A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Dogs of War

We call them heroes, but at what point does it become exploitation?

By Michael Mountain

The dogs who went to work in the devastation of the World Trade Center didn’t “volunteer” for the job in the normal sense of the word. Nor did they know they’d be inhaling dangerous toxic fumes. But they went anyway.

That’s part of the relationship that’s existed between our two species for thousands of years. We go into harm’s way together and we look out for each other. It’s part of a deep unconditional trust that’s at the core of the relationship.

But where do we draw the line between trust and exploitation, especially when we involve dogs and other animals in our very human wars?

In the 1970s, when I lived in New York with McMuffin, a white German shepherd, we would saunter into Central Park every night, completely unconcerned about the fact that nobody in their right mind ever ventured into Central Park alone at night in those days of high crime. With my best buddy at my side, I felt entirely safe – just as he felt around me.

For the soldiers – and for the animals they work with – trust is the lifeblood of their work.

McMuffin was never trained in search-and-rescue. But I’ve sometimes wondered what it would have been like if this had been 25 years later and we’d been called to help at Ground Zero in the days following 9/11. While I’d have done my best to protect him, I don’t think I’d have hesitated to take him into harm’s way there. Would the toxic fumes and particles have given me pause? Yes. Would they have stopped me? No.

This, of course, is never even a question for the people who already live by the motto “to serve and protect.” They know, too, that it’s also the instinctive life-purpose of the dogs they work with.

For the soldiers – and for the animals they work with – who put their own lives in harm’s way in service of country, community and family, trust is the lifeblood of their work. On the field of battle, they’re not fighting for the policies and purposes of their faraway government as much as they are to support and protect each other. It’s a deep, instinctive bond that goes way beyond the call of duty, that leads to inexplicable acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, and that also extends to the dogs they work with.

Earlier this year, when we heard that brave Navy SEALS had choppered into Osama bin Laden’s backyard and taken out the notorious terrorist, we also learned that a German shepherd, kitted out with an infrared camera on his head and weapon-style titanium teeth in his mouth, was part of the team. The dog, unnamed for security reasons, was honored at private ceremonies on his return.

Just two months later, we learned that an unnamed dog – probably that same one – was aboard a helicopter that was shot down on another mission, and died alongside his comrades.

The bond between him and his buddies must have been much the same as what the soldiers felt for each other.

By contrast, when American troops went into Afghanistan after 9/11, Americans were disgusted to learn that Osama bin Laden routinely tested out chemical weapons on dogs. A cache of videotapes showed puppies being put into pens and killed, slowly and painfully to test chemical weapons.

To most of us, that kind of behavior is a cruel breach of the trust we’ve fostered with dogs over thousands of years, and it simply added to our disdain for a person like bin Laden.

But what bin Laden was doing was, in fact, paltry compared to the enormous industry that’s part of the U.S. Department of Defense and that kills hundreds of thousands of dogs, pigs, sheep, rabbits and other animals every year in cruel experiments that test weapons of war at secret laboratories.

Unlike the bond that exists between the soldiers and their dogs (and often horses, donkeys and others) on the battlefield, there’s no mutual caring between the laboratory researchers and the animals they experiment on. They’re even trained, in the name of scientific objectivity, to have no personal relationship with the animals at all. Those dogs, cats, pigs, birds and other living creatures don’t have names, and to get around animal protection laws, many of them are no longer even classified as animals.

For them, an ancient trust has been shattered.

So, where do we draw the line? For my part, if I’d had the opportunity, I’d have taken McMuffin to Ground Zero, in the knowledge that we were going into harm’s way together and to save lives.

But would I have agreed to have him fitted with titanium teeth and sent to Afghanistan? Or to be sent to a laboratory to have weapons of war tested on him in the name of protecting our own soldiers?

What about horses like Joey, who, in the story of War Horse, is taken from his family and sent to the front lines of World War I? (More than a quarter of a million horses died on the Western Front – just one of the battle lines of that war.)

The argument for the deployment of all these animals is that it saves human lives. But maybe if, as a species, our sense of right and wrong no longer permitted us to abuse other animals in the name of self-defense, it might push us to find other, less deadly ways of resolving our very human squabbles.

We might then discover that by honoring the bond between ourselves and other animals, we were also serving and protecting the lives of our sons and daughters by not sending them to war in the first place.