(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.