Use of 'depressants' in warfare?

Given the large number of people who are on Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and other forms of anti-depressants, it makes me wonder if there is an application for the ‘reverse’ of this in warfare, and if it has ever been tried before, or if it even violates the Geneva Convention on chemical warfare.

So imagine this: the US is going to war with country X, and in advance of that, planes disperse a potent serotonin re-uptake drug that gets in the local water and food supply. Otherwise capable soldiers of country X that would have fought to the death for national pride, or whatever reason, and would have caused large casualties to US troops suddenly become bummed out, can’t concentrate, miss their families, and basically give up the will to fight. When the US invades, they surrender or desert in droves. Presumably this is reversible with time or an ‘SSRI antidote’, but saves casualties on both sides without the horror of war.

Yes, I realize this is an over-simplification, and surely some enemy combatants would not react to the drug and still fight, or have a high sensitivity and become so bummed out that they kill themselves. And obviously deserters may be shot, but in the grand scheme of things, this could save thousands of live and unlike traditional chemical warfare, the idea is to make this totally reversible when the conflict ends. Has this ever been done or might it even be possible?

Yes, that would obviously be against the Geneva Conventions and other laws prohibiting chemical warfare. How could it not be?

Expert Meeting; Incapacitating Chemical Agents Implications for International Law - run by the International Committee for the Red Cross in 2010

Take a look at Session 4 to see the International Law of War assessment. A lot of it falls under customary prohibitions which are squishier since they aren’t actually written down. They seem to also fall afoul of the Chemical Weapons Convention that defines Toxic Chemicals to include chemicals that produce “temporary incapacitation.” That argues against the possible.

It’s not like similar ideas haven’t been considered before, including testing of LSD for battlefield use. Issues with effectiveness generally put an end to the efforts in the US and UK. Wiki link to psychochemical warfare for a brief look.

Law of War and typical understanding of it can diverge greatly. It’s not obviously against any of the Geneva Conventions although the ICRC meeting discussed applying general principles from the 1925 Convention that I didn’t mention in my last post. Even the more clear reference in the CWC isn’t entirely clear. There’s no specific reference or definition of Incapacitating Chemical Agents (ICA) or attempt to define temporary incapacitation. There’s just that two-word reference to temporary incapacitation.

A quote from the ICRC meeting report that goes quite a way towards answering your question even if it was intended to be rhetorical:

There’s a long history of people using drugs both to incapacitate the enemy and to improve the performance of their soldiers. The LSD example was mentioned above. Another good example might be the time the Russians pumped anesthetic gas into a theater and killed a bunch of people in a semi-successful hostage rescue. These kinds of ideas have never really worked out.

The biggest single problem would be the dosage. You’d have to gain access to the target water supply, dump enough chemical into the water to create the desired effect, while simultaneously being diluted enough to avoid detection. And because these mood-altering drugs can take weeks to achieve the desired effect, you would have to keep dumping the chemical into the water day after day. That’s a very contrived situation, and I don’t know how you might accomplish that. It seems like a very inefficient way to go about things.

The second problem would be that these drugs don’t actually incapacitate anyone. Merely being “depressed” in a psychiatric sense can make a person less functional or less motivated in general, but it’s unlikely to make a person literally give up. I’m not even sure what drug you would use for that. Deliberately inducing depression in an otherwise healthy patient isn’t exactly a popular subject for clinical research. What we call “depressants” are sedatives and tranquilizers that act on the nervous system. They don’t actually induce a feeling of sadness.

The third problem is that you are describing the plot of “Serenity” and we all know how that turned out.

Another problem is that SSRIs take weeks to have any effect whatsoever, and I can’t imagine why a drug which is the mirror opposite would work any more quickly.

The biggest problem is that it’s too expensive and can fail in too many ways compared to the normal weapons of war.

Yes, dosage is definitely an issue, and I suggested that in my post. I’m not sure I see a depressant as being ‘incapacitating’ per the Geneva Convention. After all, I don’t want the ‘bad guys’ to pass out or die. I just want them to feel great sadness and hopelessness when it comes to fighting so they give up without having to be shot. And when ‘borderline’ soldiers who might otherwise still fight (due to lack of sensitivity to the drug, wrong dosage, etc.) see their comrades running away or giving up, it makes them motivated to do the same.

I assumed the drug dissemination would take place weeks before the invasion over an extended period, so time for it to build up in the system of the soldiers would be allowed and the enemy would be fed a constant stream of “don’t fight or you’ll die and lose everything you care about” propaganda to help reinforce their artificial depression. Cost, detection/counter measures by the enemy, etc. are all reasonable considerations. Historically, however, it seems wars cost billions/trillions of dollars to fight, so a few hundred million spent upfront to lessen the future costs of a prolonged war seem well worth it to me…

That’s a Chemical Weapons Convention argument not one of the Geneva Conventions.
It’s relevant because the vagueness applies to an agreement that currently limits potential adversaries from using even nastier weapons. They may have a different interpretation than you and consider your new weapon in the same class as lethal chemical weapons. One way to respond to your threat is to withdraw from the CWC and start cranking out lethal agents. That’s generally a bad thing to incentivize.

Is there even such a thing as a “depressant” in terms of what the OP says? I am sure there are drugs that list “depression” as a side effect, but AFAIK there is nothing that will reliably produce it, let alone do it soon enough (with a small enough dose) to be a chemical weapon.

How the heck would you calibrate the dosage?

You’d have to somehow broadly disseminate enormous quantities of a drug, widely enough and thoroughly enough that pretty much the entire military of the country accumulates a high enough dosage that they become so depressed that they don’t bother to fight when their country is invaded. These would, by the way, pretty much by definition, be mostly young adults, and among the fittest and healthiest individuals in the entire country.

Meanwhile, this dosage would have to somehow not cause severe adverse reactions in the entire rest of the population, including children, infants, the elderly, and the sick. And, by the way, psychotropic drugs often have wildly different effects in adolescents than they do in adults. And we have little idea of what effects most psychotropics have in young children, since that’s so hard to ethically study.

SSRIs are directly administered by medical professionals, in very precise doses, under carefully controlled conditions. Even then, it’s impossible to precisely predict how any given individual will react to any given dose. Some SSRIs will simply have no clinical effect on some individuals. Other SSRI regimes will produce clinically relevant results in some individuals only with careful monitoring and constant tweaking of dosages, along with monitoring of diet, exercise, and so forth.

JB99 references the use of anesthetic gas during a hostage rescue operation, the Moscow theater hostage siege of 2002, as “semi-successful”. In fact, some 200 of the 805 hostages were killed by the “non-lethal” incapacitating agent used.

Even putting aside how you would physically manage to covertly disseminate clinically relevant dosages of a psychotropic to an entire country’s population, the fact is that in the real world, there’s simply no way to calibrate the dosages everyone would receive. Some people would almost certainly receive several times the raw dosage as others; the difference could easily be one or more orders of magnitude. And people vary wildly in weight, metabolism, overall health, usage of other drugs which might interact with your chosen agent, and reaction to the agent itself.

JB99 also references Serenity. Frankly, that’s probably a fairly realistic outcome of such a scheme. Ok, you probably wouldn’t tranquilize 99% of the population to the point that they don’t even bother to breathe while turning 1% into cinematic serial killer mutant cannibals. But you would almost certainly kill a lot of people with overdoses and leave a lot of others with severe and probably irreparable psychological damage. What the Serenity scenario doesn’t include that the real world would would be a lot of people who, due to some combination of natural resistance and receiving a smaller dosage than average, would remain highly functional, would know something was going very wrong, and would be highly motivated to find out what that was and who was responsible. And take retaliatory action. Probably not face-eating, but still…

I never thought psychotic space cannibals would eat my face! Sobs man who delivered drug that creates psychotic space cannibals.


Another point to consider. Even if there was a drug that worked as described it doesn’t mean that soldiers can just give up and go home. There would be a concerted effort to ‘motivate’ the depressed soldiers. Up to and including mass executions for desertion. And even chemically depressed soldiers would rather fight than be killed on the spot.

As someone who has taken antidepressants and knows many people who have or do takes them, my WAG is that such a drug is simple impossible.

Antidepressants are not some magical drug that takes severely depressed individuals and instantly makes them super happy.

In the vast cases I’ve seen, experienced myself or read about, they provide somewhat of a boost, when they do in fact work. Reading the forums for my particular disorder, some people get some help from one drug, but that drug does nothing for others. It doesn’t matter which one is discussed, there aren’t any universal drugs.

Likewise, I’ve never heard of cases where someone so depressed that they can’t get out of bed gets better so quickly by simply taking a drug. Usually antidepressants help people get a little better, and then they are able to take enough actions or go to therapy and the combination works over a much longer time frame.

Such a drug would have to be researched, and since there isn’t a medical use for it, this would require a government developing it for evil purposes.

The amount of meditation required would be staggering. Getting something into a food supply is damn near impossible for meditation, it would require getting into the water supply.

Unless you were attacking one small city-state with one supply, it’s impossible to do this stealthily. Even if it were a city-state, it would require too much meditation in the water to allow a sufficient dosage. You could never do it.

Along with all of the other issues, it’s logically impossible to deliver the drug weeks before the start of the invasion, because as soon as you start delivering the drug, the invasion has started. You can’t just say “OK, you guys, we’re going to invade you, but we haven’t officially started yet, so you’re not allowed to fight back against the attacks we’re making right now”.