War Dogs: Would You Send Your Dog to Fight Our Battles?

A new and well-done book tells tales and woes of war dogs and supports their use

Posted Oct 04, 2014

Rebecca Frankel's new book called War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love is a very good and important book for a number of reasons. In her book Ms. Frankel "offers a riveting mix of on-the-ground reporting, her own hands-on experiences in the military working dog world, and a look at the science of dogs’ special abilities—from their amazing noses and powerful jaws to their enormous sensitivity to the emotions of their human companions" and "makes a passionate case for maintaining a robust war-dog force." 

The reasons I think War Dogs is a very important book that deserves wide readership include Ms. Frankel's review of how dogs have been used to fight our battles and also because it raises questions about the ethics of the use of dogs and other animals as a means to achieve our ends. I fully realize that most of the people who work with nonhuman war animals (war animals) in one way or another truly love them deeply and dearly, but I am not convinced it's a fair deal to place animals in dangerous situations in which they will be injured (physically and emotionally) or killed, often suffering severe anxiety and pain along the way. Ms. Frankel fully realizes that there are many ethical questions about the use of war dogs and right up front tells us she is avoiding discussing them (page 6). She argues that war dogs do make a difference for us -- "Dogs are integral to our efforts abroad as well as to our safety at home" -- and writes, "As long as we have a military made of men and women, we should have military dogs." (page 7) Later in the book (page 207) she gives some estimates for the number of human lives -- men -- saved by war dogs: 15,000 in World War II and 10,000 in Vietnam. 

I find Ms. Frankel's conclusion to be a bit too fast and anthropocentric, fully recognizing that she and others who favor using dogs in war do indeed love them as much as they love other family members. But, War Dogs is not a philosophical treatise, and Ms. Frankel's choice to avoid the ethical issues is perfectly okay given the messages she wants to convey and does extremely well. However, her unwavering support of the use of dogs is an ethical view, argued or not, and she tells many tales about how dogs have helped us fight our battles. She also notes that there are injuries and losses (pages 176ff) but they are impossible to track accurately because there are no centralized official records either for the dogs or their handlers. Ms. Frankel covers all sides of many issues and in her review of the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs, we can find a lot of reasons why dogs should not be used in war or in other venues in which their lives are compromised, including, for example, invasive laboratory research, staged fighting, and entertainment. Research has clearly shown that dogs experience a wide spectrum of emotions including joy and happiness and deep grief, anxiety, and even PTSD, and their pains and suffering are no less important to them than ours are to us. It's also clear that their deep emotions are the "social glue" that underlies the strong reciprocal bonds we form with them. Ms. Frankel's story of Boe, a war dog who served in Iraq for 18 months, shows how they really do have a point of view and just want to be free to be a dog. Her handler, Captain Najera, said, "it was as if ... she had absorbed too much sadness." (page 199) We also know that dogs display different personalities and temperaments and some dogs, like Ody, are just not meant for war. (page 204)

Would you send your dog to war?

As I read War Dogs I found myself asking, "Would I have chosen to let any of the awesome dogs with whom I had the good fortune of sharing my home go to war?" The answer is, "No." Would I choose to voluntarily place an animal I love in a dangerous situation for my own ends? No, I wouldn't. When someone tells me they love a dog or another animal whom they're willing to subject to harm, I always say that I'm glad they don't love me. I do not mean that lightly or facetiously. Indeed, putting other animals we claim to love in harm's way highlights our complex, challenging, and paradoxical relationships we have with other animals, a point clearly shown in anthrozoological research. 

Good stories are wonderful but when they highlight just how caring and loving dogs are we really can't avoid asking the challenging and frustrating ethical questions about the choices we make about how they are used. And, of course, we are not alone in using dogs to fight our battles. Psychology Today writer Stanley Coren has written a very interesting essay called "War, Morality, and Exploding Dogs" that highlights a plot by Al Qaeda to use bomb carrying dogs to bring down an airplane bound for the United States. 

Why do we choose to intentionally harm dogs and other animals whom we claim we love?

I sincerely hope War Dogs enjoys a wide readership and that it motivates others to ask the many difficult questions that center on the nature of our interactions with other animals. War Dogs is at once a very good and troubling book, and it really made me think more about how we choose to use animals in a wide variety of venues in which they are a means to achieving our own ends. Let me stress again that this does not mean that all of the people who choose to use dogs or other animals are necessarily mean, cruel, or "bad" people. It simply means we are indeed deeply challenged by our relationships with other animals and that our actions often do not reflect our thoughts and feelings.

On the final two pages Ms. Frankel reflects on what Psychology Today essayist Mark Derr thinks about dogs in general and war dogs specifically. He notes that dogs help us understand ourselves and that war dogs "offer us a way to discuss the more complicated aspects of war that we otherwise might not..." Mr. Derr notes that "using dogs to discuss these things is somehow cleaner, as it were, somehow simpler" and "there's nothing wrong with that, because the only way they get discussed is by distilling them down to their raw essence." (page 229) Ms. Frankel agrees and concludes, "dogs make war more palatable, but also more tender, and more human. Dogs have a way of bringing us back to our senses. They cut a path to our emotions, and more often than not that emotion is love, whatever form it takes." As I wrote above, a most vexing question remains, namely, "Why do we choose to intentionally harm dogs and other animals whom we claim we love?" 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff