Child soldiers, “brown-brown”, and intensity in combat

As the association of the word “assassin” with both the Ismaili sect of Islam and the word “hashishin” suggests, intoxicants and religion are not necessarily foreign to one another… nor to violence… even though our “disciplined” minds might tend to sort such things separately.

With that in mind, I am permitting myself to stray a little farther that usual in this post…


I was intrigued to take a look at Paul Kan’s Drug Intoxicated Irregular Fighters: Complications, Dangers and Responses today. It’s an important and easily overlooked issue he’s raising, but I want to zero in on one point.

In his paper, Kan mentions “white powder” in connection with a child soldier’s statement on p.13:

Before battles, I was given white powder which was mixed with rice. It made me brave; it made me think I could do anything.

Kan doesn’t mention what the white powder was at that point, but he’d earlier mentioned the use of “brown-brown” on p.9 in connection with RUF forces in Sierra Leone — simply noting in parenthesis “(heroin)”.

I don’t believe “brown-brown” does in fact refer to heroin. In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law Hearing on “Casualties of War: Child Soldiers and the Law,” April 24, 2007, Ishmael Beah, the author of “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier”, stated:

Our commanders gave us drugs – marijuana, cocaine, and Brown Brown: a concoction of cocaine and gunpowder — before battles to anaesthetize us to what we had to do.

In an interview with UN Radio, Beah told Derrick Mbatha:

You mix cocaine with gun powder. When you sniff it at first it hurts inside of our nose but as time goes on you get used to it. But the potency is greater than just cocaine itself. And these things altogether numb you to everything. You have no have no sympathy. You actually begin to enjoy what was happening once you are in.

That’s a discrepancy worth clearing up.

[It is perhaps worth noting here that the RUF which Kan mentions in connection with brown-brown are the very forces which had killed Beah’s parents and against which he himself was fighting.]


That said, I welcome Kan’s paper, believing that intensity in mind-and-heart is a key element in the understanding of conflict — and hence of conflict-resolution.

I am, however, left wondering whether the “greater potency” which Beah claims for cocaine mixed with gunpowder is pharmacological in nature, or primarily the result of magical thinking — such that the ingestion of gunpowder confers “explosive” power in the same way that in some cultures, eating the flesh of a brave enemy (or ancestor) imbues a warrior with their courage.

We are close to the issues of ritual and sacrament here, and the territories of the cultural anthropologist and depth psychologist, as well as the student of comparative religion.

And paradoxical though it might seem, I take “you have no sympathy” to be a deeply religious statement.

A tip of the hat to Zenpundit, whose blogpost Addicted to War: Armed to the Teeth and High as a Kite alerted me to Kan’s paper.


2 Responses to “Child soldiers, “brown-brown”, and intensity in combat”

  1. Inua Says:

    interesting post,

    but I do not think the magic thinking, the placebo effect is no less effective is getting the expected results..

  2. JCM Says:

    Gun powder contains nitroglycerin which is given to people with advanced heart disease to thin the blood to prevent clogged arteries. Mixed with cocaine it moves more freely through the body intensifying the effect.

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