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Pets Later!

Ann Marlowe

US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan befriend local animals as a way to help cope with the emotional hardships they endure every day while deployed in a war zone. The Operation Baghdad Pups program provides veterinary care and coordinates complicated logistics and transportation requirements in order to reunite these beloved pets with their servicemen and women back in the US. These important animals not only help our heroes in the war zone, but they also help them readjust to life back home after combat.

— Operation Baghdad Pups

A friend who loves animals sent me this link. And maybe because I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways civilians see our military, it made me see red. The SPCA is a worthy organization, and I’m glad people are donating money to bring cats and dogs from Afghanistan and Iraq to the US. But the condescension in the paragraph above tells more about the prevailing lefty view of our troops than it does about the actual situation of these animals. It sees our military as both superhuman and needy, perhaps almost like pets themselves.

Our military befriend dogs (for the most part) not so much for their own needs, but because the locals treat animals cruelly and then some. I don’t know enough about the situation in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, a good percentage of both kids and adults are at once frightened by dogs and eager to harm them if the opportunity comes their way. I’ve seen Afghan National Army soldiers try to sneak in kicks at the dog befriended by American soldiers at a remote base in Zabul. Small wonder that dog, like many others at American bases, growls at anyone who isn’t in a uniform (like me). Cats? They are not so common on military bases, perhaps because they’re not so common in Afghan villages; there simply isn’t the food surplus to nourish strays. But civilian friends in Kabul had an incredibly smart cat they rescued from a group of kids who were playing catch with her when she was a kitten.

The last sentence of the SPCA quotation above should be unpacked: “our heroes” and “war zone” and “readjust to life back home” and “after combat.” As several friends of mine in the military are the first to insist, not everyone who serves, or deploys, or deploys to a war zone is a “hero.” Saying so cheapens the bravery of those who truly are heroes. It’s like calling everyone who enters a race a “champion.”

Most of our troops in Afghanistan are in giant bases like Bagram and Kandahar, where the feeling of a “war zone” is dim indeed. They are the “tail” to our “tooth,” serving as mechanics, personnel, and supply officers, and doing other necessary but not exactly hazardous or heroic tasks. They don’t ever see combat. Even those who die tragically young are usually killed by IEDs, not by bullets. They are slain without even the chance to use their often formidable combat skills, or to prove the heroism that many of them would show.

The Web site also makes the assumption, common to some of my acquaintances, that both while deployed and when our military return from Iraq or Afghanistan, they are emotionally fragile, perhaps even damaged by their experiences. While it is terrible to lose one’s friends to an IED attack, my impression is that the people I’ve encountered in the military are on the whole less emotionally fragile than my acquaintances in civilian life. In fact, the time I spend on embeds makes me more and more impatient with the indulgent, self-absorbed neurotics I encounter at the average New York party.

Returning to the adopted pets: the SPCA also doesn’t mention one big issue. It’s against health regulations to have animals on American bases, and periodically, military health inspectors swoop down and kill soldiers’ pets. Rabies is the main issue. (A quick check of Wikipedia shocked me: 55,000 people die yearly from rabies.) I don’t know enough about the health issues involved to condemn the policy as a whole, but in many remote bases where troops burn their waste and have no running water, the lieutenants or captains in command seem to look the other way about pets. The military doesn’t make it easy to bring a dog home; it costs about $2,500 to do it through official channels.

But the incredibly elaborate procedure described by the SPCA for its “Baghdad pups” program seems much worse. It actually involves sending a “team” of rescuers to the Middle East to pick up the animal.

In Kabul, at least a much cheaper alternative is available for civilians to take pets home. Journalist Pamela Constable started an organization called Tigger House that vaccinates cats and dogs and helps find homes for them. Once vaccinated, you can legally bring a cat or dog from Afghanistan to the US without a quarantine period. It would make much more sense for the SPCA to match American servicemen and women with pets with civilians leaving Kabul for the US. Tigger House seems to have a collaborative program in place which reduces the $2,500 cost by half if a civilian escorts the dog home.

Finally, many soldiers who grow attached to animals in Afghanistan have dogs of their own back home and can’t take on an unlimited number of pets. Much of the impulse to take a dog home stems from the fear that it will be mistreated by Afghans, or killed by health inspectors. You wouldn’t guess it from the SPCA, but our troops are much more likely to be thinking of protecting the weak and helpless than needing protection.

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