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The Ethics and Function of Military Animals

20 December, 2019

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

When United States President Donald Trump announced the death of now former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on October 28, 2019, he mentioned a dog who chased the target through a tunnel where the notorious terrorist detonated a suicide vest. Despite wishes by US officials that details on this remained secret, President Trump revealed to the world the identity of the canine: Conan. This Belgian Malinois had been slightly injured during the raid and on November 25, visited the White House where he received a medal.

While Conan quickly became an internet sensation, including gaining his own Wikipedia page, the Al-Baghdadi raid brings up the recurring theme of animals in military service. Just in April of this year, a group of Norwegian fishermen came across a beluga whale wearing a harness that read “Equipment of St. Petersburg,” indicating the animal was a Russian naval military asset. Over the years, instances of animals carrying out military tasks have gained short-term public attention. However, upon a closer look, it’s clear these events are neither isolated nor a recent phenomenon; animals have been used by armed forces around the world for as long as humans have warred, and while images of animals wearing tiny uniforms may come off as adorable, it begs a serious discussion on the ethics behind the usage of animals for military tasks.

Part I: Roles that have historically been carried out by animals

To be able to discuss the ethics behind using animals for military purposes, it is first necessary to inspect the tasks they have fulfilled and how some of these roles have been replaced by modern technology while others continue to depend on their involvement.

Ancient History

One of the most famous instances of war animals is the image of Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Alps on his way to face Rome back in the 3rd century. During this time, elephants were used for charging opposition lines and inflicting confusion on an enemy who had never seen such a large beast before. Mongols and Indians also used war elephants; however their widespread use came to an end in the 15th century when gun powder became a common weapon. Perhaps their most recent frontline military use was for the transport of men and material in the Burma campaign during WWII.

Transport has historically been the most wide-spread military use of animals. So-called “beasts of burden,” everything from oxen to mules, have been employed around the world to carry equipment too large for man himself. In arid regions camels were favored as they required less water than other living beings, while in India during WWI camels carried the wounded. However, horses are undoubtedly the most widely used animals, with evidence of their employment going back as early as 5,000 years ago in central Asia and Eastern Europe. Horses have transported equipment and weapons and have served as mounts for hundreds of years, from medieval knights to the charge of the light brigade.

Additionally, there are countless examples of odd uses of war animals throughout time, such as monkeys as incendiary devices during the Song Dynasty and Turkeys affixed with supplies and used as edible parachutes during the Spanish Civil War.

Recent History

From the time of WWI to the modern day, animals have been employed in a smaller variety of, yet never the less crucial, roles. Man’s best friend for instance, accompanied soldiers in the trenches of the Great War to lay communication wires, find mines and deliver messages. Dogs continue to serve alongside soldiers in those functions today in addition to scouting and sniffing out explosives.

Animals have also become mascots for military units around the world. Notably, starting in the early 1900s, cats became popular mascots on British warships, serving to maintain morale on board while also being tasked with hunting unwelcome rodents. There is also Wojtek, a bear adopted by a polish artillery supply company while in Iran who later helped carry shells and equipment for the unit. The company’s badge was then changed to one depicting a bear carrying an artillery shell.

Carrier/messenger pigeons were also frequently used from WWI to 1994, when Switzerland was perhaps the last country to retire its fleet of 30,000 birds. Their use in WWI became widespread across many branches of many armed forces due to their reliability, as telephone and telegraph were vulnerable to sabotage.

More recently, dolphins and sea lions have been determined to be valuable assets by the United States and Russia/Soviet Union. Since the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins to use their echolocation sense for military purposes. In doing so, they allow the Navy to detect underwater objects human eyes cannot, making them vital assets in patrols and counter-sabotage. The U.S. Navy also employs sea lions to locate marine mines and enemy divers, while Russia has been training seals in shooting and de-fusing mines.

Part II: Modern Technology

Roles that have been replaced by technology

Since the industrial revolution, the use of animals for military purposes has decreased significantly; motorized vehicles have almost entirely replaced beasts of burden and telecommunication has made pigeons obsolete. During WWI, the world entered into a new era of mechanized warfare in which tanks began to replace horses. Even today, when one speaks of cavalry, it is no longer mounted horses which is meant, but armored vehicles fulfilling the same role such animals once did.

Roles that continue to be carried out by animals

Despite constant development of military and dual-use technologies, some functions require the reliability and unique features only animals can continue to provide. In other cases, technology calls for new animal solutions to solve modern problems. For example, in 2017 it was revealed that France is training golden eagles to spot and take down drones during flight, despite many more ‘advanced’ anti-drone technologies being developed.

Mirroring this, a concern with modern technology is that of hacking and losing a technological asset to a virtual weapon. Drones may be taken control of remotely and messages intercepted via what was believed to be a secure form of communication, begging the question if even pigeons might make a return to military service; after all, pigeons cannot be hacked and their small size and fast speeds make them hard to target with contemporary weapons.

The animal that continues to accompany man the most into the battlefield is, of course, the humble canine. Dogs are employed in military and civil capacities to detect explosives, drugs and smuggled items. This is a global practice and spans modern battlefields from Iraq to peacekeeping missions such as the ongoing effort in Mali. Dogs can also find wounded soldiers and civilians to bring them aid and track and pin-down targets, as Conan did.

Part III: The ethics of military animals

While today service animals are coveted as heroes for their actions and can receive military honors and distinctions, the entire concept of using animals for military purposes constitutes an ethical dilemma. This starts with the issue that animals cannot consent to being employed into military service, whereas humans can, through either voluntary service or a system of conscription put into place by their elected government. Similarly, while animals do fight each other in nature, war is a human construct.

An animal’s life for less

While humans can comprehend the dangers that accompany certain functions, animals do not understand that there exists an inherent risk when being placed in a hostile environment. Following the line of thought of why then animals are placed at risk, the answer would be two-fold: because animals are considered to be more expendable than humans and animals can be more efficient at certain tasks than humans, even though humans could do the exact same job, but to lesser efficiency and increased risk.

An excellent example is the case of the Umm-Qasr port in Iraq. In 2003, humanitarian supplies were destined for that port. However, due to the murky water, human divers could not have been used. The United States opted for dolphins, which could detect and tag underwater mines. In this case, dolphins were placed in harm’s way because humans could not carry out the task required for humanitarian supplies to reach the port.

This presents a new dilemma, which regards the nature of what military work is. Armed Forces around the world are the prime providers of humanitarian aid, thanks to equipment and expertise not available to civilian organizations. Is putting an animal in harm’s way for humanitarian purposes different than for combat-related objectives? Pushing this further, is keeping a dolphin in an aquarium, secluded from its natural habitat in what many argue to be a prison, different from forced labor?

Legal status of service animals

It has been pointed out that there exists no international legal framework dictating the use of or protecting service animals. International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the legal framework governing warfare, does not include animals. According to IHL, combatants have responsibilities in a conflict just as they have protection if captured or wounded. Similarly, civilians have protection. Do animals count as civilians if not under military service? And if they are, can they be regarded as combatants?

To protect animals in an armed force, many countries give service dogs a higher rank than that of their handler. This prevents mistreatment by the armed force itself. However, dogs are not necessarily counted as enlisted members of the military. In the United States, dogs are considered to be “equipment”, and in Australia they are “technology.”

As animals are not covered under international law and animals of foreign entities enjoy no protection, there is nothing protecting a service animal from being destroyed as any other piece of equipment that is defective, a security risk or no longer serves a practical purpose. Under current global practice, an animal’s life is treated as being more expendable than a human’s.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was discovered to be commonplace after the First World War and is acknowledged today to be a legitimate psychological injury that can be sustained. However, animals are also capable of displaying a wide range of emotions and able to suffer from PTSD. Just as animals have no legal protection, there appears to be a lack of support for animals who undergo traumatic experiences. In worst cases, a service dog suffering from PTSD and deemed to be unadoptable may be euthanized.

How service animals are taken care of undoubtedly varies, as every country has different ethical standards for how they treat their own animal companions. What may affect their treatment, however, is the bond an animal can develop with their handlers. In countries where keeping dogs as pets is a norm, soldiers have testified to their canine counterparts being regarded as fellow soldiers instead of lesser beings.

Suicide missions

The strong bond man and canine can build has in the past affected the military service of dogs. This shows that not all animals may be blindly used to achieve a military objective, and that feelings and sentiments of humans can play a role in the service of an animal. A notable case is that of the suicide-bomb dogs the Soviet Union used against German tanks during the Second World War. Conceived of in the 1930s, this idea lasted until the dog handlers began to rebel due to the treatment of the dogs after having built up a bond with them.

Unfortunately, this was not the last time animals were used in suicide functions. As late as 2008, there are instances of Al-Qaeda surgically implanting bombs into dogs to have them attack coalition convoys. This inhumane treatment is undoubtedly an exception to common uses of animals in conflicts, but never the less is an indication of how humans are capable of using other life to achieve military objectives. Doing the same with a human or using a human as a shield against hostile fire breaks every form of IHL there is. However as previously stated, as vile as this usage of a dog can be, there is no law prohibiting it nor is there a law that would punish those responsible for it.

Intimidation tactics

A controversial use of animals in armed service is using them to intimidate hostages, as has occurred in the infamous Guantanamo Bay and Abu-Ghraib prisons. In these cases, the dogs used were not in harm’s way, but were rather used to scare and coerce information out of hostages. While stories of torture and mistreatment at these facilities have made their way around the media, using dogs as an interrogation tactic also warrants an ethical discourse.

Man’s best friend

While many books and articles exist discussing the use of animals in war, it is clear that every function an animal carries out for an armed force is capable of drawing criticism and creating an ethical dilemma. Is it deception when an animal carries out a task for a treat without knowing its life is in danger? Is an animal’s life worth less than a human’s and dispensable?

Animals may face danger even when not in military functions. Rescue services use dogs to find humans trapped in rubble. Animals could also accidentally step on a mine in a post-conflict zone; does this warrant an outcry as much as children accidentally stepping on a mine? Is there a difference between using animals in conflict zones to using animals for the same purpose in non-conflict zones?

Perhaps one day, international law will take a stance on the position of animals in conflict. However, until then, it is up to individual states to ensure proper treatment of their service animals and ethical uses of their military capabilities.

Image: An U.S. Army military working dog, Louvre, searches among rubble and trash outside a target building (source: US Army/Wikimedia)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.