Is it not, at a fundamental level, wrong to use dogs in the military?
I am not, for even one moment, doubting the sincerity, the depth, the quality of the bond between human and nonhuman soldier, or the love the military personnel have for their dogs. Some talk about the military treating their dogs as being officially equipment, even leaving them overseas or putting them down rather than bringing them home – I don’t believe that’s the case, and it is not part of my argument. The point, however, is – even without that, even in the best case scenario where military dogs are truly cared for and about, before, during, and after service, respected, treated as equal, awarded and celebrated as equal, mourned as equal (and I believe this scenario is generally the case), even then the question remains: should they ever be there in the first place?
If a person cannot fully grasp what they are signing up for, does not understand the issues, the duties, the risk and the sacrifice, if a person is too young or too naive and uninformed, then it is fairly widely agreed that they should not be allowed to serve, no matter how willing, wanting and capable they are. Regardless of how highly you rate the intelligence of dogs and their indisputable ability to watch, understand and care about us, they will always, always, fall into that category of being too naive. They do not and can not ever know what it is they are involved in, yet they are employed in the military because they will obey unquestioningly.
If I have a child, then I am her caretaker – to say that her safety comes before mine would be an understatement, and to call it an understatement is an understatement in itself. I cannot abuse the trust and position of influence in order to exploit some ability or skill by commanding or encouraging her to take part in something that is: a) entirely incomprehensible to her, and; b) absolutely nothing to do with her. Children cannot choose to sign up for military service, and there is debate over whether they should not be as exposed to army recruitment campaigns as they are exactly because they are still easily influenced without possessing full comprehension, even at sixteen. But, beyond a fairly young age, a child is decidedly more capable of comprehending a complex situation, the risk, danger, and sacrifice it entails, and making a genuine, personal choice to volunteer than a dog of any age or cognitive ability. And so there comes a point where they can choose, but that is a point never on the horizon for dogs.
Take this quote from a National Geographic article about dogs in the military:
“This age-old bond between man and dog is the essence of our fascination with these teams: The human reliance on superior animal senses—dogs are up to 100,000 times more alert to smells than humans are. The seriousness of the serviceman’s endeavor, in contrast to the dog’s heedless joy at being on the hunt or at play. The selflessness and loyalty of handler and dog in putting themselves in harm’s way—one wittingly and one unwittingly—to save lives.”*
There it is: unwittingly. Can that be right, or ethical? They are being used, their lives are being put at risk without consent or comprehension. In an entirely pro-use article, or at least showing no hint of questioning it, the author has laid out the issue. There is no doubt regarding how vital they are, how many lives they save, bombs they find, wounded they locate, or the crucial therapy they provide to soldiers during and after service. But when I read about funerals for military dogs, with full honours, medals, and speeches about their bravery, heroism and sacrifice… it feels so strange to hear all that, to see the very real grief, when they were deliberately placed in harms way with the express purpose of having their skills exploited in order to fight a war that isn’t theirs. For all the talk about also recognising four-legged heroes, honouring their sacrifice, celebrating ALL veterans – would truly caring about them not mean keeping them as far from danger as possible, even if that means sacrificing their companionship and skills?
This is not some simplistic, reactionary thing where I am taking a love of animals and remaining idealistic instead of realistic. I am not even saying that it is wrong to use dogs in the military – I don’t know, I’m not necessarily against it. Unlike other blog-posts on here, I’m not saying “here’s my opinion and it’s effectively objective”. But every time I hear or read about it, this is what goes through my head. No matter how real the bond is, no matter how many lives they save, is it not still exploitation of naive individuals based upon the knowledge that they will obey? They are as brave as soldiers, and the soldiers do not simply send the dogs out first to save their own skins by treating dogs as disposable equipment. However, as I said near the start, and as the author of the National Geographic piece pointed out, there is no choice, no understanding. Perhaps it is okay to employ dogs in the military when the scenario is the best case, such as the example that I laid out near the start. They may not be consenting but they experience real happiness and, in a limited way, want to serve alongside the soldiers. Just as the use of animals for food or scientific experimentation can be ethical while still accepting that ultimately they are for food or experimentation, and of course cannot consent to or comprehend these things either. The possibility of violent death preceded by suffering seems much higher in the military context than when dogs are used in the police force, or on hunting trips, or when compared to animals ethically farmed or experimented on, and that is where a line may be drawn. Canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real thing.** But then the real and high possibility of saving lives and contributing to the end of armed conflict in ways that human soldiers and machines can’t is weighing on the other side of the argument.