Should Animals Be Soldiers? By Jane Desmond

April 24, 2012, on Huffington Post for the American Anthropological Association

Steven Spielberg’s latest heroic film, War Horse, is ultimately a sentimental love story between a young English man and his horse — a magnificent chestnut thoroughbred named Joey. Both man and horse go off to battle in World War I, get separated and barely survive the horrors of trench warfare, only to be reunited in a miraculous scene of mutual recognition amid the chaos of war. It is hard to resist the lure of this heart-tugging film, but beneath the emotion lies a more fundamental question: Should animals be used to fight human wars?

Spielberg realistically portrays the central role that six million horses played in that deadly war, serving as mounts for cavalry units, pulling ambulances to rescue the wounded and laboring to draw heavy artillery across mud-drenched terrain. The losses of human and animal life were both staggering.

But, the use of animals in war goes much farther back than WWI, and much farther forward too, and spans more species and places than we would expect. Elephants, camels, dogs, dolphins, sea lions and carrier pigeons have been used (or are currently in use) on the battle front in various parts of the world. Right now, for instance, the U.S. Army is exploring the use of the African giant pouched rat to detect landmines, and the Navy uses dolphins as underwater defense sentries to guard against intruders in U.S. ports.

I have a personal connection to this issue. Before I was born, my father, Alton Desmond, served in the dog training unit of the U.S. Coast Guard in WWII. One of my treasured possessions is a large photograph of him, his buddies and their German Shepherds training on a base in New England. The men are impossibly young and happy in their white uniforms, and the dogs by their sides look eager and muscular, poised to detect enemy infiltration of our nation’s coasts.

Read this full article by Jane on Huffington Post’s blog for the American Anthropological Association.