- - Tuesday, December 9, 2014



By Rebecca Frankel

Foreword by Thomas E. Ricks

Palgrave Macmillan, $26, 272 pages

War dogs are more than dogs. They are testimony to what dogs are and can be.

In this moving yet uncompromising book, Rebecca Frankel pays a tender tribute to a very special breed of dogs and men. This is not a sentimentalized account of canine heroism, but it is an often painfully unvarnished portrait of canine courage that may be tracked back through the centuries.

Ms. Frankel, who spent the kind of effort and time with dogs to make her an authority on what and who they are, uses an anecdote about the impression made on Napoleon Bonaparte by witnessing a dog’s grief over a man to illustrate the history of animals who transcend those who own and train them. She went out with the dogs and their handlers, at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and in Pakistan, where she watched as they risked and sometimes lost their lives as their sensitive noses detected death in the explosives that were their target.

She also underscores the deep bond that came to exist between the dogs and the handlers, who were never, she notes called their owners or keepers. What she describes in heartbreaking terms is a relationship that can save or cost the lives of both the dogs and the men. They were partners in the most dangerous of worlds, in the conflicts of the Middle East, where even survival was threatened. Ms. Frankel did it right. She went to the training grounds and was there for many months, sharing the misery, listening and learning from the dogs and their handlers, aware at times that she was not quite up to a job involving Marines and dogs who could and would kill under orders. She notes, “If a dog is killed in action, he is memorialized and eulogized by the handlers and kennel masters in their forward operating bases in-country or at their home stations. The loss is the loss of a fallen comrade, nothing more and nothing less.”

She estimates that 30 handlers were killed between 2004 and 2013 and 20 dogs were killed, with two missing in action. She tells of the dogs, and their personalities, reciting name after name with obvious affection. She asserts, “To know a war dog is not to know war, but they can help us understand it better. Knowing the bond between a handler and his dog, we are able to see the people at the other end of the leash more clearly. To know a military handler and his dog’s lot in war is to better understand our military. And just as war dogs save lives, they enrich them.”

The author emphasizes that because she has known such dogs, she would never look at them the same way again, and because she came to know their keepers, she would never look at the military the same way again. “Dogs have a way of bringing us back to our senses. They cut a path to our emotions and more often than not, that emotion is love, whatever form it takes,” she writes.

According to Ms. Frankel, in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, Lt. Col. E.H. Richardson was the lone advocate for integrating canines into British battalions, insisting that their potential to assist on the battlefield would be unparalleled. He was, she observes, about a hundred years ahead of his time in laying the framework for the modern day war dog handler. He also was emphatic about the need for sympathy and understanding between man and dog, warning that even a strong animal could be spoiled by sharp handling.

Ms. Frankel writes of scenes in which war dogs crawl on top of an injured handler to protect him, and of the desperate efforts of the men to save injured dogs. In some cases the handlers are allowed to take their dogs home to a normal life. In some poignant cases, a dog is sent home to the family of his dead handler.

Rebecca Frankel has done her homework on the astonishing capacity of dogs to use their noses and their ears at a level of sensitivity that their handlers cannot hope to match. And while she acknowledges that courage plays a major role in their interaction, she also contends that what is at the center of such relationships is love. Some war dogs make it home to live a normal dog’s life with the handler with whom they lived through danger and terror. And they know each other. Neither will ever know any human being as well.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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