It should come as no surprise that a dog was part of the US Navy Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday because canines have been doing this sort of thing for millennia, if not previously by rappelling down from helicopters.
The Lydians deployed them in the 7th century BC while at least one played a significant role in the battle of Marathon (490BC), though not presumably by running 26.2 miles, as commemorated in a mural of the times.
The Romans placed a great value on war dogs, specifically the Canis Molossus from Epirus, until it proved no match for the mighty mastiff of Britannia, which the Romans, being smart, promptly expropriated and imported. Shorn of its main weaponry, Britannia then fell.
Spanish conquistadors used dogs to attack and disembowel unfortunate South American natives, which may explain why, in 1525, England’s Henry VIII sent 400 mastiffs to please King Ferdinand of Spain. (He was still married to Catherine of Aragón, the king’s daughter, which probably explains it.)
His daughter, Elizabeth I, proved a chip off the old block by sending twice as many to help put down the Desmond rebellions in Ireland 40 years later.
Dogs were also used in the American civil war and the first world war but were not officially inducted into the US army until 1942, even before Harry S. Truman desegregated the military.
About 5,000 of them served in the Vietnam war, though how many were cooked and eaten by the Viet Cong has not been recorded.
There are currently roughly 2,800 dogs on active US military duty, mostly sniffing out mines and roadside explosive devices, at which their success rate is reportedly higher than Predator drones. They have their own ballistic body armour, provided by a Canadian company, K9 (geddit?) Storm.
One dog and his handler pulled off a parachute drop of 30,000 feet, more than was needed in Abbottabad.
However, the Americans have not yet bred an indigenous hound to form the fighting force. The preferred breeds are German shepherds (popularly known as Alsatians in Britain and, likely, Alsace) and Belgian Malinois. Their bite can amount to 400-700 pounds of pressure, surely useful in keeping the Flemish and Walloons from each other’s throats.
US war dogs used to be euthanised on demobilisation but now, in some cases, adoption by military families is allowed, a more humane regime than is applied, for example, in US immigration policy. Several famous military dogs – with VCs, victor canis
– have their own memorials.
There is, therefore, renewed pride in the canine community, which is more than can be said for the poor Apache Indians, up in arms over bin Laden’s code name – Geronimo.
The author, an FT columnist, once had a black lab called Emma
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