Dogs of War

Yesterday’s post on war memorials was serious, so today we cover a far sillier topic. On the east edge of Hyde Park in London is a beautiful memorial that recognizes the service of untold thousands of animals in wartime. Elephants, camels, mules and horses are the only the most common beasts of burden to go to war. Since the dawn of human history people have taken animals to war with them.  Even today, there’s no shortage of animals on the battlefield.  In Afghanistan, US troops have used military working dogs (there’s a whole official webpage here), horses (now the subject of a Remmington-esque monument in New York), and even mules (read about the US Marine Corp’s animal-packing course in the Sierra Nevadas here).

Of course, every once in a while someone comes up with a plan to turn an animal into a bona fide weapon.  And usually, that plan goes horribly, horribly wrong.

We’ll start today with man’s best friend, the dog, and how strapping a bomb onto “Lassie” quickly backfired.  On the Eastern Front during World War Two, the Soviet army often resorted to some fairly primitive weapons to stop German tanks.  Artillery firing over open sights, anti-tank rifles, satchel charges and, for a very short time, the dog bomb.  The basic plan was simple.  A mine was attached to each dog with a simple trigger switch that was tripped when the dog ran under a tank.  The dogs were trained by placing their food under a tank so that they would become used to running to the vehicle.  Unleashed into combat, the plan failed because the dogs tended to run under the Soviet tanks with which they had trained rather than the German ones.  Sources are vague, but the project seems to have been abandoned by late 1943.

Tomorrow: chickens.  Monday: America’s “real” fighting falcons.


2 thoughts on “Dogs of War

  1. I’m curious to see if there’s going to be a continuous thread running through your stories of military planners thinking that animals are machines whose behavior is as predictable as a machine gun instead of creatures with some degree of intellect and decision making capacities. Hadn’t they ever heard the expression, “you can lead a horse wearing an explosive vest to water but you can’t make it run towards the bridge you want to blow up.”

    I also wonder if there’s any connection here with wider happenings in Soviet attitudes towards science. This is around the time Lysenko is the man to know isn’t it? To go out on a limb that might not support any weight, do you think there’s any connection between the Lysenkoist belief that environment and conditioning were all-important and this attempt to condition dogs into little furry guided missiles? Or were the more Mendelian capitalist pigs just as silly?

    • I don’t think the Soviet dog bomb program was sophisticated enough to be connected to Lysenkoist science. Like most of animal weapon projects, it relied on a pretty primitive idea – get dogs to connect tanks with food – without thinking through the likely consequences – dogs connect Russian tanks with food. The one big exception, coming up on Wednesday, was where B.F. Skinner himself got involved in training pigeons to guide bombs, a project that would have worked if it wasn’t for the fact that transistors are much smaller than birds.

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