: The Human Age

They Had No Choice


They Had No Choice

When the life-size horse puppet first appears onstage in War Horse, its neck rippling and ears twitching in startlingly lifelike ways, it takes a moment to figure out what humans are doing inside a see-through horse. But as the puppeteers brilliantly animate the tendons and muscles, it makes sense to the inner shaman inside us, the being who identifies so closely with animals that weve embedded animal attributes into our slang (eagle-eyed, stubborn as a mule, lionhearted, strong as a bull, etc.). All children play at being other animals. We often wallpaper nurseries in animal motifs. We use animals as avatars online, and we become part animal in horror movies, not to mention soap operas that feature love-sick half-animal vampires. In the past, we attached our muscles to those of animals, who extended our speed and strength in battle, or carried our supplies. They became a kind of equipment that men often grew fond of, and yet had to watch die in battle, or leave behind at wars end. As weve been learning more about the minds and senses of animals, discovering that they experience emotions similar to our own, were developing much more compassion for them.

One moment in the middle of Steven Spielbergs lyrical epic film version of this story still haunts me. As we are charging through the woods during World War I, amid gunfire, shrieks, and bloodletting, with young men and horses shell-shocked and crazed by horror, the action recedes for a needed break from battle, the camera pauses, and we view the war in a surprising and intimate mirrorreflected on the curved eyeball of Joey, the equine hero. Trauma, like some hallucinogens, lingers for a long time in the tissues, and in that shot one can see exactly how it gets there. Because a horses eye is curved, the scene is warped, with men and animals and smoke and balls of light and flying clots of earth leaping in all directions. War is traumatic for horses and other animalslike the humans who create it. The beautifully wrought image says it all, and stings the heart like a line of saber-sharp poetry.

Weve recruited many unlucky other animals to fight our battles, and only recently have we begun to recognize their capacity for horror and suffering, and to commemorate their sacrifices. Between two busy streets, near Hyde Park, in London, I happened upon a startling war memorial surrounded by a lively crowd of people, several horses and mules, a handful of well-behaved dogs and cats, and a flock of racing pigeons. Older gents in military caps, some in bright regalia from wars long past, displayed medals on their chests and red poppies in their lapels. A mounted Household Cavalry soldier, dressed all in black, rode a matching jet-black Irish horse, which he seemed at times to fade into, except for his white belt and the scarlet stripe down his pant leg and the scarlet band around his cap. Other soldiers in desert camouflage, well-dressed women holding lapdogs, countless veterans, animal rights groupsall milled in admiration around the gleaming sixty-foot curve of white limestone symbolizing the arena of war.

Beautifully rendered in bas-relief on the wall, a parade of camels, elephants, monkeys, bears, horses, pigeons, goats, oxen, and other animals bravely march side by side to war. A few yards away, two heavily laden bronze mules, their strength whittled to the bone, struggle up shallow steps under a burden of rifles and battle equipment, heading toward a breach in the wall. The first mule stretches its arrowlike neck toward a garden visible through the pearly white gates of limestone.

On the other side of the wall, a robust bronze stallion is breaking into a gallop, with a bronze setter beside it, both freed of their burdens. The dogs head is turned to look back toward fallen comrades. Lifes bas-relief gone, on this side of the wall animals are carved in stark silhouettes and hollowed outlines, like a childs puzzle waiting for the pieces to be slipped in.

The ?1 million memorial, paid for entirely with private funds, bears this legend:

This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.

A smaller inscription beneath it reads:

They had no choice.

I heard several old soldiers paying tribute to the animals they relied on in so many ways during the war. A veteran sang the praises of the supply mules in the Burmese jungle (their vocal cords had been cut lest they bray and endanger the soldiers). My life was saved by the mules, he said, his gaze sliding into the past. The only way we could get the guns up to us was using them. Some anonymous animal lover had left a wreath on the memorial whose card read: You have smelt our fear. You have seen our bloodshed. You have heard our cries. Forgive us dear animals that we have asked you to serve in this way in war.

Nothing prepares you for how cold the bronze mules are to the touch, or the camels sand-matted cement coat. In springtime, beds of daffodils are blooming yellow trumpets. Behind the curve, in the afterlife part of the memorial, the horse is much larger than life, its hooves the size of dinner plates. Too tall to mount, it walks on a lawn of grass sprinkled with tiny daisies. The setter is life-size. Neither has been endowed with a human expression. They are simply and amply animal, healthy and untroubled, relieved of wars horrors.

Designed by David Backhouse, the memorial poetically captures the plight of the millions of animals who have served and died in our wars. Dogs carried reels on their backs and laid telegraph lines, or ripped their paws raw digging through rubble for survivors. Orca whales became cinematographers, patrolling while holding cameras in their mouths. Pigeons delivered messages from the front. Sea lions dived to 650 feet to recover lost equipment. Beluga whales learned to dial their sonar for surveillance in waters too cold for other mammals to dare. War elephants were ridden on campaign through mountains and jungles. Camel cavalries battled in Arabia and North Africa. And glowworms

Yes, glowworms. In separate chambers of their body, glowworms (also known as lightning bugs) brew luciferin and luciferase, two chemicals that dont do much until theyre mixed together. Then they become a magic potion that glows so brightly the insects can use it to blink semaphores of love. Their hind ends become literal lighthouses, leading mates to shore. Sometimes femme fatale lightning bugs interfere, by mimicking another females flash code and stealing her mate. A sirens come-hither can be mesmerizing, even on the battlefield, and fill the heart of an insect suitor with light or illumine a soldiers letter from home. Unlike an incandescent bulb, the light blends into the landscape. And so, during the trench warfare of World War I, soldiers of the Somme read their maps and letters by the cold green light of glowworms carried to war as living lamps.

A hundred thousand pigeons flew missions during World War I, and two hundred thousand during World War II, racing a mile a minute to deliver strange cargocoded notes in capsules taped to their legs. One notable World War I pigeon, Cher Ami, who flew for the U.S. Army Signal Corps (and died of battle wounds in 1919), relayed twelve urgent messages before being shot in the breast and leg. Despite the blood loss, shock, and shattered leg, he delivered his messagean act dubbed heroic by the French, who formally awarded him the Croix de Guerre. Trained at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, and recruited as an avian soldier, Cher Ami could hardly be thought of as serving his country. Still, Cher Amis one-legged body is on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American Historys Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit.

Stranger by far, at the height of World War II, the Americans prepared Pacific-bound Project X-Ray, also known as the Bat Bomb Project, dreamt up by Lytle S. Doc Adams. Bats had always played an important role in U.S. warfare, because bat guano ferments into saltpeter, a key ingredient in gunpowder, and as early as the Revolutionary War soldiers scraped and mined it from caves favored by migrating bats.

Gathering thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave, where twenty million mom and baby bats roost between March and October, Adams and his team fitted them with small incendiary bombs, and planned to tuck them into individual canisters, each equipped with a parachute, and drop them over Japan. At a thousand feet the canisters would open and the bats fly free to roost under shingles and eaves, where they would soon explode, setting fire to whole cities dotted with wooden and paper houses. President Roosevelt okayed this oddball plan and spent $2 million on it. Then one day armed test bats accidentally escaped and torched a Texas air base, after which Project X-Ray was ditched.

Also at work during those years, the American behaviorist B. F. Skinner began developing a pigeon-guided missile. In what was known as Project Pigeon, he trained the birds to steer by pecking at a target. The U.S. Navy revived it after the war as Project Orcon (for organic control), and only abandoned the scheme in 1953 because electronically guided missiles proved more reliable. It wasnt declassified for another six years, just in case.

Its well known that pigeons, dogs, horses, camels, and elephants have been drafted for war since ancient days. Apparently pigs served in battle, too. Pliny the Elder, who lived in ancient Rome, tells of herds of grunting hogs being loosed to scare the elephants of invaders. Lately, though, weve extended the idea of animal soldiers into the realm of lunacy.

The Pentagons Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)whose psyops (psychological operations) division most people first learned of in the book and film The Men Who Stare at Goatstrained CIA operatives to practice remote killing on animals. But that was only one of the CIAs bizarre plans for animal combatants. In Operation Acoustic Kitty, the CIA implanted a bugging device inside a cat, with an antenna hidden in the cats tail. This five-year-long, $5 million Cold War project was canceled when the cat, released near a Russian compound, was hit by a car and died while trying to cross a street. Cats were also considered as guidance systems for bombs dropped on ships (the tenuous logic being that since cats hate water theyd steer the bombs they were strapped to toward the deck).

Animals have died in the millions helping us fight our wars, and as our soldiers have become increasingly more technological in recent decades, so have our armed service animals. In 2010, the Chinese newspaper Peoples Daily accused the Taliban of training monkeys to shoot Kalashnikovs, light machine guns, and fire mortars at NATO forces. Though the Taliban denied the rumor, it leaves disturbing images in the mind, and conjures up the scene in The Wizard of Oz when a battalion of flying monkeys attacks from the skies. Even watching the movie as a kid, I was scared not by the monkeys but by the witch evil enough to train animals as goons to wage our wars.

The CIA has experimented with remote-controlled cyber-insects, inserting microchips into the pupa stage of butterflies, moths, and dragonflies because, as a DARPA proposal explained, through each metamorphic stage, the insect body goes through a renewal process that can heal wounds and reposition internal organs around foreign objects. The result: cyborg dragonflies and robomoths, and search-and-rescue cyborg cockroaches. Other plans have included remote-controlled sharks (with electrodes in their brains) designed to sniff out bombs and explosives, bees trained to replace bomb-sniffing dogs, and hamsters stationed at security checkpoints who are trained to press a lever when they smell high levels of adrenaline.

For more than fifty years, the U.S. Navy has trained pods of dolphins to use their elite echolocation skills and low-light vision to spot and clear underwater mines. Theyve served the navy in both Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, by filming, delivering equipment, and capturing enemy divers (by clamping on a leg cuff roped to a buoy). Mine-hunting dolphins learned to identify underwater explosives without detonating them and report back to their handlers, giving yes or no responses to questions. Sometimes they marked the whereabouts of mines by delicately attaching buoy lines to them; other times they disabled the mines by attaching explosives and dashing away. When Iran threatened to mine the Strait of Hormuz in 2012, and block the vital shipping route, NPR asked retired admiral Tim Keating, who commanded the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, how hed handle the situation.

Weve got dolphins, he said matter-of-factly.

Prized as the dolphins may be by their handlers, the navy regards them as another form of personnel, without rank but classified in true military fashion. For instance, Mk 4 Mod 0 is a dolphin trained to detect a mine near the seabed and then attach an explosive charge to it; Mk 5 Mod 1 is a sea lion used to retrieve mines during practice maneuvers.

However, in the summer of 2012 the navy made a momentous announcement. It plans to retire its squads of minesweeping dolphins and other sea mammals by 2017, and replace some with robotic drones called knife fish (a fish known for emitting an electric field). Unlike sea mammals, knife fish wont be able to neutralize a mine, only locate, film, and transmit data about it. Other pods of robotic underwater drones will be guided by fiber-optic cables. Id like to believe that compassionate motives inspired this decision, but Im sure thrift also played a role. As a military system, robots are cheaper to field than dolphins, who are heavy to transport to battle theaters in water-filled tanks, and require feeding and medical care.

Theres been a lot of public complaint about sending animals to war and research labs, especially big-brained mammals like dolphins, and maybe it hasnt fallen on entirely muffled ears. In 2013, after years of concerted worldwide lobbying, the U.S. government finally retired nearly all research chimpanzees and listed the species as endangered. This means that the chimpanzees who have weathered countless illnesses on our behalf are finally being released to animal sanctuaries, and no new chimps will have to face such horrors.

Our dominion over animals, ill-treated for eons in our research and wars, is rapidly being replaced by technology, thank heavens. We have pack mule robots designed to supplant horses and trucks in difficult terrain, robot fleas that leap through open windows and spy, and ambidextrous gymnastic robots that can fill in for human soldiers in toxic areas. But no one has figured out yet how to engineer a dogs superrefined nose. Dogs can smell a mans scent in a room he has left hours before, and then track the few molecules that seep through the soles of his shoes and land on the ground when he walks, over uneven terrain, even on a stormy night. Thus far a robot cant match that finesse. So for the time being we still have dog-soldiers, some trained to kill.

If wars must be fought at all, drones at least are heartless. Alas, their targets arent.[14]


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