Animals and the Military

Gervase Phillips

in Military History

Published online February 2012 | | DOI:

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Any sustained reading of military history quickly reveals how a general human assumption of dominion over all other forms of life has ensured that warfare, besides its obvious association with human suffering, ought to be linked also to the deliberate exploitation of, and systemic cruelty toward, animals. The examples are legion: the overburdened, underfed horses, mules, oxen, and camels, those “beasts of burden” under the lash of riders and drivers, that sustained military mobility and logistics through the first half of the 20th century; the sensitive and intelligent elephant used as an instrument of slaughter or of the faithful and amenable dog utilized as a means of delivering explosives on the battlefield. Thus, whatever specific debates may have developed around the role of a particular animal in a particular time and place, it would not be inappropriate if the theme of “exploitation” was considered the underlying and unifying motif of the study of animals and the military. Yet, in many ways, this would be an oversimplification, for animals have not merely been the passive objects of exploitation; their physical and behavioral characteristics have shaped military activity just as they have shaped human agriculture, economics, social structure, and culture. They have thus demonstrated the potential to effect powerful changes on human societies. One need only think of the meteoric rise of the nomadic, equestrian cultures of the Great Plains of North America, following the reintroduction of the horse to the continent, to grasp this point. Furthermore, human attitudes toward animals are historically contingent. Transformations in those human attitudes, especially those concerning the moral obligations of humans toward other species, have fascinating implications for the relationship between soldier and animal; in modern Botswana the military is the protector, not the exploiter, of the elephant. Scholarly understanding, too, of the relationship between humans and animals has, happily, progressed far beyond opinions of those such as René Descartes (b. 1596–d. 1650), who dismissed the latter as mere “beast-machines,” automatons without mind or agency beyond the blind dictates of instinct. It is not merely the growing awareness of moral obligation toward animals but also the influence of social and economic history that has catalyzed a serious historical interest in the role of animals in past societies, an interest encompassing both their exploitation and their socioeconomic significance.

Article.  9980 words. 

Subjects: Military History ; Pre-20th Century Warfare ; First World War ; Second World War ; Post-WW2 Military History

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