.”

North Korea’s ‘gift package’

Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric has become more overheated than our own president’s Twitter account. Last month, North Korea warned that U.S. “provocation” (presumably our joint military exercises with ally South Korea) would mean “a total war which will lead to the final doom of the U.S.” He has threatened the U.S. with a “super-mighty preemptive strike” and vowed to “send a bigger ‘gift package’ ” to the U.S. (The 33-year-old baby-faced tyrant sure has a way with words, doesn’t he?)

Meanwhile, in nearly six years as ruler, Kim Jong-un has tested 78 missiles; his father Kim Jong-il tested only 17 in a 16-year reign. And they’ve improved markedly: Recent tests of solid-fuel missiles, which “would give the United States little warning of an attack … were clearly successful,” The New York Times reported, while the U.S.’s own $330 billion system to intercept incoming missiles has had a failure rate above 50%.

North Korea is believed to have enough radioactive material for up to 25 nuclear weapons now, but “by 2020, [it] could have a nuclear stockpile of 100 warheads that can be mounted on long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States,” Robert S. Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars wrote in USA Today. “North Korea is essentially a failed state on the verge of a nuclear breakout.”

Kim Jong-un, several analysts write, is determined to avoid the fate of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his effort to acquire nukes only to be deposed and killed in “regime change” after the Arab Spring.

Possibility of preemptive strike

So, without massive diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea by China, a U.S. preemptive strike becomes ever more likely. George Friedman, founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, recently warned that the U.S.’s big military buildup off the Korean peninsula — including two aircraft carriers and daily exercises by more than 100 F-16 aircraft (which also preceded Operation Desert Storm in 1991) — means a U.S. attack on North Korea is imminent.

If it happened, almost everyone agrees the consequences would be disastrous. In the first Korean War (which technically never ended), 2.7 million Koreans, 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 Americans died. Now, North Korea has a million-man army and is hiding weapons, troops and material in a massive network of bunkers, shelters and tunnels that would likely allow it to survive U.S. airstrikes with enough firepower to retaliate heavily against Seoul, the world’s fifth-largest metro area with a population of 24 million. It also has nuclear and chemical weapons and medium-range missiles that could reach Seoul, Tokyo, or even U.S. bases in Guam.

In 1994, General Gary Luck told President Bill Clinton a second Korean war could result in a million dead and $1 trillion in economic damage. Today, Northeast Asia is a critical hub of global commerce: Together, Japan and South Korea’s GDP is over $6 trillion, and of course China borders North Korea.

From crisis to chaos

It’s hard to tell how many of Kim’s (and our) threats are saber rattling and how much are real. Historically, geopolitical crises have had no lasting effects on markets, but crises can spin out of control, especially with the paranoid Kim facing a flailing President Donald Trump desperate to change the subject from James Comey and the Russia investigations.

The recent rhetorical battle may not lead to armed conflict, but war on the Korean peninsula would be massively unpredictable, and investors are woefully unprepared for the potentially cataclysmic consequences. If that isn’t a black swan, I don’t know what is.

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Our current state of affairs – this is an overgeneralization – two versions of the American existence are emerging as separate entities.

There’s the Knowledge Economy and there’s Trumpism, with a lot less overlap between the two with each passing day. We’re not exactly forced to pick the one around which we’ll coalesce, it’s more that we increasingly feel compelled to. Your choice depends on where you live, what your community looks like, which media outlet you get your news from, how religious you are, what level of education you’ve attained, the industry you work in and the amount of exposure you’ve had – in real life – to people from different walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.

Social media has aggravated these differences and recent political contests have hardened them.

Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the Cornell commencement last week, akin to making a direct address to the Knowledge Economy. The crux of his remarks:

I thought we had passed the days when it was acceptable for political leaders at local and national levels to bestow legitimacy on hate speech and fringe ideologies. But the world is changing so rapidly…

There are a lot of folks out there who are both afraid and susceptible to this kind of negative appeal. We saw the forces of populism not only here but around the world call to close our nation’s gates against the challenges of a rapidly changing world…

The immigrant, the minority, the transgender, anyone not like me became a scapegoat. Just build a wall, keep Muslims from coming into the United States.

‘They’re the reason I can’t compete, that’s why I don’t have a job. That’s why I worry about my safety.’ And I imagine, like me, many of you have seen this unfold. It was incredibly disorienting and disheartening.

Biden’s audience – remember, we’re talking about Cornell graduates and their families – is extraordinarily divorced from Trump’s audience. They won’t compete for jobs or real estate or potential mates with the Trumpists. They’ll consume information from different sources and have an almost entirely different life experience as they build their careers and raise their families in the coming years.

It’s sad that this is where we are. I don’t think most people want to be compelled to choose a team within one country, but the environment we’re in now practically demands it. This is deeper than political affiliation or just the usual city versus rural heuristic. It’s cultural. We’re supposed to be one culture, generally speaking. Maybe once we were. Or maybe we never were and it’s only becoming more obvious now. Differences in income and opportunities, magnified by Instagram glamor shots and Facebook status updates, are driving people crazy and forcing them onto teams. And teams discourage independent thought.

There is an implicit conceit within the Knowledge Economy that if everyone would just get with the program, the future would be brighter. From the outside, this can be taken as a chide or a scolding. We know what’s best for you. You shouldn’t be surprised that the kneejerk reaction to this sort of thing is a big f*** you and even votes cast out of spite. No one wants to be lectured by people who presume to be better than them. No one wants to be constantly presented with evidence that their life choices have been self-destructive – especially on social media, which is like one giant, raw nerve ending, continually being rubbed the wrong way.

But what if it flipped?

What if, all of a sudden, the Knowledge Economy didn’t look so hot. By publicly denigrating climate science and prioritizing the re-opening of coal mines, it sometimes seems as though this is an explicit aim of the Trumpists – a reactionary counter-revolution rolling back decades of social progress and industry-specific obsolescence. Re-shuffling the deck of cards. Flipping over the roulette table. Letting the chips fall to the ground and the players starting from scratch.

One current White House advisor said last year that “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.” The implication being that complete destruction is preferable to allowing things to keep going in the current direction. This is a desperation that is utterly inexplicable to those who are currently toward the top of the income and education scale.

In the event of a “complete destruction” of society, how would the denizens of the Knowledge Economy fare?

I came across an extreme example in the novel World War Z. Author Max Brooks explored this idea back in 2006, a full decade before the election that would crystallize these two renditions of American life. His narrator interviews the fictional Director of the Department of Strategic Resources in the aftermath of a global zombie epidemic, which humanity has just barely managed to survive. Having non-Knowledge Economy people as instructors may have saved the world…

America was a segregated workforce, and in many cases, that segregation contained a cultural element. A great many of our instructors…these were the people who knew how to take care of themselves, how to survive on very little and work with what they had. These were the people who tended small gardens in their backyards, who repaired their own homes, who kept their appliances running for as long as mechanically possible. It was crucial that these people teach the rest of us how to break from our comfortable, disposable consumer lifestyle even though their labor had allowed us to maintain that lifestyle in the first place…

Imagine the typical Cornell grad in this sort of scenario. What is she bringing to the table? I imagine my own paltry set of skills and realize how unhelpful they would be as the Department of Strategic Resources classifies us all and puts us to work in staving off the undead hordes at the gate…

You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract or a deal brokered. What it does need it toilets fixed. And suddenly a peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.

Substitute “corporate attorney” for graphic designer or evening news anchor or financial advisor or web developer in your mind. Imagine a world in which those skills suddenly had no meaning, no utility. Now think of the millions of your fellow Americans who have been made obsolete by technology or foreign trade over the last few decades – or live in constant fear that they are about to be.

Once, on a fact-finding tour of LA, I sat in the back of a reeducation lecture. The trainees had all held lofty positions in the entertainment industry, a melange of agents, managers, “creative executives,” whatever the hell that means. I can understand their resistance, their arrogance. Before the war, entertainment had been the most valued export of the United States. Now they were being trained as custodians for a munitions plant in Bakersfield, California.

100,000 retail jobs have been lost over the last year. Hiring in e-commerce positions – from web design to fulfillment and shipping – does not offset these job losses on a one for one basis. And if these workers remain out of work for long, or end up doing something they’re unhappy with, whose message will they be more susceptible to, the Knowledge Economy’s or the Trumpists’? Which team will they join?

How about the 3 million Americans who list their occupation as “driver”? As automated vehicles take their place on the road, will Biden’s appeal resonate? I don’t think so. It’s much more likely that the rhetoric of “the experts were wrong, burn it all down” will get through and take hold.

Can anyone or anything turn this tide of our growing separation from each other? I can’t imagine what could do it in the short-term. And I still can’t change an oil filter.


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Helping defeat Hillary Clinton is not the most successful influence operation Moscow has ever mounted against the United States. The most momentous, yes. But any covert activity that is exposed so rapidly and incites a backlash cannot be deemed an unalloyed accomplishment.

Moscow’s single most effective influence operation remains the one induced 50 years ago this month, when the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item published a front-page story on April 25, 1967, entitled “Mounting Evidence Links CIA to ‘Plot’ Probe.” It was an operation that culminated in an unimaginable achievement—inclusion in a Hollywood blockbuster by Oliver Stone that contends the CIA was instrumental in JFK’s assassination.


That probe, as every conscious American knew, was district attorney Jim Garrison’s re-investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination amid a pronounced erosion of public confidence in the Warren Report. On March 1, 1967, Garrison had ostentatiously announced the arrest of Clay Shaw, a respected businessman, and charged him with complicity in JFK’s death. It was an outlandish and baseless accusation, yet Shaw would prove far from the only victim. The miscarriage of justice that unfolded over the next two years would have vast, if largely unappreciated, consequences for America’s political culture.

It would take a separate article (or even book) to explain why Garrison ordered Clay Shaw’s arrest in the first place (and some very good ones have been written, including Patricia Lambert’s False Witness). Suffice it to say that at the time of the arrest and until later in March, Garrison’s theory of the case was that JFK’s assassination was actually a “homosexual thrill-killing.” The president had been murdered in broad daylight because he was everything the conspirators were not: “a successful, handsome, popular, wealthy, virile man.” Under this scenario, Shaw, who was gay but closeted, also went by the name of Clay Bertrand, a mysterious person linked to the assassination. “Bertrand” had supposedly tried to arrange a defense counsel for Lee Harvey Oswald during the weekend following his capture on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. The Warren Commission and FBI thoroughly investigated the “Bertrand” allegation in 1964, and had concluded (correctly) that it was a fabrication concocted by a publicity-seeking New Orleans attorney named Dean Andrews. “Bertrand” was not even a real person.

Nonetheless, Shaw’s surprise arrest in 1967 naturally precipitated a media firestorm the likes of which had not been seen since the assassination itself. As reporters from near and far flocked to New Orleans—the universal reaction being that Garrison “must have something”—headlines appeared around the globe, including in Paese Sera, a small-circulation newspaper published in Rome. The story that ran in its pages on March 4, however, was unlike any other. Clay Shaw, Paese Sera alleged, had been involved in “pseudo-commercial” activities in Italy while serving on the board of the defunct Centro Mondiale Commerciale. Ostensibly devoted to making Rome a commerce hub, the CMC had actually been “a creature of the CIA… set up as a cover for the transfer to Italy of CIA-FBI funds [sic] for illegal political-espionage activities.”

​One axiom of successful disinformation is that context creates the illusion of what might be true. Here the plausibility of Paese Sera’s falsehood was strengthened immeasurably by a separate media firestorm that had been ignited Feb. 14. On that day, Ramparts magazine had published full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, proclaiming that its March issue would reveal how the CIA “infiltrated and subverted” the National Student Association. Since then, media outlets had been racing to outdo the upstart Ramparts by exposing covert CIA subsidies to other organizations in the United States as well as abroad, including anti-communists in Italy. Paese Sera’s “scoop,” moreover, was built around a few undeniable facts: The CMC had existed from 1958 to 1962; Shaw had been a board member; and now he was charged with conspiracy.

​In three weeks Garrison had the Italian newspaper clipping in hand. Overnight the DA dispensed with his “thrill-killing” theory and persuaded himself that because he had inadvertently nabbed an important “company man,” the CIA was implicated in the assassination. “Garrison now is hot on the CIA angle,” wrote Richard Billings in his diary on April 3; Billings was a Life magazine editor given privileged access to the investigation in return for what was expected to be a blockbuster cover story. Or as Garrison himself recalled years later, “I didn’t know exactly how Shaw was involved. But with Shaw I grabbed a toehold on the conspiracy. I wasn’t about to let go because of the technicalities.”

Garrison didn’t know that Paese Sera belonged to a select group of allegedly non-communist periodicals used to propagate disinformation, rather than have these stories originate in Communist Party organs. Paese Sera’s long-suspected role in Moscow’s active measures was confirmed beyond any doubt in 1999, when historian Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrohkin published The Sword and the Shield, a history of the KGB that is a treasure trove of disclosures about Soviet clandestine and subversive activities during the cold war.

Now it happened to be true that from 1948 to 1956, Shaw, like hundreds of other American businessmen, had volunteered economic information to the CIA’s Domestic Contact Service, routinely gathered during his frequent trips abroad, mostly to Latin America. Shaw’s insights, however, were no more than what could be gleaned from a close reading of The Wall Street Journal, and he was never a covert operative. His relationship with the agency ended before the CMC was even founded, and that trade promotion organization was never a CIA front.

The Italian defense, interior, and foreign affairs ministries thus denied Paese Sera’s supposed scoop, while the Rome Daily American observed that “the only thing the Communist-leaning Paese Sera forgot to throw [into its snow job] was the kitchen sink.” Still, throughout March and into April the story promptly gained traction in the left-wing French, Italian, Greek, and Canadian press. Moscow’s Pravda picked up the story too, publishing it under the simple headline, “Clay Shaw of the CIA.”

In the United States there was almost no coverage at all. This dearth was a problem for a DA whose modus operandi required a steady drumbeat of positive publicity. Garrison himself dared not bring up the allegation openly, as he later explained to Bertrand Russell, the famed British philosopher, who was also an avid JFK conspiracy theorist. Doing so might hand skeptics in the media the ammunition to destroy his already-controversial probe. So Garrison leaked.

On April 25, the New Orleans States-Item published its copyrighted story, reporting that Shaw, still the only person indicted, had been linked to the CIA “by an influential Italian newspaper.” It took more than 20 column inches before Paese Sera (routinely labeled “crypto-Communist” by the State Department) was described as “leftist in its political leanings.” The Associated Press picked up the States-Item scoop for distribution on its national wire, and the story was reprinted, in varying lengths, in hundreds of newspapers nationwide.

Having laid the groundwork, Garrison now unleashed a barrage of accusations, one more sensational and jaw-dropping than the next. The CIA had commanded Lee Harvey Oswald; the CIA had shielded the real assassins; the CIA had deceived the Warren Commission and hid evidence with the FBI’s connivance—no, the CIA had deceived the FBI too! As with Senator Joe McCarthy, the legitimacy conferred by public office gave Garrison a license for audacious mendacity. Except now the zeitgeist wasn’t that Communists were under every bed—the CIA was. One Bourbon Street store that catered to the tourist trade tweaked Garrison by publishing a mock newspaper headlined: DA STOPS CIA IN USA TAKEOVER. Elsewhere in the United States, though, where DAs were taken more seriously, the cumulative impact of Garrison’s charges was dramatic. This was the moment in time when Garrison ushered in a paradigm shift over the assassination.

As the DA’s “bizarre and unsubstantiated” campaign to implicate the CIA reached a fever pitch in early June, an internal agency memo observed that Garrison had “attacked [the] CIA more vehemently, viciously and mendaciously than has any other American official or private citizen whose comments have come to our attention. In fact, he [has] outstripped the foreign Communist press, which is now quoting him delightedly.” Garrison’s lean good looks camouflaged a cunning demagogue, who challenged not only the veracity of the Warren Report but the federal government’s very legitimacy, asserting that “what happened… in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a coup d’état… instigated and planned… by fanatical anticommunists in the United States intelligence community.”

The toxic brew of a domestic demagogue mixed with dezinformatsiya was a KGB dream come true: an elected U.S. official was affirming what Moscow had been saying for years about America’s corrupt political system and its military-industrial complex. In the space of a few months, Garrison legitimated the fable that the CIA was complicit in President Kennedy’s assassination and that American democracy itself was an illusion.

Clay Shaw’s trial finally commenced in January 1969. Despite two years of allegations and a promise of testimony that would “rock the nation,” Garrison’s case was remarkably unchanged from the loopy account presented at Shaw’s preliminary hearing. The prosecution failed to produce a scintilla of CIA involvement, and jurors eventually rendered a unanimous verdict of “not guilty” after deliberating 54 minutes.

Afterward, Garrison insisted that the actual legal results did not make his investigation any less valid. The centrality of the Paese Sera revelation to the DA’s theory about CIA involvement became a sacred, inner secret known only to Garrison and closest associates. In this scenario, Garrison was the martyr, victimized (ironically) by the vast but hidden power of “the company” and its “disinformation machinery.” Whether Moscow ever recognized the impact of Paese Sera’s falsehood on the New Orleans district attorney contemporaneously is unknown. What is certain is that the KGB did not rest on its laurels. For the balance of the cold war, efforts to expose the ostensible role of the “American special services” in the Kennedy assassination remained a staple of Moscow’s active measures—to the point where the KGB “could fairly claim that far more Americans believed some version of [Moscow’s] conspiracy theory… than accepted the main findings of the Warren Commission,” as Andrew and Mitrokhin wrote.

​In 1988, Garrison published a memoir and made explicit the connection between his grand conspiracy and Paese Sera. No one noticed, the Shaw prosecution having long been dismissed as a legal farce. But then Garrison’s publisher thrust a copy of the memoir into the hands of Oliver Stone during an international film festival in Havana. That encounter led to Paese Sera’s disinformation becoming the centerpiece of a Hollywood blockbuster. At the 88-minute mark of Stone’s JFK, Garrison (portrayed by Kevin Costner) confronts Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) with a newspaper article in Italian supposedly exposing Shaw’s work as a CIA operative. This clash never occurred in real life, of course, but Stone was intent on conveying the truth about the wellspring for Garrison’s ultimate conspiracy theory. “Mr. Shaw,” the script reads, “this is an Italian newspaper article saying you were a member of the Board of Centro Mondo [sic] Commerciale in Italy, that this company was a creature of the CIA… ”

Garrison’s real legacy was not his investigation, but the public memory of his lurid allegations, recycled and amplified by Oliver Stone. More than 25 years after its premiere, JFK is the way most Americans now learn about one of the most traumatic events in their recent history. And according to one historian who admires Stone, JFK has probably “had a greater impact on public opinion than any other work of art in American history.” Indeed, the movie remains a great source of pride for Stone, if not his masterpiece. Allegedly, the film exposed a fascist-led coup that “hit the central nerve core of the establishment,” and has “held up very well over time,” the director contended recently at the Lucca Film Festival in April, 2017.

​Even allowing for hyperbole, that is why a fantasy concocted by an Italian newspaper that trafficked in disinformation remains Moscow’s single most successful influence operation.

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You can learn a lot about a culture from its drug use. Robert McAlmon, an American author living in Berlin during the tumultuous Weimar years, marveled that “dope, mostly cocaine, was to be had in profusion” at “dreary night clubs” where “poverty-stricken boys and girls of good German families sold it, and took it.” Cocaine was banned in 1924, though few people noticed—use peaked three years later. For those who preferred downers, morphine was just as easily accessible. Pharmacists legally prescribed the opioid for non-serious ailments, and morphine addiction was common among World War One veterans. The market was bolstered by low prices—for Americans, McAlmon noted that enough cocaine for “quite too much excitement” cost about ten cents—and by the fact that production was more or less local. In the 1920s, German companies generated 40 percent of the world’s morphine, and controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine market.

When the Nazis rose to power, illegal drug consumption fell. Suddenly, drugs were regarded as “toxic” to the German body, and folded into the escalating discourse of anti-Semitism. Users were penalized with prison sentences, and addicts were classed—along with Jews, gypsies and homosexuals—as undesirable social elements. By the end of the 1930s, pharmaceutical production had pivoted away from opioids and cocaine and towards synthetic stimulants that could be produced entirely within Germany, per Nazi directive. The transition from cabaret cocaine to over-the-counter meth helped fuel what German journalist Norman Ohler in his new book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich calls the “developing performance society” of the early Nazi era, and primed Germany for the war to come.

The breakthrough moment came in 1937, when the Temmler-Werke company introduced Pervitin, a methamphetamine-based stimulant. (The doctor who developed it, Fritz Hauschild, would go on to pioneer East Germany’s sports doping program.) Within months, this variant of crystal meth was available without a prescription—even sold in boxed chocolates—and was widely adopted by all sectors of society to elevate mood, control weight gain, and increase productivity. It’s impossible to untangle Pervitin’s success from Germany’s rapidly changing economic fortunes under the Third Reich. As the country rebounded from economic depression to nearly full employment, marketing for Pervitin claimed it would help “integrate shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” into the rapidly expanding workforce. Students took it to cram for exams; housewives took it to stave off depression. Pervitin use was so common as to be unremarkable, a feature of life in the early Third Reich.

Meanwhile, in the military, Pervitin was enthusiastically embraced as the vanguard of the so-called “war on exhaustion.” As Hitler’s troops began annexing territory in the spring of 1939, Wehrmacht soldiers started relying on “tank chocolate” to keep them alert for days on end. Though Nazi medical officials were increasingly aware of Pervitin’s risks—tests found that soldiers’ critical thinking skills declined the longer they stayed awake—the short-term gains were appealing enough. Even after drug sales to the general public were restricted in April 1940, the German Army High Command issued the so-called “stimulant decree,” ordering Temmler to produce 35 million tablets for military use.

Twenty minutes later, the nerve cells in their brains started releasing the neurotransmitters. All of a sudden, dopamine and noradrenalin intensified perception and put the soldiers in a state of absolute alertness. The night brightened: no one would sleep, lights were turned on, and the ‘Lindworm’ of the Wehrmacht started eating its way tirelessly towards Belgium…

Three sleepless days later, the Nazis were in France. The stunned Allies were closer to defeat than they would be at any other point during the war. As Ohler writes in Blitzed, the Germans had claimed more land in less than a hundred hours than they had over the entire course of World War One.

Blitzed, which was a bestseller in Germany, is comprised of two main parts: A look at the effects of drugs on the German military, and on the Führer himself. While Hitler’s medical records have been scrutinized for decades—first by wartime American intelligence agencies, and more recently, by scholars Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle in Was Hitler Ill?—Ohler spent five years in international archives mounting a case that the dictator was not merely suffering from stress or madness, but drug-induced psychosis, which fueled his lethal tendencies.

This is Ohler’s first nonfiction book (he’s written three novels) and the first popular book of its kind, filling a gap between specialist academic literature and sensationalist TV documentaries. There’s a contemporary Berlin sensibility to Blitzed: Ohler came upon the idea after a local DJ told him that the Nazis “took loads of drugs,” and his archival research is interspersed with accounts of urban exploring at the former Temmler factory. The hipster-as-historian persona occasionally feels forced—Ohler characterizes Hitler as a junkie and his doctors as dealers a few too many times—but the book is an impressive work of scholarship, with more than two dozen pages of footnotes and the blessing of esteemed World War Two historians. From Hitler’s irregular hours and unusual dietary preferences—his staff would leave out apple raisin cakes for him to eat in the middle of the night—to his increasingly monomaniacal demands, Ohler offers a compelling explanation for Hitler’s erratic behavior in the final years of the war, and how the biomedical landscape of the time affected the way history unfolded.

Over the past half-century, discussions about Hitler’s health have touched lightly on Dr. Theodor Morell, a private practitioner who specialized in dermatology and venereal diseases before becoming the Führer’s personal physician in 1936. According to Ohler, Morell’s role was far greater than previously acknowledged. Despite being widely regarded as a fraud, Morell was granted more access to Hitler than anybody other than Eva Braun. During the nine years the doctor treated Hitler, he is believed to have given the Führer between 28 and 90 different drugs, including Pervitin, laxatives, anti-gas pills with strychnine in them, morphine derivatives, seminal extract from bulls, body-building supplements, digestives, sedatives, hormones, and many vitamins of mysterious provenance, mostly administered via injection. This all happened quietly, as the myth of Hitler-as-teetotaler was central to Nazi ideology: “Hitler allegedly didn’t even allow himself coffee and legend had it that after the First World War he threw his last pack of cigarettes into the Danube,” Ohler writes. Luckily, Morell left detailed accounts of Hitler’s medical records, likely believing that if anything happened to “Patient A,” he would be held responsible.

Hitler did not have any serious medical conditions at the start of the war—he suffered from painful gas, believed to be the result of his vegetarianism—but over the years, he came to rely more and more on Morell’s injections. After the fall of 1941, when the war began to turn in the Allies’ favor—and, Ohler observes, the “dip in Hitler’s performance became obvious”—they took on greater potency. One night in the summer of 1943, Hitler awoke with violent stomach cramps. Knowing he was scheduled to meet Mussolini the next day, Morell gave the Führer his first dose of Eukadol, an Oxycodone-based drug that was twice as strong as morphine. It had the desired effect: Hitler ranted through the meeting, preventing Mussolini from pulling Italy out of the war. The Führer was delighted; Morell remained firmly in Hitler’s good graces.

Records show that Eukodol was administered only 24 more times between that night and the end of 1944, but Ohler suspects that the coded reports disguise a much higher number. “This approach to the dictator’s health,” he writes of the injections, “could be compared to using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.”

Aside from power and prestige, there were lucrative reasons for men unconcerned with morality to work for the Third Reich. Before becoming Hitler’s physician, Morell made a name for himself in the emerging field of vitamins, becoming one of the first doctors in Germany to promote them as medicinal. Following his appointment, Morell used his role to develop his vanity vitamin business, enlisting Hitler as his “gold standard” patient.

To this end, Morell developed a preparation called Vitamultin that he marketed across Europe, with special packaging for Hitler’s personal vitamins, and another for those of high-ranking Nazi officials. Though they mostly consisted of dried lemon, milk and sugar, the SS ordered hundreds of millions of tablets; the Nazi trade unions requested nearly a billion. Pleased with his returns, Morell went on to take over an “Aryanized” cooking-oil company in Czechoslovakia, which he converted into a factory for vitamin production. Soon after, he advanced plans to construct an “organotherapeutic factory” which would manufacture hormones preparations from slaughterhouse leftovers.

By 1943, Morell was a one-man empire, and not even a ban on introducing new medication to the German market could stop him. “The Führer has authorized me to do the following,” he wrote in a letter to the Reich Health Office. “If I bring out and test a remedy and then apply it in the Führer’s headquarters, and apply it successfully, then it can be applied elsewhere in Germany and no longer needs authorization.”

A number of books have covered the same material as Ohler, but none have focused as strongly on how pharmaceuticals ran in the blood of the Third Reich. Pervitin, Eukodal, and other “wonder drugs” of the time were seen as the magic bullets that would allow German productivity to reach new heights, German soldiers to march farther, stay awake longer, and, ironically, cleanse the country of its toxic elements. It was only later, Ohler notes, that the effects would become clear:

Studies show that two thirds of those who take crystal meth excessively suffer from psychosis after three years. Since Pervitin and crystal meth have the same active ingredient, and countless soldiers had been taking it more or less regularly since the invasion of Poland, the Blitzkrieg on France, or the attack on the Soviet Union, we must assume psychotic side-effects, as well as the need to keep increasing the dosage to achieve a noticeable effect.

As it became obvious the Nazis were going to lose, military efforts became increasingly desperate, and life was cheaply traded for grasping attempts at victory. Teenage recruits were dosed with amphetamines and shipped to the front; Navy pharmacologists tested dangerous mixes of high-grade pharmaceuticals on pilots. At a wine bar in Munich, Ohler meets with a Navy official who tells him how in the final months of the war, members of the Hitler Youth were loaded into mini-submarines and sent to sea with not much more than packets of cocaine chewing gum.

The last days of the Third Reich were marked by a combination of delirium and exhaustion. In January 1945, with the Russians and Allies closing in, Hitler was transferred to an underground bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. By that point, his addiction and physical deterioration were apparent: He was barely able to sleep or focus, and was regularly receiving Eukodol injections for painful constipation and seizures. Or, at least he had been—in the weeks leading up to the new year, the British bombed the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured Eukadol and cocaine, threatening Hitler’s supply. In the months that followed, his reserve of drugs drawing down, he likely went through a brutal withdrawal. He sacked Morell on April 17, and two weeks later, shot himself.

Ohler’s book makes a powerful case for the centrality of drugs to the Nazi war effort, and had he wanted to, he could have easily made it two or three times as long. He only briefly touches on drug experimentation in concentration camps, and doesn’t explore the structural ties that existed between the Third Reich and German pharmaceutical companies, which would come to light during the Nuremberg Trials. Without these relationships, it’s unlikely the German war machine would have run for as long as it did. After supporting the Nazis’ rise to power, pharmaceutical conglomerate I.G. Farben developed the nerve gas used in the camps, and produced oil and synthetic rubber for war efforts. In 1942, Farben set up Auschwitz-Monowitz, a smaller concentration camp within Auschwitz, to provide slave labor for the company’s nearby industrial complex. Tens of thousands of inmates died as a result of experimentation and forced labor, and the development of thalidomide, notorious for causing deformities in fetuses, has been linked to Monowitz.

Ohler also doesn’t mention that the amphetamine craze didn’t only happen in Germany. While Germans were dosing with Pervitin, British and American troops were doing the same with Benzedrine, an amphetamine developed in the ‘30s as the first prescription anti-depressant. (Benzedrine was the ancestor of medications now prescribed for attention-deficient disorder.) The Germans eventually decided to drop Pervitin as the war dragged on, but the American military stuck with “bennies,” and by the end of 1945, production was up to a million tablets a day.

The notion that substances play an outsized role in shaping society—and especially during wartime—does not just belong to history. Amphetamines still factor heavily in conflicts in Syria (Captagon), Afghanistan (Dexedrine), and West Africa (cocaine mixed with gunpowder). Thanks to pharmacological advances, we’re now more able than ever to grasp how drugs may have altered behaviors and influenced certain moments. Knowing that Eukadol and Pervitin contributed to the grotesqueries of Nazi military strategy, for instance, places a new lens on a disturbing chapter of history.

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This article is specific to Germany, but could probably apply to most European countries currently. We have friends in Austria who report essentially the same story as the article.

  • More than 1.5 million Germans, many of them highly educated, left Germany during the past decade.Die Welt.
  • Germany is facing a spike in migrant crime, including an epidemic of rapes and sexual assaults. Mass migration is also accelerating the Islamization of Germany. Many Germans appear to be losing hope about the future direction of their country.
  • “We refugees… do not want to live in the same country with you. You can, and I think you should, leave Germany. And please take Saxony and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) with you…. Why do you not go to another country? We are sick of you!” — Aras Bacho an 18-year-old Syrian migrant, inDer Freitag, October 2016.
  • A real estate agent in a town near Lake Balaton, a popular tourist destination in western Hungary, said that 80% of the Germans relocating there cite the migration crisis as the main reason for their desire to leave Germany.
  • “I believe that Islam does not belong to Germany. I regard it as a foreign entity which has brought the West more problems than benefits. In my opinion, many followers of this religion are rude, demanding and despise Germany.” — A German citizen who emigrated from Germany, in an “Open Letter to the German Government.”
  • “I believe that immigration is producing major and irreversible changes in German society. I am angry that this is happening without the direct approval of German citizens. … I believe that it is a shame that in Germany Jews must again be afraid to be Jews.” — A German citizen who emigrated from Germany, in an “Open Letter to the German Government.”
  • “My husband sometimes says he has the feeling that we are now the largest minority with no lobby. For each group there is an institution, a location, a public interest, but for us, a heterosexual married couple with two children, not unemployed, neither handicapped nor Islamic, for people like us there is no longer any interest.” — “Anna,” in a letter to the Mayor of Munich about her decision to move her family out of the city because migrants were making her life there impossible.

A growing number of Germans are abandoning neighborhoods in which they have lived all their lives, and others are leaving Germany for good, as mass immigration transforms parts of the country beyond recognition.

Data from the German statistics agency, Destatis, shows that 138,000 Germans left Germany in 2015. More are expected to emigrate in 2016. In a story on brain drain titled, “German talent is leaving the country in droves,”Die Welt reported that more than 1.5 million Germans, many of them highly educated, left Germany during the past decade.

The statistics do not give a reason why Germans are emigrating, but anecdotal evidence indicates that many are waking up to the true cost — financial, social and cultural — of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow more than one million mostly Muslim migrants to enter the country in 2015. At least 300,000 more migrants are expected to arrive in Germany in 2016, according to Frank-Jürgen Weise, the head of the country’s migration office, BAMF.

Mass migration has — among many other problems — contributed to a growing sense of insecurity in Germany, which is facing a spike in migrant crime, including an epidemic of rapes and sexual assaults. Mass migration is also accelerating the Islamization of Germany. Many Germans appear to be losing hope about the future direction of their country.

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‘All of Gaul is divided into three parts,’ wrote Julius Caesar at the start of his Gallic Wars. ‘No, four,’ corrected one author writing slightly later, ‘for one small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the Roman invaders.’ It was, of course, the French comic-book hero Asterix’s unnamed Breton village. The secret of the success of Asterix and his fellow villagers was their superhuman strength – that is, when their druid was willing to make them some of his secret potion. One gulp made Asterix’s Gauls invincible, irresistible in attack and extraordinary in defence. The only thing the potion could not cure was the village bard, Cacophonix, whose terrible voice alone was immune to the magic drug of Getafix, the village’s druid and superchemist.

Having grown up reading the Asterix books, I wondered about supplements that turned normal soldiers into heroes. Valour, bravery and virtue were all prized characteristics in the ancient texts that captivated me. In fact, in Greek and Latin, the words for courage (‘ἀνδρεία’ and ‘virtus’) derive from the word for man (‘ἀνδρὸς’ and ‘vir’). Being a man in the classical world meant being brave. Heroes such as Hector, Ajax, Agamemnon and Odysseus relied on their wits, muscles and character alone. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Augustus likewise took difficult decisions, earning the respect of both their lieutenants and their foot-soldiers.

Further east, Kings of Persia presented themselves as just and brave rulers. In China, the philosophy of Mengzi (Mencius) taught men to consider personal bravery as an essential part of a purposeful life. Being strong meant being blessed by the gods – or even being part-divine, as was the case with Herakles, son of Zeus, or Achilles, son of the nymph Thetis. Ancient heroes sometimes turned to substances in order to alter their moods, or their minds. In the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus and his men find themselves in the land of the Lotus Eaters, which is populated by ‘men who make food of flowers’. The Lotus Eaters are extraordinarily relaxed. Odysseus’s scouts sink into repose as soon as they taste the ‘honeyed fruit’ of the lotus flower, which makes Odysseus’s men so deeply indolent that they refuse to return to their own camp. Resolving not to move, they ignore all orders and give up any thought of returning home.

Ancient China, the Arabic-speaking world and Europe all showed deep interest in the remedial and medicinal qualities of plants and seeds. For example, cinnamon was used in treatments of the heart, stomach and head in China, Persia and the Eastern Mediterranean, where it was prescribed by Dioscorides 2,000 years ago as being helpful in establishing regular cycles of menstruation. Cinnamon was also prescribed in medieval medical manuals as helping ‘the man whose head is heavy and stuffed’ with mucus. Later pharmacy books produced in Spain outlined at length how useful nutmeg oil was as a treatment for diarrhoea and vomiting, as well as fighting the common cold, and also reported that cardamom oil soothed the intestines and helped reduce flatulence.

The list of uses of spices and herbs is a long one. In the eighth century, Charlemagne ordered the large-scale cultivation of mallow after becoming convinced of its healing powers when it came to battlefield wounds. Some ancient medical research extended beyond the treatment of injuries into more adventurous pursuits. An Arabic manual written in the Middle Ages contains a chapter entitled ‘Prescriptions for Increasing the Dimensions of Small Members and for Making them Splendid’. It suggests rubbing a mixture of honey and ginger onto the private parts. The medical manual promised an effect so powerful and productive of such pleasure that the man’s sexual partner would ‘object to him getting off her again’.

Roughly contemporary to the Homeric epics are the Sanskrit Rig Vedas. More than 3,000 years old, they espouse cannabis as ‘a source of happiness’, ‘a liberator’ from anxiety, and ‘a joy-giver’, such that a guardian angel was said to live within its leaves. Ancient Chinese texts that mention hemp say nothing about the effects of cannabis – until the first century BC, when one text, the Pen Ts’ao Ching, notes that ‘if taken in excess [the fruit of the hemp] will produce hallucinations (literally ‘seeing devils’). If taken over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.’

The use of cannabis as an intoxicant was known in India and Iran 3,000 years ago, and became so widespread in the Middle East that some practitioners warned of the long-term effect of regular usage. Not all listened. In the late 11th century, young men flocked to a charismatic leader named Hasan i-Saban. Marco Polo referred to i-Saban as ‘the old man of the mountain’. According to the Venetian traveller, he gave his followers copious amounts of hashish (literally, ‘grass’ in Arabic). He also supplied them with sensuous women, and – in return – they murdered Hasan’s political rivals. His followers became known as the Hashishiyans, lending their name to today’s assassins.

He ‘was quarrelsome and fought with one of the wooden pillars of the porch until he had little skin upon the knuckles of the fingers’

Importantly, cannabis is not a stimulant. That means it is highly unlikely that cannabis served as the key to the assassins’ success designing and carrying out brilliantly planned and daring strategic operations. The effects of cannabis are more likely to be stupefying. That is why one sultan of Syria in the 14th century ordered that all cannabis plants be uprooted and destroyed, and that those who ate hashish should have their teeth pulled out as a warning about how the mellifluous effects ultimately rendered able-bodied men useless.

In short, cannabis usage was hardly likely to improve performance in battle. Take the case of Thomas Bowery, a 17th-century English merchant sailor. In India, he and his friends bought a pint of ‘Bangha’, a cannabis-infused drink.One ‘sat himself down upon the floor and wept bitterly all afternoon’; another, ‘terrified with fear… put his head in a great jar and continued in that posture for four hours or more’; ‘four or five lay upon the carpets highly complimenting each other in high terms’, while another ‘was quarrelsome and fought with one of the wooden pillars of the porch until he had little skin upon the knuckles of the fingers’.

Such effects of drug use were well known. They did not lend themselves to warfare, in contrast to the exceptional situation of Asterix’s (fictional) little village, and its druid chemist, in northern Gaul.

The world of the Vikings was more cosmopolitan and dangerous. Arabic and medieval Greek accounts make clear the Vikings’ extensive activity and engagement with societies around the Black Sea and the Islamic world between 800-1000 AD. The Viking way combined elements of the street gang with that of the organised crime cartels.

First, the Vikings looked scary: ‘from the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green, with designs and so forth’, wrote a 10th-century Arabic writer. The same writer noted that Scandinavians always carried ‘an axe, a sword and a knife’. They behaved as hardened criminals, never trusting each other and showing no hesitation to steal or kill anyone, even one another. Another Arabic commentary noted that the Vikings ‘never go off alone to relieve themselves, but… with three companions to guard them, sword in hand, for they have little trust in each other.’ These were tough men for tough times.

The Vikings – like later successful conquerors such as the Mongols – revelled in the fear that their very names struck into the hearts of men. Like the Mongols, the Vikings meant to terrify, and this fear gave them an advantage. As modern sportsmen understand, scared and nervous opponents are easier to defeat than confident, strident ones. Also like the Mongols, the Vikings liked to present themselves as invincible, as imminent victors. The self-presentation helped both groups establish great empires. For the Vikings, that meant not only control of the North Sea and the British Isles, and a small North America outpost, but also vast lands to the east. Ambitious Vikings headed south along the Volga, Dnieper and Dniester river systems. There, they made fat profits from trade, protection rackets and human trafficking. In due course, they founded the cities of Kiev, Novgorod and Chernigov. Ultimately, these cities wove together to become important lineaments of the Russian state.

Neither fire nor sword had any effect on them. This was what ‘Berserkergang’ was

Acumen, hustle and fear helped the Vikings acquire their eastern assets and interests, but they also relied on stimulants that made them seem – and feel – invincible. Scandinavian warriors ingested a potent mixture that made them seem superhuman. Old Norse literature talks of men entering a state of altered consciousness that made them go ‘berserk’. The word has entered common usage, and is still used to describe individuals, or groups on the rampage.

The term ‘berserk’, however, simply describes an item of clothing – a bearskin – rather than a specific act or behaviour. Viking men wore bearskins to show off their hunting prowess, to evoke the strength of a bear, and to win the protection of Odin, the Norse God of War. However, when it came to battle, it was not the Viking fashion sense that was important, as the ninth-century Haraldskvæði (literally, ‘The Deeds of Harald’) makes clear. The toughest, most terrifying warriors carried ‘bloody shields’ into battle, while their spears turned ‘red with blood’ as soon as they made contact with the enemy. They formed a closed group, fighting with such ferocious intensity that ‘the prince in his wisdom would put trust in the men who would hack their way through the shields of their opponents’. These men, the most trusted warriors, fought with apparent superhuman strength in battle.

A 13th-century source puts it clearly: ‘men rushed forwards without armour. They were as mad as dogs or wolves, biting their shields as they advanced. They were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people with a single blow. Neither fire nor sword had any effect on them. This was what “Berserkergang” was.’ This was going ‘berserk’.

Scholars used to think that large quantities of alcohol contributed to such astonishing scenes. Perhaps, scholars speculated, a change to the regular fermentation process, or an additional form of hyper-arousal that linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, made possible the Vikings’ ‘berserkergangs’. Eye-witnesses clearly thought that something had elevated these warriors to a trance-like state. They were most likely right. Almost certainly, the superhuman strength and focus was the result of ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms found in Russia, specifically of the amanita muscaria – whose distinctive red cap and white dots often features in Disney movies. They are most familiar, however, as the suburban garden decorations with a gnome sitting on top.

These poisonous fly agaric mushrooms, when parboiled, produce powerful psychoactive effects, including delirium, exhilaration and hallucination. The Vikings learned of the amanita muscaria in their travels along the Russian river systems. Local shamans used diluted amounts in tribal rituals, which were known as early as the time of Herodotus. He talks of the inhabitants living north of the Black Sea as being whipped into a state of euphoria by a smoke ‘that no Greek vapour-bath can surpass’ and being ‘transported’ to another plane as a result, one that induced them to shout manically. The Vikings would have witnessed this, and learnt from it. Here was an almost precise equivalent to the secret of Asterix’s village: a natural ingredient that needed careful preparation by someone with druidic, semi-religious powers. It could kill if not properly prepared, but could give extraordinary powers – or the impression of extraordinary powers – if handled properly.

As new Russian towns and cities flourished, Viking contact with the native peoples in what is now Russia dwindled. Urban life replaced the thuggish, winner-takes-all existence of the past. New elites emerged and were keener to enjoy the fine things in life than to ingest potions prepared by local shamans from the nomad world. Being civilised meant dropping the habits of indigenous peoples in favour of more refined tastes – such as Christianity, law and order, and militias that were ordered and organised, rather than chaotic and euphoric.

Nicknamed ‘Panzer chokolade’, the Nazis handed out pervitin in huge quantities

Of course, the ‘recreational’ drug trade grew into a major component of global exchange in the 19th century, especially when the British shipped opium to China, to the despair of its rulers. It was with the Second World War that narcotics began to play a major role in warfare. German pharmaceutical companies led the way in investigating the effects of synthetic substances and their commercial application – especially with regards to Hitler’s well-funded army, the Wehrmacht.

The Germans were, in particular, interested in pervitin, a substance chemically similar to crystal meth. The pharmaceutical company Temmler in Berlin produced pervitin in industrial quantities, and it was one of the reasons behind the fearsome reputation and success of the German military at the start of the war. The effects of pervitin seemed to confirm theories of the Übermensch – the superman, or superhuman – first developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose theories had been embraced by the Nazi leadership in support of their representation of the German people (or rather, its ‘Aryan’ members) as a master race. Pervitin made frontline soldiers feel like supermen. Nicknamed ‘Panzer chokolade’ (Panzer chocolate), the Nazis handed it out in huge quantities. In the space of three months in 1940 alone, they distributed some 35 million tablets of pervitin and Isophan (a similar product made by a different producer) to German troops. It seemed to be a wonder drug, producing feelings of heightened awareness, focusing concentration and encouraging risk-taking. A powerful stimulant, it also allowed men to function on little sleep.

Recent research by the German author Norman Ohler shows that the effects could be dramatic, especially on the eastern front where bitter cold of up to -30ºC and failing morale caused some men to ‘simply lie down in the snow’. Things changed dramatically when given a dose of pervitin: sprits improved, alertness spiked and confidence grew. By 1944-5, new variants were being produced, such as D-IX, an even more potent blend of cocaine, morphine and pervitin, tested on prisoners held at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and again administered to German troops in large quantities.

It was not just those on the front line whose faculties were boosted by stimulants. So too were those in Berlin, including Hitler himself. The Nazi leader habitually used Eukodal, a substance closely related to heroin. He also received shots of methamphetamine, testosterone and other opiates. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel consumed pervitin so regularly that he called it his ‘daily bread’. And it was not just the Germans who turned to drugs to boost performance: so did the British. General (later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery issued Benzedrine to his troops in North Africa on the eve of the battle of El Alamein – part of a programme that saw 72 million Benzedrine tablets being prescribed to British forces during the Second World War.

Use of drugs to improve military performance continued following the Second World War. Although large parts of the Soviet and US chemical development programmes have remained classified for the post-war period, it is clear that considerable attention has been paid to research into ‘supplements’ that can have a positive effect on members of the military. The US Air Force, for example, has administered dextroamphetamines to its pilots undertaking long missions, to improve their alertness and reduce fatigue. And of the US pilots who took part in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, 65 per cent used stimulants, with just over half reporting that they were either beneficial or essential to operations.

Not all experiences proved positive. Serious side-effects can include confusion and psychosis. Investigations into an exercise at the Tarnak Farms training camp in Afghanistan in April 2002 that left four Canadian servicemen dead and eight wounded as a result of friendly fire revealed that US F-16 pilots had been sanctioned to use Dexedrine. The development by the US Army of chemical stimulants has also not been without consequences: two soldiers died after being issued with Dimethylamine, a performance-enhancing drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

So extensive is the research into better, more focused combat forces that, for more than a decade, the US has supported a biochemical programme whose aims include finding ways to allow servicemen to function better in hostile environments, use less energy, and improve battlefield performance.

The production of stimulants for use by rebel and ISIS forces has soared and, with it, videotaped beheadings, mass executions and indiscriminate slaughter

Given the well-documented, widespread use of narcotics in modern warfare, it is no surprise to find ISIS also supplying soldiers with stimulants. In the fall of 2015, the largest drug bust in Lebanese history took place at Beirut airport when a Saudi prince tried to board a private jet that was about to fly to Ha’il, in northern Saudi Arabia. Two tons of Captagon were recovered – a drug whose use outside the Middle East is negligible, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Originally developed in the 1960s, Captagon was designed to treat narcolepsy and attention-deficit disorder. It was banned in most countries because of its addictive nature. Captagon produces feelings of euphoria, a boost in energy and heightened awareness – as well as surging aggression levels, says Richard Rawson, co-director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Programme at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Reuters report from 2014 demonstrated just how widespread the use of drugs has become in Syria since the start of the civil war, and especially how production of stimulants for use by rebel and ISIS forces has soared. The fact that the levels of violence have risen, too – not only with videotaped beheadings, but also mass executions and indiscriminate slaughter – might not be entirely coincidental.

Most certainly, trying to become superhuman involves playing with fire. Attempting to be stronger, better, more focused and more brutal in conflict situations might be understandable. But as Getafix used to chide the villagers in northern France, performance-enhancing drugs are to be used only on special occasions, and only when all else has failed. Always trying to achieve military supremacy means losing the ability and willingness to negotiate, compromise or rely on (and develop) native wits. As Buddy, the evil genius in the movie The Incredibles puts it: when everyone’s super, no one is. Maybe it’s time to address a challenge more difficult than making temporary supersoldiers: making people better at peace.

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A century ago this weekend, my great-grandfather – a corporal in the Liverpool-recruited King’s Regiment – was waiting to go “over-the-top” at the Somme.

Sent to pick up the company rum ration before the assault, he wound up drinking it and woke up after the action – or at least, that’s the story he told the family after World War One was over.

Perhaps his superiors were in an unusually forgiving mood. Or perhaps, like many others, he was just looking for a way to avoid retelling his experiences. By the end of the first day, the Allies had suffered almost 60,000 casualties for precious little ground. By the time the offensive was canceled later in the year, there were more than 800,000, over half of them fatalities.

With the two world wars increasingly passing from living memory, it’s becoming easier to forget just how much they dominated the lives of almost every family on the continent.

Quietly, though, that is changing. When NATO states meet in Warsaw at the end of the week for the annual heads of government meeting of the alliance, they will be doing so amid the most serious tensions with Moscow since 1989.

Virtually no one, it must be said, thinks that either side is anything other than very keen to avoid a devastating conflict. Europe remains home to more than half the world’s nuclear weapons. No one doubts that should a third major war overwhelm the continent, it would almost certainly be worse than any of those that preceded it.

And yet, a growing number believe, the risk is quietly increasing. In May, retired British General Sir Richard Shirreff – who served as NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander at the time of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 – wrote a book  explicitly suggesting all-out war with Russia could happen as soon as next year.

On the surface, the book is a novel – but Shirreff has underlined in multiple interviews, including with this reporter, that he views it a highly plausible scenario. His former NATO boss, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, underlines the point in a hard-hitting introduction.

In Shirreff’s book, all sides are essentially operating from a position of weakness. His unnamed Russian president – clearly modeled on Vladimir Putin – initiates hostilities with both Ukraine and the NATO member Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to distract from economic woes at home, particularly a falling oil price.

Western leaders, meanwhile, overplay their limited military hand. Politicians on both sides have their eyes as much on their domestic politics as anything else. The result is a chain of errors with potentially devastating consequences.

These real-world tensions have been a long time coming. Even in the 1990s, Russian opinion – both within the military and political elite and wider country – was incensed at what felt like growing Western disdain and encroachment into what Moscow had long seen as its exclusive sphere of influence. Restoring what Russia sees as its self-respect has been at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s rule.

In Crimea in particular, Moscow showed itself adept at what military thinkers increasingly call “hybrid warfare”, using political manipulation and deniable forces – particularly troops without insignia – to achieve effects without resorting to conventional force. It is an area, some Western officials say, where Russia has developed a considerable lead over the West.

The lesson of the last decade, however, has also been that when it does choose to escalate to all-out military action – as it did in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria last year – it tends to do so with much greater force and speed than Western analysts anticipated.

The problem, of course, is that no one really knows what the best way of avoiding conflict is. For Shirreff and many others, particularly in NATO’s more exposed eastern states, the answer is assertive deterrence, putting enough military forces in the region to make any conventional Russian assault difficult.

Much of that is already happening, at least up to a point. The United States has dramatically ramped up its military activity in Europe since 2014, sending tanks, special forces and other personnel to frontline states as well as making high profile deployments of heavy military equipment. That includes the return of U.S. Army tanks to Europe as well as visits by state-of-the-art F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and aging Cold War-era workhorses such as B-52 heavy bombers and A-10 “tank busters”.

Baltic, Nordic and Eastern European nations are ramping up defense spending – albeit several steps behind Moscow, which has poured oil revenue into its military over the last decade with the specific aim of being able to deliver overwhelming force in its very immediate neighborhood. Already, some estimates suggest, Russia has more than enough firepower to swiftly overwhelm local and NATO forces in its immediate neighborhood.

As in Ukraine and Georgia, the most likely flashpoints look to be regions with large ethnic Russian populations – essentially, the border districts of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The governments of those countries have already stepped up development and political efforts in those regions to reduce the risks – but some analysts worry NATO’s activities may end up overly militarizing the situation.

As non-NATO members, neither Ukraine nor Georgia could count on Western military support when they wound up fighting Russia in 2008 and 2014. The Baltic states are a different matter – under NATO’s founding charter, an attack on one is an attack on all.

During the Cold War, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe [SACEUR] – always the senior U.S. officer who also commands all U.S. forces on the continent – had operational control of European NATO forces facing Russia. That is no longer the case, however, meaning many decisions now also require political authorization from member states. It’s the sort of messy situation that would make handling of confrontation much more difficult.

Russia has placed its nuclear arsenal at the center of its strategic approach to this kind of confrontation. According to Western experts, its recent military exercises have relied heavily on what it calls a single “de-escalatory nuclear strike”.

It’s a very simple – but possibly phenomenally dangerous – concept. The theory is that if Russian forces are engaged with an enemy like NATO, once they have won the conventional battle they would launch a single nuclear strike with the aim of intimidating the West into standing down and accepting the results.

In major exercises in 2013 that simulated an invasion of one or more of the Baltic states, the scenario appeared to end with a nuclear strike on Warsaw, NATO officials say. More recently – perhaps worrying that such an approach might make a NATO nuclear response inevitable – Russian exercises have tended to target a single purely military target, for example a NATO flotilla of warships.

A strike like that could kill thousands if not more – and what would happen next is almost impossible to predict. Putin might well hope such an action might fraction NATO, leaving countries hopelessly divided on how to respond. Already, opinion polls suggest German voters in particular would be reluctant to fight to defend NATO allies, while U.S. presidential contender Donald Trump has explicitly questioned the long-term survival and purpose of the alliance.

In the era of social media and 24-hour news, however, it’s equally easy to imagine a furious U.S. electorate demanding a savage retaliation. In the post-Cold War world, after all, the United States has become used to doing what it wishes. Nor, as the UK’s referendum has shown, is European politics currently particularly predictable.

Miscalculation is not inevitable. But it is arguably becoming more likely.

Just over a century ago, shortly before the Somme, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a battalion commander on the Western Front. He found himself in a briefing on the perceived lessons of the Battle of Loos, a bloody and unsuccessful earlier engagement that used the same tactics.

“I wanted to say ‘Don’t do it again,’” he wrote to his wife after. “But they will.”

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