Steroids in the armed forces: not necessarily a completely terrible idea?

November 26, 2010

Most of us can agree that using banned substances to improve athletic performance is bad. The general principles seem to be that (A) athletes should be discouraged from using dangerous drugs, (B) people prefer a “level playing field,” and (C) we should be wary of innovations that significantly change how a sport is played, what strategies are used, etc. because those may render the sport less appealing or (in an extreme case) unrecognizable.

But what about using banned substances to improve military performance? This is a question raised by the November 19th news article “Steroid use on the rise in the army” (Seattle Times). In thinking about this, I tried to apply principles A-C above and was interested to see where they led me.

Regarding health risks (A), drugs can be dangerous for warriors just as they are for athletes. However, it is possible that, by using drugs like steroids to improve combat performance, a soldier might increase his/her chance of survival. So we can’t say unequivocally that the net effect of drug use on the health of military personnel will always be negative.

Regarding a level playing field (B), U.S. military expenditures indicate very little interest in giving our enemies a “fair chance.” There are some lines that should not be crossed — torturing of enemy combatants, wanton killing of civilians, use of biological and chemical weapons — but “juicing our guys to make them stronger and faster” does not seem like a particularly inhumane tactic in the context of war.

(C) is mostly an aesthetic consideration — what makes a sport interesting and beautiful, and if we allow players to use substance X, does that change the fundamental nature of the game in a bad way? Like (B), this seems largely irrelevant to the task of winning wars. Although there are aesthetic aspects of the goal of “winning hearts and minds,” I doubt that an invaded country’s acceptance of us will hinge upon whether our soldiers are steroid-free.

My attempt to apply sports-based reasoning to a military context thus leads me to the tentative conclusion that performance-enhancing substances are not necessarily inexcusable in our armed forces. This is in contrast to the U.S. Army’s official position, as stated by vice chief of staff Peter Chiarelli: “The use of steroids is a short-term gain for long-term problems that individuals are going to have, and we cannot tolerate them in any way, shape or form.”

Having expertise in neither ethics nor military operations, I’m not ready to claim that the Army’s policy is misguided. What I can say, though, is that the usual arguments against drug use in sports (A-C above) do not themselves offer a strong case against drug use in the military.

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