Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah
Patriotism as a normalizing force, presupposing and engendering its own truth, succeeds by continually extending its reach. Innumerable acts of remembrance, rituals, ceremonies, exercises, dates, events, historic figures, gestures, songs, tributes, render it a nearly irresistible phenomenon. In the United States it seeks to colonize democracy itself.
The United States government, a principal player in the patriot game, cannot do enough for those who kill and die for their country. Witness the “Vow to Hire Heroes Act” and the “Civil Service Recognition Act” recently passed into law, the subjects of my last two posts. Soldiers and civilians who run the ultimate risks find themselves joined by a new breed of patriot. For perhaps the past decade or so, commemorative ambition has also focused considerable attention on four-legged 'members' of the military.
Interest in military working dogs soared in the aftermath of the Navy SEAL raid that ended with the assassination of Osama bin Laden last May. This is due to the critical role that Cairo, the single canine in the eighty-member team, played in the mission. While Cairo’s specific tasks may be unknown (information about the raid is, of course, classified), it’s likely that he would have been responsible for monitoring anyone who tried to escape (or enter) bin Laden’s compound. Military working dogs have the capacity to capture human targets through terror or sheer force (the bite of one of these dogs can exert anywhere from 400 to 700 pounds of pressure). Dogs may be domesticated, but these dogs can shed their domestication on command.
The tasks assigned dogs are deadly. Bomb detection is not foolproof. Moreover, the American military’s use of dogs is no secret, which means that opposition forces learn to target them. The Taliban is the latest example, following the NLF in Vietnam. This may be a regrettable side-effect, but the military would never reconsider the use of dogs as a result. In excess of 50 military working dogs have been killed in action over the last six years, but if dogs save hundreds of human lives (or more) each, the cost is deemed well worth it. And speaking of cost, the American military will do its best to redeem every dollar invested. Thus, dogs disabled by their service do not necessarily receive immediate discharge. With the investment in each dog running to close to $50,000, the military is determined to extract every cent it can from its canine members. Ultimately, the condition of the dogs is at best a secondary concern: the primary concern is that they continue to execute successfully the tasks assigned them. “This is a human health issue as well,” Dr. Walter F. Burghardt, chief of Behavioral Medicine and Military Working Dog Studies at the Lackland Air Force Base Military Working Dog Hospital, insists. Dogs traumatized by combat are subjected either to “desensitization counterconditioning” or to a regimen of drugs to calm them. Through one, dogs will be exposed to the very terrors that incapacitate them and rewarded as they learn to overcome their fears and perform their official duties. Through the other, they might be prescribed Xanax. Here what works for humans who suffer panic attacks can also work for dogs. The dogs, of course, should be panicked. The resistance they offer to further service is not respected; rather, it is to be overcome. The military thereby shows its disregard for life itself. Successful rehabilitation does not mean the dogs are cured. They are permanently scarred. As one medical expert in the field, a Tufts veterinarian, observed: “It is more management. Dogs never forget”.
Dog advocates have focused not on the use of dogs in war, but on the treatment of military working dogs following the completion of their service. Military Working Dog Adoptions, founded by Debbie Kandoll, seeks to facilitate placing retired dogs in loving homes. The military, which classifies dogs as equipment, will not pay for transport back to the United States, insisting that once a dog is adopted, it is no longer military property and thus the responsibility of the new owner. If anything, were the military to pay for transport, it would amount to “fraud, waste, and abuse,” according to one Air Force Major General. Kandoll and others recommend Congressional legislation to change the status of dogs. Many advocates would also like to make dogs eligible for decoration, a practice supposedly reserved for humans (there is one report of a dog receiving the Silver Star for a suicide mission). They would also like to see the military devote meaningful medical resources to the dogs’ care once they have been repatriated. All of this seems likely to happen. The irony of such well-meaning efforts made on behalf of dogs is that they obscure the more pressing ethical issue, namely, the very use of dogs (and other animals) by the military in the first place. In this context, consider perhaps the dominant concern of those closest to the dogs, their handlers, who very much want military working dogs to receive the recognition they are due. According to Aiello, “It’s a question I get over and over again from the handlers. They ask, ‘Why can’t my dog receive some type of recognition for what they’ve done for me and other troops’”? The implicit complaint is that this is no way for the country to treat those who serve it with their lives, that is, this is no way to treat heroes, patriots. More importantly, the absurdity of the call for recognition seems to escape notice, for it is tantamount to recognizing ourselves for the ingenious use to which we put other species on behalf of our human, all too human projects, however violent or murderous. Thus, as dogs are treated more and more like humans, the legitimation of their use can be increasingly taken for granted. And as legitimation succeeds on this register, it reinforces similar assumptions operative regarding humans—that citizens (or at least some subset of them) amount to little more than standing reserve, on call when the country summons them. With the waste of so much human and animal life, it must be revalued according to a patriotic logic in which death—being killed—becomes inherently meaningful. Patriotism simply won’t allow dying for nothing. Not even and especially if you’re a dog.