Thursday, 6 December 2012

Soldier Dogs by Maria Goodavage

From The Week of November 26, 2012
As much as our lives are defined by humanity, its emotions and its foibles, its actions and its reactions, ours is not the only species to leave its mark on our planet. Every day, creatures we barely understand, let alone relate to, persist, their fortunes rising and falling largely based on how useful they are to us. If, like with insects, we deem them to be bothersome, or even deleterious to our health, they are exterminated, snuffed out for a crime no more heinous than the fulfillment of their genetic destiny. However, if they are dogs, whose faces we find cute, whose fur we find pleasing to the eye and whose affections we find spiritually enriching, then they are permitted to populate in great numbers so long as they continue to please us. Of course, pleasure isn't the only benefit of domesticating such animal friends. Service can also be within their purview. And, truly, what service is nobler than war? Mr. Goodavage explains in her biography of the 21st century war dog.

Though dogs have, for centuries, had their noses used to sniff out the enemy and have had their fierceness and bulk deployed to guard military camps, it was only with war's recent evolution that a dog's skills were put to more complex use. With the rise of non-state actors, and given the degree to which these actors have thrown out the rulebook when it comes to the so-called honorable codes of combat, war in the 21st century is far less about numbers and battlefields, tanks and trenches. It is about fear and terror, the power to demoralize the enemy until it is willing to act as you desire it to. Consequently, all manner of dirty tricks are used to crush ones foe, the most notorious of which is the famed IED, an improvised explosive designed to harm the enemy when he least expects, in the process, causing as much damage as possible.

When it lacks knowledge of both the terrain and its culture, how does an occupying force avoid such booby-traps? By using every weapon at its disposal, the most effective of which is the highly developed nose of a dog. Reputedly to be many magnitudes more sensitive than our own, a dog's olfactory sense can distinguish from thousands of scents, over hundreds of miles, across dozens of days. Properly trained, it can pursue a particular scent for hours at a time without distraction, its mind singularly fixed on the completion of a goal for which it has been trained to expect a reward. These soldier dogs have been a runaway success in these new theatres of war, saving uncounted lives by providing an early warning system for the enemy's machinations, all while creating effortlessly the deep bonds of personality and loyalty that make it so treasured by humans. These are the new faces of a new kind of war, one that is fought with drones and Hellfire missiles, across mountains and cities, without uniforms or even command structures. It is war for which the instinctive animal is quite well-suited. Though it is not without flaws, Soldier Dogs is a buoyant and affectionate examination of this new breed of soldiers. From training methods to types of deployment, from breeds to purple hearts for bravery, Ms. Goodavage does a thorough job capturing the degree to which humans have begun to understand his best friend and to use that knowledge to execute one of its most indulged pursuits. She masterfully bestows personalities upon each of the cases featured here, their talents and their limitations covered with equal pleasure and fascination.

However, for as much as Ms. Goodavage captivates us with tales of canine heroism already acceding into legend, she gives virtually no consideration at all to the ethical questions that naturally underpin the practice of using dogs as instruments of war. The closest she comes is when she evinces her distaste for the US military's classification of them as materiel, arguing that they deserve much more status than that. But this strong opinion arises out of the author's belief that the faithful service of these war dogs has earned them much more respect than they are now given. It does not stem from the far more fundamental question of whether this is an even remotely ethical practice, to train guileless and relatively unintelligent animals to fight our wars, to clean up our ugly business, to avoid unpleasantries we put in place. By her own admission, Ms. Goodavage recognizes these dogs do not understand that they are fighting a war. All they care about is the reward of a job well done, having no concept of the terrible risks they take every time they are sent sniffing after buried explosives easily powerful enough to obliterate them when triggered. This is a glaring omission for a work with aspirations of understanding the world of war dogs. By and large, Soldier Dogs is a charming glimpse of a world few of us will ever see. However, in not confronting the most fundamental issue of this practice, it is also a work that surrenders any aspirations of being consequential or journalistic which this reader considers a shame. Fun for what it is... (3/5 Stars)

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