‘The canine’s nose is a masterful creation,” Rebecca Frankel writes in this exceptionally interesting and surprisingly moving book; “all earthly schnozes are not created equal, anatomically speaking. While the average dog has roughly 220 million scent receptors in his nasal cavity, the average human has around 5 million.” Reading that, I flushed with pride on behalf of my rescue pooch, Clifford, whom I take on business trips several times a day but whose business consists more of sniffing (his name really should be Snifford) than of pooping. Then, a few pages later, came this zinger: “Where some breeds, like dachshunds, have 125 million scent receptors, and German shepherds have 225 million receptors, the bloodhound has on average 300 million.”
Alas, poor Clifford: He is a dachshund, and based on those numbers he’ll never qualify as an MWD, or military working dog. Truth to tell, this is for the best, as Clifford is far too goofy to be a fierce combatant. No doubt, though, he would love to meet any and all of the splendid dogs — German shepherds, bloodhounds, Belgian Malinois, labradors — who parade proudly through these pages, though any of them could have him for lunch if they so desired. But in fact military dogs are trained not to be fierce but to be intelligent, to use their incredibly sensitive ears and eyes to identify danger in its many forms and to give their human colleagues the chance to quell it.
Frankel is an editor at Foreign Policy and is responsible for two of that eminent journal’s most popular items: a weekly column called “Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week” and a photo essay called “War Dog,” which has been viewed online more than 16 million times. This book is a logical extension of those interests, but as she says in her opening chapter, “I thought I would be writing a book about dogs who live their lives in the service of the military . . . [but] I was surprised when I realized I was actually writing a book about people,” in particular the handlers, men and women, who train military working dogs and then accompany them into battle or wherever else they may be called to serve.
On the evidence Frankel provides, it’s hard not to conclude that handlers are special people. They are soldiers through and through — “Despite the many likely hazards waiting for them in a war-zone, most of these handlers are excited to get downrange. . . . If they’ve been to Iraq, they’re looking forward to a tour in Afghanistan” — but they are “their own breed.” The form of service known as K-9 “is a lifelong state of mind . . . the mark of which lives on long past the dogs, long after the wars are over.” Frankel writes:
“Any handler who has brought a dog with him or her to war will say it made all the difference in the world. They will say that the dog by their side provided them with something more than just a living, breathing piece of home — it acted as a talisman, insulating them from whatever horrors unfolded, bringing them peace in turbulence, offering companionship in times of loneliness. It made the path through war bearable, the unendurable somehow endurable, and many will say they came through the other side more stable.”
Anticipating objections, Frankel writes at the outset: “I avoid the question of whether or not it is ethical to involve animals in fighting our wars. There are legitimate cases to be made on both sides, but we do employ animals in war and we rely on them heavily.” Read almost any history of the Civil War or World War I and you will be impressed, or more likely depressed, by the number of mules and horses that were killed serving in those conflicts, a number that probably runs into the millions. Horses and mules were used as beasts of burden, whereas dogs are used for their intelligence (the breeds most commonly enlisted are among the very smartest) and their gifts of detection. Inasmuch as countless dogs are abused by their owners, euthanized in shelters or otherwise mistreated, one can only be struck by the kindness with which the MWDs are treated and the love they inspire. For me it’s a no-brainer: If military dogs serve us, by the same token we serve them.
Indeed, it is worth noting that in their earliest known appearances in battle, “it was not their inborn supersenses or their natural intelligence that was put to task, but rather something more primitive, fierce, and undisciplined,” and doubtless “these early war dogs took more lives than they saved.” That began to change in World War I, when “all tallied — including messenger dogs, mercy dogs, Red and Blue Cross dogs — upward of 75,000 dogs were on the ground in official war-related roles.” Then, in World War II, the American military “settled on five breeds: German shepherds, Belgian sheep dogs, Doberman pinschers, farm collies, and giant schnauzers” as having the temperament and skills needed in war dogs. The best of them became scout dogs, Frankel says, which had “nearly instantaneous” effectiveness because of their ability to detect enemy troops at a distance of about 1,000 yards.
In Vietnam, then in Iraq and Afghanistan, the employment of dogs reached new levels of sophistication. They were primarily scout dogs in Vietnam, where their success was so great that the demand exceeded the supply of available dogs. Then, in our last two wars, they became expert at detecting the improvised explosive devices that terrorists use as lethally effective weapons against troops (and innocent civilians as well) on the ground. They are trained at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona under a program known as Inter-Service Skills K-9. Frankel spent several arduous days there, observing the dogs and their handlers, and participating in some of the exercises herself, an experience that left her with a heightened appreciation for the skills and dedication of all concerned.
Though her book is principally about MWDs, she reminds us that dogs serve us in other places and in other ways: working for the Department of Homeland Security, which now has “over 900 canine teams working in 120 airports nationwide”; as therapy dogs, especially for victims of post-traumatic stress disorders, soldiers and civilians alike; and as guide dogs, a role that of course they have performed for many generations for the blind and other disabled persons. In all these roles, they are as susceptible to injury and emotional stress as the people they aid. “It would be counterintuitive, even foolhardy, to assume that dogs can experience war but are somehow immune to its hardships, that they do not shoulder its burdens,” Frankel writes. “Dogs experience the same heat, the same chaos, the same injuries, the same violence, and the same trauma. . . . Military working dogs, like soldiers, return from war changed.”
Now, with the war in Afghanistan winding down (or whatever exactly is happening there), Frankel is concerned about the future of the MWD program, as well she should be. The “urgent need for dogs is already depleting and will likely continue to lessen over time,” and “the military working dog program is already downsizing its combat-ready dogs accordingly.” Yet “when the call for the dogs comes again — as it inevitably will — years and energy [will be] spent rebuilding and reinventing.” It would be nice to think that this fine book will cause the military to keep the MWD program active, if necessarily smaller, and to continue research into the ways in which dogs can help us, but history — the history of the American military especially — leaves little reason to believe that will happen.
Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love
By Rebecca Frankel
Palgrave Macmillan. 251 pp. $26