From 2003 to 2008, when he wasn’t working or fighting in war zones, Ben Timberlake would return to a houseboat on the Thames. Not far from west London’s iconic River Cafe restaurant, Timberlake’s boat became the meeting place of an unofficial MDMA-fuelled therapy group. Dozens of soldiers on their way back from Iraq or Afghanistan would drop in and spend the day getting high with chefs, waitresses, documentary makers and anyone else who happened to be around and at a loose end.
“We had a rule that we had to do our wraps by 9AM - certainly before noon,” says Timberlake today, in his office on nearby Portobello Road, in Notting Hill. The timing was partly to do with enjoying the sun, but it was also that, once the drugs kicked in, the military men would start telling stories, some of which “were of such nerve-shredding evil” that the other guests were left traumatised. “A friend once told a horrific story about dealing with a colleague’s vehicle, which had been hit with an EFP charge,” says Timberlake, referring to an explosively formed penetrator – a device that became known as a “superbomb”, and did serious damage in Iraq and elsewhere. “EFP charges are fucking weird: it’s a ball of copper plasma that cuts through anything and cooks what’s inside.” Timberlake didn’t want these kinds of stories to come out at night. “We worked out that if we took the MDMA in the morning, people told the stories a lot better,” he says. Everyone involved would pool their money so they’d have an “ample supply of wraps. Drugs were dumped in bowls and everyone could help themselves. We were completely fucked.”
A British special forces veteran who had been embedded with US soldiers fighting to retake the city of Ramadi from al-Qaeda in Iraq, Timberlake, now 47, used to think the dark stories of conflict told on the boat were “ruining my buzz” – after all, he wasn’t there to relive what he and his comrades had been through. But he came to understand how cathartic it was.
“The whole thing about PTSD is it’s a cluster of horrible symptoms that revolve around a traumatic episode – or episodes. Any little reminder can produce a full blown flight or fight response,” he says. “MDMA puts an amazing wedge in there. There’s no threat in the world when you’re on vast amounts of MDMA, so you can revisit this stuff and you can talk about it.” Soldiers traumatised by what they had witnessed at war – and often badly let down by the governments that had sent them there – were finding some relief on the houseboat. This chimes with recent scientific research: MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD is now going mainstream, and could be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the end of 2023. Drugs – both in and out of combat - form a key part of Timberlake’s newly published memoir, High Risk, which tells the story of a life spent pursuing extremes. One night in Ramadi, for example, on Christmas Eve of 2006, Timberlake dished out some Es he’d brought with him to some American soldiers, all of whom had been either weeping or despondent because of the hellish situation they had found themselves in. The ecstasy did the job, and soon enough everyone was up on the roof, chewing and rushing, before littering the abandoned buildings around them with gunfire. They ended the night hugging and wishing each other a happy Christmas, while an American soldier called Bear sang “Silent Night”.
While publisher after publisher wanted him to tell an Andy McNab style story of hard men at war, Timberlake went his own way, writing a book that is as profound as it is eye-popping. He still works in conflict zones as a security consultant and medic, and has an on-the-ground view of 21st century western military intervention in the Middle East – which he labels a “fucking disaster from start to finish” – and the diffuse role drugs have played in modern warfare. Growing up in London, the son of an American journalist, Timberlake went to the Yugoslav war aged 18, where he was almost executed in a bar by a leader of the HVO, a Croat paramilitary full of Nazis. Having shot dead the man standing next to Timberlake, the Croat decided instead to get the young Brit drunk and spend the night singing “Don’t worry, be happy” with him. The extraordinary rush of adrenaline caused by his near death experience left its mark on Timberlake, and after graduating from university and taking on a number of different jobs, he went to Iraq at the beginning of the war there, pursuing the story of a British army reservist alleged to have killed a number of Iraqi civilians. Inspired by the skillset of British special forces fighters, he took the Special Air Service (SAS) selection in his late twenties and, against all his expectations, passed.
Back in Ramadi, Timberlake saw the way in which drugs are used in combat as a fuel to keep military personnel working. “With the American soldiers, there was Provigil, Adderall and all these quite Gucci stimulants – medical-grade uppers that the US military medics dished out like candy. The Brits made do with Pro Plus,” he says. “There were always bins of Jolt Cola, things to keep people wired. The Americans work nuts hours – the smell of every ops room is the smell of coffee that’s been reduced to nail polish to keep everyone going. What I don’t know is whether we will start seeing court cases from former soldiers – because I would imagine that if you were witnessing a traumatic incident and you were on a stimulant, you would be more likely to suffer from PTSD.” The poorly equipped British forces were not, Timberlake says, being fed a constant stream of speed. After all, “People were swapping porn mags for ammunition with the Americans.” What the British did have, at senior officer level, was a form of delusional imperial arrogance. While the American soldiers were initially wide-eyed, having never seen anything like Iraq, Timberlake believes they later evolved into an effective counter insurgency force. However, while British soldiers were “incredibly cool and reserved on the street” from the start, the higher up the ranks you went, the more they thought they were “returning” to play the role of colonial benefactor.
“You had this weird fucking arrogance, like, ‘They fucking love us, we were here before.’ That’s something you would hear again and again. Who’s ‘we’, you dickhead?” The other drug in Iraq was steroids, which “tended to be in the bigger bases and among the private military crowd, who just wanted to pump iron and look the part”. Steroids don’t help you fight, they “just make you incredibly fucking aggressive when you shouldn’t be”, says Timberlake. “A lot of the time, when someone would riddle an Iraqi family’s car with bullets, there would be steroids in the background.” From Viking berserkers on mushrooms to the Wehrmacht on speed, drugs have always been part of war. At the heart of Timberlake’s book is the idea of “post-traumatic growth” – that having gone through extreme experiences, people can recover and then grow, finding new reserves of strength and stability following extraordinary trauma. It seems to have driven his quest to propel himself into situations most avoid; there is much more in High Risk besides the war stories. Inspired by a fellow SAS soldier, whose father was a “committed junkie with a three-decade habit”, Timberlake decides to deliberately get himself hooked on heroin, “to touch the bottom of the abyss”. Despite telling me he found heroin “a bit boring”, Timberlake still took off to a Middle Eastern country (which he prefers not to name) in order to kick the habit. Once he got there, he ended up smoking a lot of crystal meth and was almost killed by the religious police for selling porn. Today, Timberlake divides his time between Cornwall and London, and still spends significant periods working in the Middle East. For the soldiers on his houseboat, and for Timberlake himself, there was the possibility of redemption through drugs, of pushing into and then away, from the horrors of warfare. ‘High Risk: A True Story of the SAS, Drugs and Other Bad Behaviour’, by Ben Timberlake, is available now (Hurst, £16.99).