As is true of the dogs serving now, a central job of the sea animals recruited in modern times has been to detect explosives. The U.S. Navy's Marine Mammal Program has, since the 1960s, trained sea lions and dolphins to use their acute senses, echolocation skills, and speed to recover underwater objects and find and mark mines. The program was highly classified for decades, buried in the Pentagon's ubersecret "black budget." When it was declassified in the 1990s, the program sparked enormous anger among animal rights groups. During the Vietnam War, rumors abounded that the Navy was arming dolphins with spear guns to attack enemy divers, an allegation the Navy denies. But sea lions and dolphins do help defend against enemy swimmers today by locating anybody in the water in areas of concern. The program is a "proven asset in force protection and port security," concluded a 2003 report by Bob Olds, then a program manager at the Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. In fact, the Navy website on the program notes that "one sea lion, two handlers, and a rubber boat searching for objects on the ocean floor can effectively replace a full-sized naval vessel and its crew, a group of human divers, and the doctors and machinery necessary to support the divers operating onboard the vessel."
The Labradors in Afghanistan have certainly proved their value. Last year, the Pentagon released a study of the nearly $19 billion it had spent since 2004 on anti-IED technology. The very best of the scanners, jammers, and drones could manage to locate only 50 percent of the deadly devices that endanger troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The success rate for dogs: 80 percent. Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, commander of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, put it succinctly: "Dogs are the best detectors."
Some of the history of animals at war reads like a parody of a spy novel. Take the Cold War-era scheme creatively code-named Project Acoustic Kitty, which was described in a recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency memo. The agency planned to implant microphones into cats and send them as spies into the Soviet Union's embassy in Washington. "They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity," former senior CIA official Victor Marchetti told one historian. When the cat was taken out to a city park for testing, it almost immediately tried to cross the road and was killed by a taxi. The project died with the cat.
Like humans, dogs and other mammals can feel the effects of combat intensely and become fearful and erratic in their behavior. They are even in danger of post-traumatic stress disorder, some experts say. The dogs serving in Afghanistan receive several months of training depending on their duties—bomb detection, patrol, guard duty—and serve, on average, eight years. But like humans, "they all react differently," says Bill Childress, manager of the Marine Corps working dog program. "We are seeing some dogs that can't handle the stress as well as others."
Those that have been traumatized by war are now treated with behavioral therapy and adopted, a marked departure from what happened after service in Vietnam. Declared "surplus equipment," thousands of dog veterans in those days were euthanized or given away to the South Vietnamese—never mind that Vietnam War dogs were credited with saving up to 10,000 soldiers' lives by detecting booby traps, warning of ambushes, finding explosives, and tracking enemy soldiers, according to the New Jersey-based United States War Dogs Association. Now, with their time on the front lines over, some retired adoptees are working with the American Red Cross as therapy dogs, helping battle-scarred human comrades readjust to civilian life.