Little wonder that 700 Labrador retrievers are serving on the front lines. The breed is known for a remarkable sense of smell, strong drive to hunt, and fierce obedience. This year, for the first time, most U.S. infantry battalions deployed in the rugged mountains and boggy valleys of Afghanistan are bringing along a contingent of canines to serve as guards, narcotics detectors, and trackers of enemy soldiers. Of the hundreds that have served with U.S. Marine units there, at least 10 dogs have died in the conflict.
[Learn more about how dogs help mankind in Mysteries of Science: Amazing Animals.]
The dogs have proved at least as useful to troops in the field as high-tech GPS units and night vision goggles. One of their most important assignments, out on patrol, is to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, and other booby traps before they do their damage. Recent studies have shown dogs to be far more accurate—not to mention vastly cheaper—than electronic bomb detectors. While the Pentagon isn't saying, a dog reportedly took part in the Osama bin Laden raid.
Relying on animals trained in the art of war is a tactic as old as war itself. Ancient warriors bred dogs for fighting; horses carried soldiers into the fray throughout Europe for centuries, beginning before the Roman conquest. During the fifth century, horse-mounted riders equipped with powerful bows allowed Attila the Hun to expand his empire to encompass much of Europe. Even in 2001, some of the most iconic images of the early Afghan campaign were of Special Forces operatives and CIA officers galloping into battle at Mazar-i-Sharif.
While horses and dogs may be the species most widely recognized for their battle exploits, many others in the animal kingdom have been called to duty over the centuries as well. Mules and donkeys have lugged supplies to the battlefield and carried fallen soldiers back. During World War II, the Polish army used a bear—which incidentally liked to smoke cigarettes and drink beer with the foot soldiers—as a pack animal to help move ammunition. Cats often roamed the trenches of World War I, controlling the rat population and, like canaries in coal mines, warning of gas attacks.
On occasion, animals have served as weapons themselves. The Romans were fond of catapulting hornets' nests into enemy ranks, and beehives were frequently rigged to tripwires during the First World War to spew out a buzzing horde of defenders when the enemy got too close. During World War II, the Soviets sent dogs strapped with explosives to attack German tanks. One of the U.S. military's odder schemes, the top-secret Project X-Ray, envisioned deploying bats to burn down Japanese cities, which were then largely constructed of wood. A canister filled with 1,000 bats would be dropped from the air, and the bats would be released with an incendiary device attached to their bodies that would ignite after the bats took refuge under the eaves of the buildings. When the military tested the scheme in a remote part of the New Mexico desert in 1943, the bat bomb worked as designed. In fact, it worked a little too well, setting fire to part of a nearby Army air base. "It was a crazy way to win World War II in the Pacific," wrote Jack Couffer, a member of Project X-Ray, in his 1992 book Bat Bomb. The project was canceled when the testing phase took longer than expected.
Sometimes, animal warriors perform as heroically and loyally as their human comrades. In 1918, Cher Ami, a homing pigeon with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, was with nearly 200 members of the 77th Infantry Division trapped behind German lines near Verdun. The men of the "Lost Battalion" had seen several of their messenger birds shot from the sky as shells from both armies rained down around them. Cher Ami, the battalion's last hope, managed to get word of its location back to the U.S. lines so a rescue could be launched, but he arrived minus one leg, blinded in one eye, and shot through the breast. Cher Ami, who was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm, died of his wounds in 1919 and now sits on display in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington. Theo, a springer spaniel deployed with British forces in Afghanistan, found 14 homemade bombs with his handler, Lance Cpl. Liam Tasker, during his short time there. In March, after Tasker was killed by a sniper while on patrol, Theo reportedly curled up in a ball and stayed close by. A few hours after Tasker's death, Theo had a seizure and died, too.
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.