Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dogs of War

Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.

From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Not a very original title for an entry, but the topic deserves some exploration…

Afghanistan has its share of dogs. For the most part, they live a pitiful existence like most of the inhabitants of this land. I say for the most part, because some are lucky enough to be taken in by Americans, who certainly have a soft spot for animals. We were in Afghanistan a couple of weeks before we adopted a puppy, who was carried home by one of my guys after she refused to be led around on the improvised leash he configured. I was happy with the acquisition, reckoning a dog would be good for morale and diversion if nothing else, and given our somewhat precarious situation living within an Afghan village depending on unreliable Afghan troops for our safety at night, I thought we might accrue some force protection benefits from having an attentive dog.

The dogs here tend to all look pretty much alike – skinny and mongrelly…maybe 50 pounds when they are grown if decently fed. Not that many are decently fed; Afghans do not like dogs, don’t keep them for pets, and consider them unclean. Afghanistan is a harsh place, and harsher still on those at the bottom of the food chain, such as the women, domesticated animals, and dogs. In all my time here, I can’t say I’ve seen an Afghan treat a dog with kindness. They pretty much just throw rocks at the dogs. It’s funny though…medieval though the Afghan culture may be (and Afghans can be heartless in their treatment of the weak and helpless), I tend to agree with the Afghan conception of dogs as unclean and filthy animals, though I certainly don’t view dogs with their level of contempt. I don’t mind having a dog, but the dog should stay outside, rather than destroying the inside area with its urine, feces, claws, and jaws.

At any rate, my hopes of having the dog, who was dubbed “Bones” by the Marine that brought her home, serve as an early warning device for people approaching the back entrance to our base, were not realized, as I could hardly get her to spend a night outdoors without whining. A lot of it probably had to do with poor and inconsistent “training” on my part. And some of it surely, had to do with her receiving more lenient treatment at the hands of the other Marines on our base, especially when I was not around. I’ll let that be a lesson to me…unity of effort is helpful, if not required, for the discipline of one’s charges. I was able to occasionally take her out on short patrols through the most local of the local villages when we were on our way to the larger base nearby. On those occasions she’s often stay behind at the larger base to take advantage of the better food and accommodations available over there, but we’d see her again when another patrol made its way down to our base and brought her with them.

As Americans, generally we love dogs, and that holds even more so for soldiers and Marines far from home and loved ones. However, we don’t love all dogs, even over here. Dogs that approach your isolated outpost at night are nothing but a nuisance, and risk activating whatever measures you may have in place to protect yourself, including people standing guard. As I lie in bed trying to get some sleep it is not uncommon for me to hear over the radio one of the outposts in the area requesting permission to shoot a dog. Permission granted, everyone rogers up that they know a shot is going to ring out, and then they’ll call back in saying that they’ve completed the shooting. Sleeping right next to the radio, I seem to hear these things in my dreams, but even so, often I can’t help but snicker to myself about the uniqueness of the whole situation – a bunch of Americans and their partnered Afghans living together holed-up in their little isolated redoubts, shooting the dogs that threaten us in the middle of the night.

Taking a dog out on patrol is probably not the best idea but we often do it anyway. For one thing, the local people, as I stated, don’t want much to do with them. Given that we generally try to get the people to be friendly with us, having a dog nearby does not enhance the chances of us interacting. Second, a dog can certainly be distracting, and distraction is not what you want when danger can come at any time from anywhere. And third, having dogs with us actually makes us much easier to spot. On one of the missions I did not go on, I can recall looking for three of our guys who went off on their own up a mountainside apart from the main part of the patrol. Watching them with the naked eye and with binos, I often could not spot them when they were not moving, as they blended in with the environment pretty well to someone looking for them from 800 meters away. However, they had a dog with them. And that dog never stopped moving, which made it easy to see, and always led me to find where my friends were. Later on in that patrol they, not surprisingly, ended up getting a few shots sent their way, which in that case elicited no response on our part because we could not locate the source of the few shots that were fired.

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