Why do we care about this dog?


(AFP/Getty Images)

I can’t help thinking of the phrase: I have no dog in this fight. The video of what appears to be a U.S. or allied forces military working dog in captivity—held by gun wielding men who chant “Allah gave victory to the mujahideen!”—arrives at a moment when U.S. public sentiment now considers the war in Afghanistan not worth the cost, and overwhelming majorities favor removing all or most U.S. troops from the country. We still have a dog in this fight, but we’d like to bring that dog home.

The Belgian Malinois doesn’t look particularly frightened, just a bit nervous and confused. But he is a complicated figure because animals—especially species kept as pets—invite visceral feelings that often mask even more complicated feelings involving actual human beings. The first, reflexive thought is: Who would threaten an innocent dog?

But if we ask that morally indicting question, we must ask a few follow ups: Who would train a dog to serve in a war zone? And what do we mean by “innocent”?

Dogs are trained for support roles in combat—among other things to detect danger, and sniff out narcotics and explosives—and they develop strong bonds with their human trainers. But they are not fully rational actors. They are not asked whether they want to serve in combat, or on which side they want to serve. We make those decisions for them.

Therein resides much of their innocence. But that innocence—the sense that they are compelled by forces beyond their control—is true of many human beings in war zones too. Civilians don’t ask for war to ravage their land, their homes and their families. Even young people who serve in the military have little choice in what battles are fought, and which enemies are engaged. One of the legacies of the First World War, in particular, is a broadly felt sense of disenfrachisement from war: That war is something that happens to soldiers, not something they choose or want to do. All soldiers are felt to be innocent in regard to war; and yet we don’t always extend that same sentiment to the enemy. This dog crystallizes many of these deeply felt attitudes.

Often we feel a little ashamed at the idea of thinking through moral problems by inflecting them onto pets. We should think of humans first. If we have any outrage, it should be reserved for human beings held in captivity, not dogs. But the dog is a very useful figure for all the contradictions they raise about wars and who fights them.

Put it this way: This dog has no dog in this fight.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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