The Captured Dogs (and Elephant) of War

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In early Feburary a video was posted depicting men associated with the Taliban showing off their latest captive; a Belgian Malinois. The dog was supposedly taken hostage during a firefight in late December, a claim confirmed by a spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan. The video is intended more as a propaganda piece than an extortion for ransom, made by a group grasping at whatever small victories it can attain. However, the video highlights a certain savviness among the Pashtun people holding the leash. The Washington Post article points out many Muslim men are wary of dogs, worrying having one around makes one unclean, and dog domestication is at its lowest per-capita in Middle Eastern countries (though that trend is beginning to change). In other words, there’s little reason for the dog’s captors to show the amount of respect they have to the animal. What they understand though is in the eyes of their enemy they have something much more valuable than your common stray dog. The canines of the post-9/11 military are not the same as Dickin Medal recipients of the past. They are tools, weapons, soldiers, and friends all wrapped into one, a battlefield asset meant to save lives but which can just as easily pluck at the heartstrings of any warm blooded human. This K9 Prisoner of War is not the first of its kind and almost certainly will not be the last.

The dog in the video has not been named by any official, nor has there been any information on his unit, handler, or even the specific circumstances in which he was captured. However, it’s easy to get an idea where he came from. The breed of the dog, alongside the equipment vest he wears, and the M4 assault rifle presented with him, pinpoint him as a Special Forces asset within the US military. Of course, this is not the first military K9 unit to appear before the public. In 2013 the New York Post published an article detailing the training and abilities of canines used by the Navy Seals, focusing in particular on one dog named Cairo, who was deployed with Seal Team 6 when they raided the compound of Osama Bin Laden. The article mentions how Belgian Malinois are the breed overwhelming chosen for Special Forces roles due to similarities with the classically popular German Shepard while being less prone to heatstroke and about ten pounds lighter on average. The culling and training of these dogs begins from birth, with a rigorous process used to weed out any who don’t have the stomach for military life:

Once birthed, he waits three days, then begins “bio-sensor stressing” — tickling their pads with Q-tips, breathing into their faces, exposing them to different adults and children, then playing CDs with alarming sounds: gunfire, thunder, sirens, motorcycles. He also separates them from their mothers as early as possible, to establish the human-canine bond as the primary one.

At 4-weeks-old, if the pups have adjusted to these alarming sounds at ever-increasing volume, Ritland moves on to the next phase: teaching them how to swim out past the point where their own fight-or-flight instincts kick in, which for dogs is the moment they lose sight of land.

This aspect of training is among the most challenging; the dogs often go into such panic that they attempt to climb up on top of their trainers, swiping at them desperately and gnashing their teeth. “Many of us ended up getting parts of our bodies raked by the thumbs and dewclaws of a panicked swimming dog,” Ritland writes, “and those raised welts became just another way that we all earned our stripes.”

In the end, only about 1% ever make it into the force. The total cost for the training and deployment of K9 units is estimated at about $50,000. But that’s not all. Every K9 unit is deployed with specially fitted K9 Storm Intruder Body Armor, which serves as both protection for the animal and as a utility to the Seal Team. Each vest costs about $86,000 and includes functions such as a transmitting/receiving antenna, video camera with night-vision, stainless steel pivoting arm, and various load-bearing harnesses for rappelling, parachuting, or other activities. During the raid on bin Laden’s home, Cairo was equipped with special “doggles”  which “would even allow [the dog] to see human heat forms through concrete walls.”. However, all of this equipment pales in comparison to the priceless abilities a dog brings to a Special Forces team; the ability to sniff out IEDs and hiding humans or chase down and incapacitate targets. Today there are over 2,700 MWDs (Military Working Dogs) serving worldwide. These animals used to be cut loose at the end of any conflict, left to whatever soldiers or citizens would have them. Today they are acknowledged as another cog in the machine, just as important to keep and maintain as any other soldier or asset.

The gap then between the military K9′s of today and the dogs of yesterwars is quite wide. Although there are many famous war-dogs of history (Sergeant Stubby, Smoky, and Nemo, among others) there are very few famous captured dogs, more than likely because of the lack of resources put into them and their perceived expendability. Captured animals in past wars tended to end up as mascots for the other side, such as Douglas the pig onboard U-162. However, while the Belgian Malinois prisoner in this latest case is the first captured MWD of the post-9/11 era (a strange thing considering their wide use throughout the Afghan and Iraqi theatres), he is not the first dog to be officially considered a captive/PoW.

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Williams and Judy

Judy was a pure-bred Pointer who first served aboard the HMS Gnat, followed by the HMS Grasshopper, who had the uncanny ability of hearing and locating Japanese aircraft well before crew members could see them, acting as an early warning system. When the Grasshopper was torpedoed and the crew stranded on an uninhabited island, Judy was able to dig and discover fresh water, saving the entire crew from dehydration. Her deeds continued on once they were captured and sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where one Frank Williams convinced a drunk camp commandant to register Judy as a PoW (in exchange for a future puppy). She distracted guards intent on beating prisoners, kept their morale up, and in return was smuggled out with Williams. After surviving a second PoW camp and the end of the war, she was awarded the Dickin Medal, the “animal’s Victoria’s Cross” as it’s called, and was interviewed by the BBC.

Outside of dogs, the number of animal captives runs thin. The only other mention is of an elephant named Lin Wang, who was captured in 1943 and served in the Chinese Expeditionary Force during the Burma Campaign of the Sino-Japanese war. By 1947 she was the last of her group of elephants still serving, mainly used to transport logs and perform other tasks around camp, and in 1952 was handed over to the Taipei Zoo. There she became a very popular attraction and was posthumously awarded as an Honorary Taipei Citizen in 2003, also making her the longest-living elephant in captivity at the age of 86.

As for our Belgian Malinois captive, it remains to be seen what will happen. It has been two weeks since the release of the video and there has been no word on an attempted rescue or exchange deal, and it’s unlikely one will ever come. If any sort of mission were to be undertaken, I’d guess it would be performed by a Navy Seal team who uses K9s, but such a mission would be a historical first and potentially judged as a poor choice and waste of resources, especially if there were any human casualties.

In the future we could potentially see more K9s taken hostage as Special Forces teams become more widely deployed by a war-weary nation. Military R&D seems intent on phasing out the use of animals with projects like BigDog, which is meant to replace pack animals like donkeys in rough or mountainous terrain, but dogs are likely here to stay for a long while. As General David Petraeus put it in 2008:

The capability they (Military Working Dogs) bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine. By all measures of performance their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory. Our Army (and military) would be remiss if we failed to invest more in this incredibly valuable resource.

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