December 2007 - January 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Dogs of war

By Charles Firth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In the advertising business, there is a phenomenon called the Puppy Dog Effect. When a firm is pitching several different concepts for a television commercial, they will often slip footage of a puppy dog into the mock-up of their favourite idea, even if the product being advertised has nothing to do with puppy dogs. The ad with the dog invariably receives the most positive response from focus groups, not to mention the client, because everyone loves a puppy. Put a puppy in the foreground, and everyone forgets about everything else.

When three Australian soldiers were injured in Afghanistan in August, it was the death of their sniffer dog that made headlines. It was the second death of a dog within a month, and the Department of Defence sprung to attention, announcing it would build a memorial to honour them. Thus a story about some injured soldiers and a dead dog very quickly became one about memorialising the heroic deeds of two sheepdogs who had sacrificed everything to save their masters. It was a story about Razz and Merlin, the ultimate Digger Dogs, blindly throwing themselves in harm’s way. It was a canine Gallipoli, but with the added pathos of the Puppy Dog Effect.

At least, that’s what I assumed. The reality was slightly different. Merlin, the first dog to die, was actually a victim of friendly fire. Or, more accurately, friendly tyre. The media reported that Merlin was killed in a “vehicle accident”. Specifically, he was resting in the shade under an Australian Light Armoured Vehicle, and when his masters drove off ... well, you get the idea. That is not to lessen Merlin’s achievements: he had spent several months in Afghanistan, and before that had served as a sniffer dog at the notoriously treacherous 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Razz’s “ultimate sacrifice”, as the Defence spokesperson called it, was more heroic. Two soldiers in Oruzgan province had been injured by a roadside bomb placed by Taliban fighters. Their wounds were described as “slight”, but one of the men nevertheless had to be evacuated to a nearby hospital. It was then that Razz was called into action to continue the  demoralising task of finding other roadside bombs, using only his nose.

Australia has a long history of using dogs in war. Perhaps the most famous is Rolf, whose stuffed body is still on display at the Australian War Memorial. Rolf was actually on the side of the Germans during World War I, running messages and helping locate soldiers stuck in collapsed trenches. But one day the Australians were cooking some particularly delicious-smelling rashers of bacon. Rolf immediately saw the senselessness of fighting against the Anzac forces and ran across no-man’s-land to join the fight against the Hun. It was the Petrov affair, doggy-style.

Tellingly, the Vietnam War was a low point in the use of dogs by the Australian military. One of the black labradors conscripted died there, but the other ten survived. Despite the protests of the soldiers who worked alongside the dogs, the Australian military refused to let them be repatriated to Australia after the war ended, citing quarantine concerns. One soldier even offered to pay for the cost of quarantine, to no avail. In the event, the dogs were found homes with friendly locals. But in a country where a war-ravaged people were suffering from protein deficiency and where the taboo about eating man’s best friend does not hold strong ... well, perhaps they made the ultimate sacrifice, too.

It is hard to work out whether it is the dogs themselves, or the stories they generate, that is most useful to the military. After all, there are far more roadside bombs in Afghanistan than dogs you could throw at them. That’s what I presume, anyway. When I asked how many dogs were serving in Afghanistan, a Defence spokesperson told me the number was “significant”, but added that “the ADF won’t release the specific number of dogs deployed ... for operational security reasons.” Imagine if the Taliban learnt exactly how many dogs Australia had in Afghanistan ...

It surprised me, too, when Defence refused my request to visit the Memorial for War Dogs at the School of Military Engineering, in the Sydney suburb of Georges Heights. I have, I admit, been refused permission to visit a lot of places. I have been thrown out of the University of Esfahan, the main nuclear-research centre in Iran; I have been threatened with hospitalisation by police while being escorted from the late Jerry Falwell’s megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia. But I have never been refused access to a pet cemetery - until now.

The spokesperson said they were expanding the memorial to incorporate Razz and Merlin, and promised to invite me along when it opened, in January. Still, I’m having a hard time working out the “operational security reasons” that prevent me from seeing the existing memorial, which apparently consists of a headstone with a brass plaque on it. What do they think I’d do to it? Piss on it, because that’s what Razz would’ve wanted?

In any case, the treatment of Razz and Merlin makes me proud to be an Australian. Commemorating our fallen dogs is the perfect way to honour the violence the nation perpetrates in distant lands. And the spokesperson assured me that after the conflict in Afghanistan, the dogs serving there would be repatriated to Australia.

The fact that we’re celebrating these dogs points to the growing respect we all have for war stories, especially ones with cute puppy dogs in them. Or perhaps it just means Defence’s budget is so large that it can afford to indulge in pet projects, even during a time of war. Let’s just hope that not too many more are brought home in doggy bags.

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