Animal victims of human wars: Be their voice

Peace Advocate January 2023

unhappy dog hoping he won't get bombed
Elaine Scarry, Kathie Malley-Morrison, Louise Coleman, Linda Davis

By Kathleen Malley-Morrison

Our nation, born out of a bloody genocide that gradually spread across the entire North American continent, has a long history of wars characterized by the pursuit of power and domination and cloaked in the language of freedom and democracy.  Embedded in that history are tales of loving appreciation for the millions of animals conscripted into or innocent victims of those wars — like the millions of innocent people who get caught up in the deadly struggles of their rulers. 

Revering military animals, in much the same way as fallen soldiers are often publicly revered, The Smithsonian provides examples of animals, mostly dogs, that “helped win World War I” Similarly, the BBC praises the millions of animals used in a wide range of different roles during WWI “to help soldiers in battle and those at home”. Their story also notes that “Dogs were some of the hardest and most trusted workers in World War One. In 2019, in a ceremony on Capitol Hill. eight animals—five dogs, two pigeons and a horse, representing animal heroes from  World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars–were awarded Medals of Honor for their service and bravery, In a tribute to the dogs of the Vietnam war, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund comments that dogs and their handlers were credited with saving more than 10,000 U.S. lives during that war.

Taking a very different—and morally essential—perspective  on human use of non-human animals in their deadly undertakings, Philip Hoare argues in The Guardian that the sixteen million animals that served between 1914-18, with a huge loss of life, “are a stain on our conscience”. He concludes that “One hundred years after the first war of the anthropocene, itself a perversion of nature and fought for the Earth’s resources, these non-human casualties remain as an indelible stain on our conscience.” Another stain on the human conscience, often ignored or denied, is the fact that at the end of the Vietnam War, only 200 of the heroic life-saving dogs made it safely back to the US. Why? Because the U.S. Department of Defense, part of our country’s military industrial complex and apparently incapable of  conscience, classified the dogs as “equipment”; most were left behind with the South Vietnam army, systematically euthanized, or simply abandoned.  In an article on “The other Iraq war”, speaks truth to power: War is one of humankind’s most selfish of activities. To satisfy our own vendettas, our greed and our hatred and fear of each other, we kill and maim billions of creatures whose only fault was to be in the way”.

Today, in bloodied Ukraine and other nations subjected to power and profit-motivated armed conflicts by the world’s power mongers, the lives of non-human animals and the millions of people who treasure them are devalued. Some of their stories are being told in powerful photo essays, such as this one. and this one. Particularly poignant is this photo essay by Kendra Coulter, who argues that the war in Ukraine is “powerfully magnifying our love for animals”. 

Moreover, given the magnitude of the losses of Russian lives in the Ukraine war, it is likely that countless Russian pets and service animals have also suffered and been killed or maimed, even if their deaths have not been documented in western corporate media. When will we see a photo essay honoring those victims?

Although people often resist knowing and thinking about where their own government has some complicity, increasing attention is being given to the war in Eastern Europe—perhaps in part because it is in Eastern Europe rather than the Global South. Within a month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ashmita Gupta, a writer for the Weather Channel in India, challenged readers with the  question of whether the animals of the Ukraine would have to be considered “collateral damage or an irreplaceable loss”. She warned that Ukrainians fleeing the violence would “face an impossible moral and emotional dilemma of abandoning their pet cats and dogs.” Veterinarians Without Borders echo these concerns: “Under threat of death, people in Ukraine are faced with excruciating decisions. Do I stay and risk death because I cannot bear to leave my animals? Do I flee and leave them behind to fend for themselves? Do I go, but leave them at a shelter in the hopes they will survive?” Many Ukrainians have chosen to stay in their homes and protect their animals despite the risks. 

The threat to animal life in Ukraine goes well beyond pets and other domesticated animals. One of Europe’s most bio-diverse areas, home to more than 70,000 species of animals, plants, and fungi, Ukraine has been experiencing nearly constant missile attacks, destroying thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. In addition, at least 700 Black Sea dolphins are known to have died, victims of acoustic trauma caused by sonar equipment on Russian submarines, and mines. 

As you view the photo essays and reflect on the emotional and moral dilemmas facing Ukrainians, and the millions of other people and non-human animals in war zones today, please imagine how much more catastrophic those wars, or any war, would become if there was any involvement of nuclear weapons. Some people assume that if there is even a limited nuclear war—and threats of such limited wars appear to be increasing—they and their animals will survive, particularly if the nuclear exchanges take place on a different continent. However, it is likely that loving animal owners will have little opportunity to confront such moral and emotional dilemmas. Even if they survive the immediate deadly nuclear assaults, wherever they take place, nuclear winter will spread its deadly cloak so far and so wide that it will be each animal (human or non-human) for itself for anyone to survive. Billions won’t.

If you are an animal lover, now is the time to speak out on behalf of all living beings—i.e., Be their voice. There are many fine organizations—local, national, and international—that strive to protect non-human animals from various forms of human cruelty, violence, and exploitation. Join them. Learn more about the nuclear and climate existential threats to human and non-human life by exploring these sites and join the organizations devoted to addressing those threats—including Mass Peace Action. If you want to help the organizations working to save and protect animals in Ukraine, click here.

Please also consider endorsing the Be their voice campaign initiated by Dr. Elaine Scarry and the Public Engagement and Movement Building subcommittee of Mass Peace Action’s Nuclear Disarmament Working Group. Life can be so beautiful. Help us preserve it.

Kathleen Malley-Morrison, a Professor Emerita in the Boston University Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, is current chairperson of the MAPA Public Engagement & Movement Building subcommittee of the Nuclear Disarmament Working Group.