What next, a tomb of the unknown pigeon?

From sniffer dogs to glow-worms: why society is celebrating the ‘sacrifices’ of animals in war.

Josie Appleton

Topics Science & Tech

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There has been no memorial to British soldiers who died in Iraq. There has been no major museum exhibition dealing with the wars of the Blair era. Yet memorials to animals in war are proliferating like wildfire.

The Imperial War Museum in London is hosting a new exhibition on animals in war, detailing the feats and sufferings of cavalry horses, carrier pigeons and sniffer dogs. In 2004, a major memorial was unveiled on Park Lane in London dedicated to all the animals that died alongside British troops, including horses, dogs, dolphins, elephants and glow-worms (apparently troops used them as reading lights).

Animal memorials started springing up in the 1990s. A 1997 memorial in Virginia marked animals killed in the American Civil War; the fiftieth anniversary of the American victory in the Pacific island of Guam was marked with a war dog memorial. Australia has two war dog memorials, and the Australian prime minister backed plans for a high-profile animal memorial. New Jersey recently agreed to place a war dog memorial alongside its Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Some have called this a ‘Disneyfication of war’, a way of celebrating war while glossing over human suffering. They cite the fact that the Park Lane memorial was funded by some Tory Party donors, the kinds of people who might otherwise have put their cash into the next Nelson’s column (1). But this isn’t half the story. The Imperial War Museum is, if anything, anti-war, and seeks to emphasise the suffering and pointlessness of conflict. (In spite of the name, this museum has long been a draw for anti-imperialist curators.)

Both sides are using animals to make their case. The glory and pity of war alike are seen through animal eyes. It’s apparently only through the experiences of dogs, horses and pigeons that people can explore the heroics and costs of battle.

This is unusual. If animals were paid any attention in the past it was as symbols of human virtues. Troops had mascots – such as the Irish Guards’ Irish wolfhound – rather as knights of old had symbols of heraldry. Animals occasionally featured on war memorials as allegories of bravery, resilience or freedom.

When animals were honoured, the main function was to encourage further human patriotism. The Dickin Medal for animal bravery was instituted in 1943, four years into the Second World War. The Imperial War Museum exhibition includes a film of the medal being awarded to two carrier pigeons that brought crucial news back to Britain from France. The slightly tongue-in-cheek ceremonials, which involved a dignitary placing a medal around the birds’ necks and giving them a peck on the beak, were mainly for the benefit of onlookers. If a pigeon could face enemy fire, surely the people of Britain could do likewise?

Now animals are celebrated as a replacement for talking about the bravery of soldiers or citizens. The Imperial War Museum exhibition is comfortable celebrating the resilience of war animals in the way that it would not be with snipers or generals. There is a photo of a dog eagerly leaping over a ditch, a message in its collar. Were that a man, complicated questions would arise: Which side is he on? Why is he doing it? What is he trying to do?

It is because of animals’ unthinkingness that they can be celebrated. ‘They had no choice’ is the message posted both on the war memorial and in the exhibition. Animals had no reasons or responsibility for wars. A culture that is uncomfortable with the idea of soldiers choosing to fight and risk their lives, can nonetheless cheer at the leap of a dog.

Animals can also be portrayed as pure victims, too. Neither the horse peppered with enemy fire nor the sniffer dog that got half its face blown off in any way chose their fate. Soldiers, on the other hand, pick up a gun and move to the frontline, knowingly risking their lives. They are not dumbly and innocently following orders, like animals.

In a sense, animals have become a model for interpreting human actions in war. ‘They had no choice’ has become the standard theme for war reports. Accounts from the frontline in Iraq emphasise how soldiers don’t want to be there and how they blame Tony Blair for their predicament. Increasingly, the focus shifts from the soldiers to those on the sidelines – the women and children and bystanders who have no stake in the action. The other major London war memorial of the past few years was the women’s war memorial, which stands in Whitehall. The next Imperial War Museum exhibition will be on children and war.

Yet if we can clear away the smoke, there is an interesting story behind the Imperial War Museum exhibition: the wonder of animal training. We watch a film of a cavalry charge, soldiers with their swords upraised and the horses speeding towards the swords of an enemy. How do you train an animal to run directly into danger, when it has absolutely nothing to gain? How do you train a pigeon to keep its course for home even as the bullets are buzzing around its ears? As one of the exhibits noted, animals ‘share the fear and pain – but never the victors’ joy’.

Animal training has also allowed humans to use animals’ senses as an extension of their own. Training a dog to sniff for explosives, or to pick up an enemy’s scent from half a mile away, soldiers come to possess the acuteness of the canine nose. The dog here is being used as a tool, rather like a telescope or night goggles.

Yet animals are not machines, they are living creatures that are designed to look out for themselves. By a combination of carrot and stick, and developing bonds over time, animal trainers have managed to persuade animals to act in ways that run contrary to their survival. They teach a pigeon to fly with a message rather than to find a safe shelter, a dog to sniff for explosives rather than for food or for a mate, when these animals know not and care not for messages or Germans.

While the exhibition celebrates heroics and sufferings in animals’ terms, the real story is the human ingenuity that lies behind them. It was those who had a stake in war that invested so much time and creativity in persuading animals to do their bidding.

Animal memorials and exhibitions are for a time when everybody wants to talk about war, but nobody wants to talk about the actors in war, only those who are unwillingly tossed and turned in its midst. Thus does the tomb of the unknown pigeon take the place of the unknown soldier.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

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Topics Science & Tech


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