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Animals and Warfare

December 7, 2009

NPR’s recent report on animals in the military has me thinking about our responsibility to our nonhuman companions, especially in situations of heightened risk. The US military now trains sea mammals in support of its navel operations: dolphins are taught to identify underwater mines or human invaders, while sea lions are taught to actually cuff swimming terrorists (question: what happens to the animals after locating a mine or terror-bent swimmer?). Both species will be deployed in Washington state by next year and Russian military officials are eager to mimic the strategy. Though I’ve read about military dogs in books (Ivan the dog in Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis and the bomb-laden sheep dogs in David Benioff’s City of Thieves), I haven’t really thought seriously about the consequences of using so many species as tools in warfare. The idea is sort of romantic, recalling the dæmons of Phillip Pullman’s imagination. But real animals are not extensions of human consciousness nor sympathetic participants in human military causes. So what sort of regulatory limitations exist to guide human-nonhuman military relationships?

An article from last March’s Orion anticipates this question. Kathleen Yale notes that horses, camels, and elephants have long served as military tools. Soon, however, the Department of Defense will realize its HI-MEM project and revolutionize the animal world as a military resource. Micromechnical implants in insects, specifically moths, “could eventually carry miniature implanted equipment, such as microphones, video cameras, or gas sensors, to relay information collected from target destinations.” Moth bodies grow with these mechanisms enmeshed in their flesh as catepillers: when they transform into adult moths, they become tiny, flying cyborgs. Military bases will be able to steer hybrid insects via remote control and literally become “flies on the wall” in enemy territory. No discussion of animal protection or regulation appears on their project site. It seems that a panel reviewing the military justice system recently recommended that the Uniform Code of Military Justice should include the ethical treatment of animals; no news is yet available on where the recommendation stands in Congress.

Once HI-MEM technology is commonplace, however, isn’t the most logical defense strategy the liberal use of pesticide? I imagine future war zones could look like Bhopal: all life, human and nonhuman, endangered by chemicals used to protect military intelligence from enemy insect spies. It seems that the simplest solution to neutralizing threats posed by military animals is to kill off all potentially military animals. In Benioff’s City of Thieves, the fictional German invaders shoot all sheepdogs on sight because the dogs might be carrying bombs. Is there potential for non-military animal populations to suffer the same fate if the military threat of a species is established?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. miracjohnson permalink
    December 8, 2009 5:46 pm

    What I found most disturbing about this article was this picture of the dolphin with a camera on its fin (is that a camera?). My thoughts upon seeing it went straight to Flipper, who we all know aided in many a moral exploit as the loyal companion to the Ricks family (thank you Saturday morning television of my youth). And wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was an entire army of Flippers out there, ready to volunteer to protect America aquatically, just as the original Flipper served as a guardian over the Ricks boys? But this momentary fantasy was interrupted when I reconsidered the look of intentionality that I perceived in the camera-toting dolphin’s eye. What I saw in the photo was Flipper, but could I really assume that this dolphin was as well-informed of his or her situation as Flipper seemed to be? Dolphins are quite smart, but even if they were capable of comprehending the politics of international war and espionage, is anyone informing them in dolphin briefing sessions about their roles and risks as military allies? And aren’t allies usually afforded the opportunity to negotiate the terms of their allegiance? These fantastical thoughts eventually led to the realization that as this photo anthropomorphized the dolphin into a savvy and loyal soldier, it silently dismissed other aspects of human status, like inalienable rights to life and liberty. I still can’t help but see Flipper when I look at the photo, but I also now see Suzy and the other dolphins who were trained to play Flipper (yay Wikipedia!), an imaginary dolphin with considerably more agency and freedom than those real creatures who portrayed him on tv.

  2. December 9, 2009 1:26 am

    Thanks for both of your posts! It was great to hear these reservations about militarized animals articulated. I’m particularly interested in the point that animals — no matter how intelligent — seem unlikely to be able to truly consent to participation in military action, and that accordingly the risks they must necessarily take in engaging in such efforts are unethically imposed upon them. I’ve often flinched watching battle scenes in which horses are the targets of bullets and arrows for this same reason. However, thinking about the use of animals in the military also made me consider the use of animals for other human ends: what about rescue dogs who search for human survivors in the aftermath of disasters, for example? Although this task may sometimes entail less risk, the dogs may also be put in dangerous situations. Rescue dogs can be psychologically impacted by the trauma of the search as well — I’ve never forgotten reading about how, in the days after 9/11, some became so discouraged after finding few survivors that their handlers had to lie in the rubble, and let the dogs find them. Still, I support the use of animals in rescue missions, even though they also cannot consent to the risks they undertake. Does this contradict my reservations about animals in the military? What ethical considerations should be taken into account when using animals to assist human efforts, particularly in matters of life and death?

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