The Dogs of War

the Belgian Malinois

When it comes to books, movies, and TV shows, I am drawn to action and adventure. So when CBS came out with the new war-drama SEAL Team a few years ago, I watched the first few episodes and was hooked. I liked how the Navy SEALs were inserted into a hot zone by helicopter, watercraft, or parachute and how they entered a building in close formation in a carefully choreographed series of moves. But it wasn’t the big burly men dressed in camo, wearing night vision goggles, and carrying H&K 416 carbines that drew me in. I was attracted to one particular member of the team—a member whose gear was specially made to fit his unique form and who was often the first one into danger. He was a Belgian Malinois named Cerberus—a war dog.

We humans have been using dogs in battle for centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans took dogs into battle. The Spanish conquistadors used mastiffs and other large breeds to intimidate native peoples during their exploration of the Americas. And in World War I, the Germans used herding dogs they called Alsatians as sentries, messengers, and ammunition carriers. The most famous of these early war dogs, and one I grew up watching on TV, was Rin Tin Tin.

The real Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd that was rescued from a World War I battlefield by an American soldier and trained for work in silent films. His legacy continued into the 1950s with a television series, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. The magic of television transposed his “war dog” exploits back to the American West of the 1800s.

In WWII, the Marines adopted the Doberman pinscher to help them take back the Pacific Islands from the Japanese. My generation served in the jungles of Vietnam, where thousands of dogs—mostly German shepherds—served alongside our troops. Their handlers affectionately called them “fur missiles”.

Today, a new breed of canine soldier has emerged, the Belgian Malinois. This is another herding dog similar to, but smaller than, the German shepherd. Malinois, like German shepherds, have long worked with police departments. In fact, the American Kennel Club noted in the 1908 issue of their newsletter, that five “Belgian Sheepdogs” had been added to the New York City police department.

The Belgian Malinois (or Mal) is one of the top breeds chosen by police departments around the country and they are important members of the U.S. military—where they are officially known as Military Working Dogs. Most of the dogs that work with the elite Navy SEALs are Mals. SEAL dogs, like the TV star Cerberus, are given their own special body armor and are even fitted with night-vision goggles. One of the reasons Belgian Malinois are favored over German shepherds for many military operations is that Mals are lighter, so it’s easier for military parachutists to do tandem jumps with their dogs strapped to them. Mals can even be trained to jump on their own, which is reportedly safer for the dogs when they land in water.

I know TV does not represent reality. If a building blows up around you, you probably won’t survive. The results of DNA tests don’t come back in minutes. And people don’t always live happily ever after. But I grew up watching television working dogs like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin perform amazing and dangerous tasks to help their human partners. So the use of dogs in wartime, seems no worse to me than sending troops—especially those that did not volunteer—into battle. The dogs just need to be treated as valued partners not expendable objects.

The TV SEAL team dog, Cerberus, is portrayed as an equal member of the team. In one episode, he begins to lose his edge and runs away in a firefight. He appears to be lost. But in a subsequent battle we see shades of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin when he saves one of the SEAL team members. The man discovers that Cerberus has a deep knife wound, so he bandages the dog, puts him on his back, and carries him to safety. Cerberus retires with PTSD and goes home to live with the SEAL team member he saved. I like to think that this Hollywood ending is one that would also play-out in real life.

I have always had a special admiration for warfighters—and not because I live in a Marine Corps town. When I was in my early teens, my older cousin Roger enlisted in the Marines. When he came home from boot camp, I was in awe of him. He was the biggest, baddest dude I had ever seen. Interestingly, he was stationed in Albany at some point in his career. Soon after I moved to Albany, I heard from his brother Johnny, who was in the Air Force, that he and Roger were both stationed in Albany, Georgia at the same time in the 1970s—Johnny at Turner AFB and Roger at MCLB.

Sadly, although my cousin Roger survived several tours in Vietnam, he later succumbed to the devastating effects of the war’s PTSD. Roger is still one of my boyhood heroes—one of thousands of war fighters who have sacrificed so we might live free. I wonder if he ever went into battle with one of those “fur missiles” as part of his combat team. In my imagination, he might have led his squad into a jungle firefight following a German shepherd and his handler.

When I first watched SEAL Team, I was surprised to see Cerberus jump out of an airplane. I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for him or marvel at his bravery. But as I observed the dynamics of the dog’s relationship to the team, I came to understand that, TV dramatization notwithstanding, he was part of the team. He was doing what dogs are bred to do. He was carefully trained, lovingly accepted, and prepared to do his part for the “family”. Some dogs are bred and trained to hunt birds, some to sniff out contraband, and others to herd sheep. Dogs like Cerberus are warfighters, and we owe the real warfighters—both human and canine—a debt of gratitude for their service and their sacrifice, especially on this Memorial Day.

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