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Unleash the Dogs of War

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

When I first started this “war memoirs project," I wrote a quick litmus test of things that, if the memoirist were being totally honest about war, they would include in the memoir. I want to read war memoirs (and literature as a whole) that include the things that haunt the writer when they go to sleep.

At the top of that list I wrote “killing dogs.” By extension, I meant all animals. Of the many things war destroys, one of the most evocative and symbolically powerful is the deliberate or unintended deaths of dogs.

If you're human, you’ve probably already had a negative reaction. Andy Rooney, in his memoir My War, describes it perfectly: “I knew as I was thinking how sad animals were in war, that it was a misplaced emotion for me to have with human beings dying in every way on every side, but nonetheless I kept feeling bad about unmilked cows, homeless horses, abandoned dogs...most of them got no help from humans concerned mostly with staying alive themselves.”

This is a powerful image, a war-zone filled with bloated horse carcasses eaten by homeless dogs. But like all war, the ugly is balanced (but not overcome) by the beautiful. Soldiers raised in rural areas try to milk the cows when they can, and “every wandering dog was adopted and fed by some GI.” Soldiers love dogs, and as we wrote last week on The Best Defense, many platoons and companies in Afghanistan or Iraq have, at some point, had a company or platoon pet.

So the best writers know to use dogs in their stories. This is why the single best image from the recent war memoirs is of a horse, running wild in the Shahi-kot valley, miraculously surviving bomb blasts for days on end in The War I Always Wanted.

It’s why the best scene in Jarhead involves the pre-war shooting of a Bedouin camel.

It’s why Nathaniel Fick doesn’t mention dogs in his memoir, but in Generation Kill a Sergeant has to tell his Marines they won’t be shooting any dogs.

It’s why the medic Rat Kiley shoots and tortures a baby water buffalo after a land mine kills his friend Curtis Lemon.

It’s why Lone Survivor, The Unforgiving Minute, and One Bullet Away all feel like they are missing something from their accounts of war.

In this post I don’t have room to explain why the death of animals evokes the deepest of emotions. But let it suffice to say it matters, and the best reporters, writers, and memoirists write about the animals in war.

six comments

In response to the Andy Rooney excerpt, perhaps that swell of emotions is because war is largely a human invention and a practice we commit against fellow humans. We feel remorse for an animal not because we give the animal’s life a greater value, but because we involved the creature in the most corrupt aberrations of our existence; taken something natural and destroyed it.


Matt I would take it a step further. The animal doesn’t have any emotional involvement or commitment to war. Even compared to the human civilians around, he is less “guilty.” An animal can never decide to participate in war, they are always drafted. A society at some level bears responsibility for deciding to wage war.

But it is so true that we give animals a huge emotional investment. I am sure Eric C and I will talk about the reaction of our class to “Apocalypse Now” but the biggest outrage was the death of a puppy.


@ Michael C

Well written take on animals in war and especially war memoirs. You know how I feel about animals, heck remember Billy the Goat at Blessing? Broken horn and all!

Unfortunately, Big Sarge was right and animals generally in these war torn countries carry disease and therefore make lousy pets. But all it takes to counter that is good veterinary support during a “MEDCAP” and all is well.
Unfortunately, these dogs we found are almost all wild animals, the Afghans don’t have a particular gentle way of dealing with dogs and they certainly don’t keep them as pets therefore they get absolutely no human care if not for the American GI.

Great picture by the way, either you’re a great photographer or that guy’s a stud. :-)


Yeah animals do carry disease. That one monkey bit like four people and ate all of OB’s cigarettes, but I think the dog situation could be managed much better than it is, as you mention. And remember, those dogs kept out tons of wild dogs on our FOB (and some Afghans but I am less concerned with that). Evolution-wise, dogs exist to protect humans, we should embrace that and we take the easy way out.

BTW, the guy in that picture does look like a stud, I don’t know who the hell he is.


I think that same monkey is the one that knocked my coffee out of my hand when I was walking into the MWR. Stupid monkey.

However, dogs. I agree, dogs are great, I have 2 girls myself and they epitomize their existence to protect people (I got the German Shepherd for whenever I deploy again to take care of my wife and she’s awesome).

But, I would personally like to see a return of the old Scout Dog platoons. Battle Company and 1-32 before them had this going with Tank as he would literally scout ahead of patrols and alert the guys to any enemy presence. In the Vietnam war the 173rd had a Scout Dog Recon platoon attached and I’m pretty sure most units did during that time as well.
In Iraq, I had the privilege of working with only 2 dog teams, and they were pretty much glorified Bomb/Drug dogs. A well trained mutt patrolling with an infantry platoon is a brilliant idea that I think our military needs to revisit. They don’t need to be highly trained pure breeds. Just a mutt with a good nose that’s well bonded to it’s platoon(pack).


Despite all that, I still want my own monkey.