One of many elements that set the Vietnam War apart from other wars up until that point was drug use, which was rampant among soldiers. Marijuana was grown all over Vietnam, and many soldiers had their first experiences smoking it overseas. It helped them mellow out, it helped them continue fighting. It took their mind off what the war was about and helped if they didn'tt necessarily believe in the cause for which they fought. In The Things They Carried, drug use is treated matter of factly: it is another not-too-wonderful strategy for trying not to see what is going on around the users. Some soldiers have religion, others have girlfriends waiting for them at home, others have dope.
Although smoking marijuana -- the drug of choice among soldiers -- was a punishable offense under army rules, many soldiers still indulged. Precise statistics are not available, but army records suggest that marijuana use at the time was much more widespread in Vietnam itself than it was in the United States. After outraged, sympathetic and bemused newspaper reports drew international interest to the issue, the southern Vietnamese government took steps to make marijuana harder to obtain in 1968. The problem was soon overshadowed, though, by the rise of heroin as a popular drug among soldiers. (From The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien)
The passage below is an abbreviated excerpt from the book, "The Adventures of Space and Hobo"
It was in Vietnam that I became heavily involved in drugs—everything from pot and LSD to heroin. As I mentioned earlier, I had a real spiritual awakening while in Vietnam. Before arriving in Vietnam I had only tried drugs a few times. I had smoked hashish a couple of times and had dropped LSD once. The first time I took LSD, I fell in love with it. Within the first day of arriving in Vietnam I began to smoke marijuana regularly and took LSD periodically. It wasn’t always available as much as the other drugs were. Some of my friends were beginning to snort heroin, but I held off for quite a while from doing that.
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Heroin was just beginning to come into play amongst us, and my bunkmate,Frank. was one of the first ones to get addicted to it. Heroin was so much cheaper and easier to use without being detected that many people you’d never suspect began using it. It was reported that about 15% of all G.I.’s in Vietnam from 1970-1971 were using heroin. This was the time period I was there.
Frank tried to get me to use heroin on many occasions, but I steadfastly resisted. I remember years earlier, reading David Wilkerson’s book The Cross and the Switchblade. After reading about the junkies he wrote about, I thought to myself that I would never do that. I enjoyed smoking pot and even dropping acid on occasion, but heroin or “skag” as we were calling it, wasn’t something on my to do list.
It was after one of my friends, Larry, had come back from a drug rehab program from using heroin that I actually began to use it. He would have me hold his stuff for him so that he wouldn’t be using it that much. It was during this time that I would take a snort every once in a while. This went on for a couple of weeks.
I was eventually discharged from the Army because of my drug involvement and other activities. Before being discharged I had to go through a number of reabiliation assignments and discovered that the new friends I was meeting were smoking heroin rather than pot. As a result I began to once again use it, knowing my time was short, so I probably wouldn’t get too addicted. The heroin we were using in Nam was almost 100% pure heroin, which meant we could get high just by smoking it in cigarettes. Those who snorted it became addicted much quicker than those of us who were simply smoking it. Only the hardcore junkies were using needles.