3 books about dogs in wartime

February 21, 2012

1) Sergeant Rex (Atria, $26) is Marine Mike Dowling’s account of his 2004 deployment with his military working dog, a German shepherd named Rex. Tasked with seeking out improvised explosive devices and hidden ammunition as part of a unit in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, Mike and Rex form a tight partnership. Briskly written with Damien Lewis, Dowling’s account has many suspenseful moments as well as interesting facts about how dogs are selected, trained, paired with a human and even ranked as service members. Dowling explains that “military working dogs are given a rank one higher than that of their handler.” If the handler receives a promotion, so, too, does his dog. While the jargon-heavy dialogue and tight pacing suggest that “Sergeant Rex” is meant to be a dog book for manly men, it’s also a moving portrait of a relationship between battle buddies that transcends gender and species.

2) Dogs jumping from airplanes, dogs sacrificing their lives to save their handlers, dogs patrolling dense tropical jungles — such heroics may seem the stuff of animation fantasy, but Lisa Rogak’s The Dogs of War (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s; paperback, $14.99) documents the real-life valor of canine warriors. Rogak is to be commended for the book’s encyclopedic scope and rich historical detail. Did you know that during World War II, Hollywood stars such as Mary Pickford donated their pets to Dogs for Defense — later the K-9 Corps — for use as sentries and to guard the coasts against spy infiltration? Particularly engrossing are the thumbnail portraits of war dogs such as Bodo, an explosive-detection German shepherd partnered with Spec. Joaquin Mello in Iraq. During a routine route-clearing mission, Mello recalls, his dog started ignoring his lead, and “all of a sudden Bodo jerked sharply behind me, and him jerking the leash jerked my head up. I heard a whiz and a loud ping like metal hitting rock. . . . Someone just shot at me. If Bodo hadn’t pulled me back, it would have hit me right in the head. . . . I started thinking about it: ‘Wow, my dog just saved my life.’ ”

3) “The wind sulked around Hampton Lane Cemetery like a child lamenting the loss of a favorite toy.” So begins the purplish prologue to Gareth Crocker’s Finding Jack (St. Martin’s Griffin; paperback, $14.99), an enjoyable, if flawed, novel. At the book’s beginning in 1972, 29-year-old journalist Fletcher Carson stops to visit the graves of his wife and young daughter, who were killed in a plane crash. He has enlisted in the Army and is headed to Vietnam, quite possibly on a grief-propelled suicide mission. There, he finds an abandoned scout dog, a Labrador he names Jack, whom his unit adopts as its unofficial mascot. Part pal, part doggie Rambo, Jack works his way so deep into Carson’s heart that when the cease-fire comes and the unit gets word that military dogs are to be left behind, Carson takes off with Jack on a journey out of Vietnam, across Laos and into Thailand, where he plans to smuggle the dog home. Gory infections, privation and an incredible rescue (both military and paranormal) ensue. Short on plausibility but long on butch sentimentality, “Finding Jack” elicits sighs of both frustration and fantasy fulfillment.

Burana is the author of “I Love a Man in Uniform.”

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