by Susy Pryde
‘Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war’
– William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)
My brother in law rang my husband recently, to ask if the film, Avatar, would be too scary for their six year-old daughter. The cynic in me queried how a well-reasoned answer could come from dialing our number; we’re child-free and the source of such hoped for wisdom was from a man who abandoned a six year-old’s perspective decades ago. To his credit, he managed to point out that the story is set against large-scale war. So, there are graphic scenes of flaming horses caught in the crossfire of battle. That might be somewhat disturbing. At least, he added, it would be for a six year-old girl with a growing ‘My Little Pony’ toy collection.
While the boys tailed off into discussions of war, I dwelled on the plight of animals in war: The collateral damage of human conflicts. Not long ago I began reading an historical account of animals used for military purposes. As far back as 2100 BC, Hammurabi, the sixth King of Babylon and first known author of a written code of law (the Code of Hammurabi), championed the first known use of animals in warfare. He employed large dogs to fight alongside his elite warriors. But it wasn’t until much later that any assessment of animal casualties began. In the First World War, for example, eight million horses died as part of the British, Commonwealth, and Allied Forces. Most of those were rather ignominious deaths: starvation, disease, or exposure while transporting supplies and ammunition to the front lines. The tally doesn’t altogether reflect that comparatively few died in the heroics of close combat, mostly because by 1915, trench warfare had replaced cavalry charges.
Soon, modern militaries relegated horses to purely ceremonial duties. The new ‘cavalry’ rode to war in tanks, helicopters, and armoured vehicles.
Unfortunately, more cynical methods of warfare ensued, and animals suffered along with humans. As well as directly employing animals in human conflict, modern modes of war, such as modern artillery and carpet bombing cause incalculable animal suffering. The recent accounts of Iraqi insurgents attaching explosives to dogs near Baghdad spring to mind -a clear case of sending animals to do human dirty work.
Disgracefully this is not the first time dogs have been used by the military as living bombs. The Russians did the same thing in World War II, using ‘suicide dogs’. The Soviet military starved dogs and trained them to search under German tanks for food, at which point the bomb would detonate. Ethics aside, the strategy didn’t even work: the dogs were trained with Russian tanks and regularly failed to identify German ones.
Or consider the use of chemical warfare in Kuwait where the US marines employed thousands of chickens to forewarn soldiers of poisonous gases. They did so by exposing chickens to areas likely to be spiked with chemical substances; if the chickens began to die, soldiers would apply gas masks.
Okay, so male chicks in the agriculture sector regularly meet a similarly alarming demise –mastication at the hands of a meat grinder. While still shocking, the law has made a stand on the issue. It says that provided we engage a balancing exercise weighing economic need versus cruelty (albeit an exercise that habitually leans toward the economic need corner), it is fine to chew up fluffy chicks. In contrast, the law of armed conflict in international instruments is markedly silent. It fails to set out rules in relation to what might be considered unnecessary or unreasonable in the use of animals. There is no inquiry into the facts relating to animals in war – nor even double-speak distorting welfare issues in war. There is just no interest at the policy level.
Sure, there are all sorts of reasons why we should turn a blind eye. If we adhere to historical principles, animal protection legislation should only be fixed to human interests, either the protection of property rights or by protecting human sensibilities by criminalising cruelty. None of those types of interests are in play in human conflict. Rather a utilitarian psychology prevails: an animal is a soldier ‘doing their bit’ for a greater human cause. Or one just needs to think of the cliché, ‘all is fair in love and war’. That is, let’s suspend the rules in special circumstances. Anyway, if we consider the political deadlock over the war in Afghanistan, which has forced thousands of innocent humans to their deaths, why should we care about animals?
At least as far as humans are concerned, most governments have ratified the Geneva Conventions. Under the Conventions, humans are protected in times of armed conflict.
While there are international conventions intended to mitigate the impact of war on animals, the environment and other natural resources, none afford any moral consideration for animals at any stage of war. For example the additional protocols to the Fourth Geneva Convention (1977) prohibits types of warfare that will likely cause widespread damage to the environment, and incorporates animals only in the context of damage to their habitats. While there was an intention to review animal protection in light of oil spills and fires that devastated animal habitats in the 1991 Gulf War, nothing has eventuated in law. And still more than 30 years on, when modern warfare is yet more sophisticated, the wartime effects on animals and their use in human conflict remains unregulated and largely unaccounted for. This strikes me as decidedly unsatisfactory. It’s hard not to criticize it as being grossly out of step for two reasons: first, because animals are wholly innocent victims of human conflict and second because we now accept that animals should be protected for their own sake based on their intrinsic value.
After centuries of suffering a myriad of abuse as loyal servants to the human war effort, a little compassion toward our non-human comrades wouldn’t go amiss. A change in the law is long overdue. I would go so far as to say that codifying moral consideration for animals in the contemplation of future human conflict is what is needed. Both in the use of animals and the effect war might have on them. In the very least, there is an immediate need to ratchet up existing Geneva Conventions relating to war and the effects on animals in the environment.