Fantasies about super-warriors are as old as the civilizations that first went to war against each other. Modern versions of these military “action figures” have often been imagined as soldiers who have been transformed by performance-enhancing drugs. Fascination with their elite status translates easily into fantasies about their special access to powerful drugs. Imagining the drug-enhanced warrior includes an element of wish-fulfillment, as well. The myth of the Nazi steroid that many still believe boosted the fighting abilities of Wehrmacht and SS troops is the most common example of this sort of pharmacological magical thinking.i It is an historical fact that commanders of modern armies and air forces have used amphetamine to energize soldiers and military pilots, but there is no evidence that military authorities have used anabolic steroids for this purpose. While many soldiers have used steroids for combat-related (as well as cosmetic) purposes, they have done so without official authorization from their commanding officers.
The Special Operations Forces (SOF) include the Navy SEALS, the Army Rangers, and the Army’s Delta Force. Most of the comments that appear in online chat-rooms and forums concern the Navy SEALS, whose image as the toughest and the hardiest of the elite forces has inspired many fantasies about their extraordinary fitness and competence and how they were achieved.
The romanticizing of Special Forces troops has become a staple of popular culture in films such as “Captain Phillips” (2013), where Navy SEAL snipers rescue an American ship captain from his Somali captors, and “Lone Survivor” (2013), in which four SEALS carry out a heroic but doomed counterinsurgency mission in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The Special Operations Forces call these men “Warrior Athletes” who possess an aura of invincibility that leaves mere athleticism far behind: “The demands imposed by Special Operations Forces (SOF) training and missions are unlike any athletic endeavor. Success requires the mustering of all strength and endurance – both physical and mental. SOF are ‘Warrior Athletes,’ the ultimate athletes, at the top of the athletic pyramid.” And how will these men become super-soldiers? There is no mention of anabolic steroids or any other drugs. On the contrary, the anticlimactic announcement that follows the extolling of these “Warrior Athletes” is that this athletic superiority is built upon, not performance-enhancing substances, but “good nutrition.”ii
There is no published research on how Special Forces (SF) soldiers think about or consume anabolic steroids. We may assume that some have chosen to use these drugs in the field. (A NATO soldier who served in Afghanistan in 2003 told me about training with steroid-boosted American SF troops with impressive rope-climbing abilities but who lacked endurance when it came to long treks through the rugged Afghan landscape. Four Australian special forces soldiers were removed from Afghanistan in 2010 after being caught with or testing positive for steroids.iii) We do not see remarks about steroid use from self-identified SF personnel in online military chat-rooms. What we do see in these online forums are speculations by outsiders about what elite SF soldiers are like, whether they use steroids, and whether or not this is an appropriate practice.
The fantasy that super-soldiers must be pharmacologically enhanced can encourage some to claim possession of secret knowledge to which civilians do not have access. In one chat-room we read: “Steroids in the military – particularly in these special corps – is often shrouded in secrecy and mystery, simply because the general public sees steroid users in a particular light.” This writer sees steroids as a form of “instrumental pharmacology” and quotes an anonymous “retired SEAL candidate” as follows: “If people only knew how much was required of someone in a tactical military group like the Seals, they’d understand that AS use is crucial to the health of our military’s select units, simply because there would be far fewer men there to protect our country without them.”iv Translation: While ignorant civilians regard steroids as tawdry, the military men who live the hard realities of combat feel bound to conceal their knowledge that these drugs are essential to their survival and, therefore, to the national security of the United States.
The constant focus of speculation about Navy SEALS is the question of how muscular they should be to operate with maximum effectiveness. This preoccupation with optimal muscle mass inevitably raises the related question of whether steroids promote their survival in combat conditions. The popular association of extreme muscularity with strength and intimidation encourages most people to imagine the super-warrior has a hyper-muscular body type. This is the body type one online commentator encountered around the beginning of the Iraq war: “All of the Navy Seal units that I saw in Kuwait in 2003 were eating in the chow hall with everyone one else. They had the muscularity size of those professional wrestlers you see on TV.”v It may be this observer had his own idea of what constitutes bulging muscles, or that he happened upon some of the most muscular men who had managed to survive the famously punishing ordeal of SEAL training.
A fighting force composed of SEAL or Ranger or Delta Force commandos who looked like bodybuilders would indicate widespread use of anabolic steroids by military men who were either breaking the law to obtain legally controlled substances, or who were getting male hormone treatments from government doctors. What the evidence suggests, however, is that most special forces men are not hyper-muscular and that it is a disadvantage in the field to carry extra muscle mass. “You think SEALs look like Rambo?” a journal asked in 2010. “They don’t – think more along the lines of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. The average size of a SEAL is probably 5ft.-10, 175 pounds.”vi
This assessment recurs in online chat-room commentaries. “Steroid stallions were in style in the late 80’s and early 90’s,” a former soldier writes at professionalsoldiers.com in 2010. “I don’t remember seeing a single one make it through either Ranger school or SFAS.”vii “One common misconception about special forces (probably due to unrealistic movies),” someone writes in 2004, “is that most recruits are jacked up, huge, and ripped. Its just the opposite. Most of them are extremely thin, very lean, quick and mobile. I don’t see how there is going to be any AAS that is going to allow you to maintain muscle mass when consuming very little food, running all day, and not sleeping.”viii Another commentator in this thread adds: “Big guys always struggle more than little guys. You see a few fit big guys around but generally the fittest are normal to small. One thing that struck me about the US Marines that were attached to our unit in Basra was how big they all were and how unfit they were in a running sense.”ix “Overall,” says another, “I don’t see the benefits of steroids making any major significant contribution to passing any military special operations selection courses from SEALs to Delta selection. Really, the most significant aspect as already mentioned is a mental toughness and physical toughness. The mental strength being more important of the two. The ability to “endure” is going to be the significant aspect that makes or breaks.”x And again: “all the SEALs I have known, with one notable exception, were typically 6′ or under and trim but wiry as hell. It is a mental focus that gets you thru the training. Bulking up with muscles will work against you as you will require more oxygen and calories than the “skinny” guy who is still on his feet. You’re better off, in my opinion, investing in some mental focus training than in steroids if your goal is to get thru SEAL training.”xi
Chat-room comments from 2009 convey the same message about body-type and the primacy of mental toughness. One self-identified former soldier who went through an extreme training regimen says: “… ain’t too many muscle bound fellas in special forces…they’re just fit as a fiddle.” Another man who has apparently been through a similar training course says: “I have seen many great physical specimens cry like little babies with the mental stress you are going to be under. You don’t need any extra hormones messing with your psyche.”xii And it is mental toughness that is mentioned over and over again. “It’s all mental. They want people that know how to dig deep to take their bodies farther than they knew they could…. They want guys that will never give up. “xiii
Speculation about the pharmacological enhancement of Special Forces operatives belongs to a tradition of fantasizing about extraordinary techniques for producing super-soldiers that has become entrenched in popular cultural forms such as films and comic books. For example, a Marvel Masterpieces ad for its “CAPTAIN AMERICA” reads as follows:
“In the darkest days of World War II, when a secret super-soldier serum transformed 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers into a physically perfect specimen of humanity, a legend was born – Captain America! As the living symbol of his country and the principles it represents, he fought valiantly to help the United States and its allies win that long-ago war . . . but his personal war continues to this day. For as long as tyranny and evil exist, Captain America will never pause in his quest to bring liberty and justice to all!”
The entertainment industry has played a major role in making anabolic steroid use – real or imagined – an integral part of the modern masculine ideal. The “muscling up” of actors playing superheroes in action films such as “Conan the Barbarian,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Thor” “is driven by comic book aesthetics” that will make many moviegoers “wonder whether actors use steroids to build their bodies.” The military-steroid connection is exemplified by the fact that a former Navy SEAL was hired to pack muscle onto the Spartan army in the film “300.” In “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), “dozens of tiny needles inject the serum into Rogers’ major muscle groups, and then he enters a pod where “vita rays” stimulate his growth. On paper and on screen, the result is the same: Rogers emerges as a picture of physical perfection, a gleaming, rippling, flag-wearing, Nazi-killing machine.”xiv Within the fantasy world of comic-book hard-muscled masculinity, the pharmacological production of the warrior-savior is celebrated as a requirement of national security. Steroids are integrated into the image of the American military despite its ban on the use of these drugs. A 2011 casting call for the television series “Wonder Woman” was reported to have been looking for “super-buff, worked-out, bodybuilder-type guys to play soldiers that appear to be on steroids.”xv In summary, there is nothing the military can do to prevent popular entertainment from promoting the image of the steroid-boosted fighting man whose special powers make him emblematic of the Special Forces soldier.
Steroids in the military – particularly in these special corps – is often shrouded in secrecy and mystery, simply because the general public sees steroid users in a particular light. Most see them as unemployed bodybuilders, deadbeats, or degenerates. Fact is, this condemnation and judgment of steroid users as deviants is ill-conceived. Some would suggest that these drugs are instrumental to the job, so could be regarded as “instrumental pharmacology”.
One retired Navy SEAL candidate was quoted anonymously as saying, “If people only knew how much was required of someone in a tactical military group like the Seals, they’d understand that AS use is crucial to the health of our military’s select units, simply because there would be far fewer men there to protect our country without them.”
The truth is, when AS is used for physical reasons only, and is used as a support, not an means to an end for aggression or feeling overly powerful, the use seems much more justified. To derive benefits of increased strength, faster metabolic rate, increased protein uptake, a general sense of well-being, and faster recuperative powers is not ill-founded for someone with an arduous physical job, and one so important as in our military’s Special Forces.
“Just wait till someone figures out how many folks in the military are on steroids.”xvi
- Marcel Reinold and John Hoberman, “The Myth of the Nazi Steroid,” The International Journal of the History of Sport (2014): 1-13.
- Patricia A. Deuster et al., “The Special Operations Forces Nutrition Guide” (n.d.).
- “Steroid-abusing Australian soldiers sent home in disgrace,” Sydney Morning Herald (June 8, 2010). [http://www.smh.com.au/world/steroidabusing-australian-soldiers-sent-home-in-disgrace-20100607-xquy.html]
In 2004 eight SEAL’s tested positive for “illegal drug use.” This report did not identify the drugs involved. See “U.S. being forced to transfer some units,” San Diego Union-Tribune (June 19, 2004).
- “A question of Navy Seals nutrition”. [http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/archive/index.php/t-108326.html]
- Chris Jansing, “A typical SEAL? Think 007, not Rambo, NBC NEWS (January 29, 2010). [http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2010/01/29/4377165-a-typical-seal-think-007-not-rambo]
- “Steroids” (February 18, 2010). [http://www.professionalsoldiers.com/forums/showthread.php?t=27708]
- “Muscle summer – the men of ‘Captain America,’ ‘Thor’ and ‘Conan’,” Hero Complex (May 28, 2011). [http://herocomplex.latimes.com/movies/muscle-summer-the-men-of-captain-america-thor-and-conan/]
- Patrick Hruby, “Big Hollywood: Steroids find their role in entertainment industry,” The Washington Times (August 24, 2011). [http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/aug/24/peds-find-their-role-in-hollywood/?page=all]