Joseph Rakowski received his bachelor’s degree in criminology from Florida State University and is pursuing his MFA in fiction at the University of San Francisco. His literary work is forthcoming in PANK Magazine and has been published by Entropy, Literary Orphans Journal and Litbreak Magazine. His other writings have appeared on The Rumpus and Three Guys One Book.
The Animals We Go to War With
The best bomb-sniffing, greatest warrior elite dogs in the world are Belgian Malinois. Not retrievers or hounds, not German shepherds or mutts, or even the chief representatives of those breeds like Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Benji, or Frankie, the dog that can sniff out thyroid cancer. No, it’s the Belgian Malinois, not just for their sense of smell, but for their willingness to please and their bravery. There are two famous Malinois: Cairo, the Navy Seal commando canine that took a mouthful out of Bin Laden. The other is Murtaugh Mad Dog Riggs. Named appropriately after the character duo in the buddy-cop film, Lethal Weapon. This dog was handled by Staff Sgt. César González of the 101st Airborne Division. If there was a Jesus on Earth, it was this dog; never did anyone protect or love César more unconditionally. A drooling, butt-sniffing, love machine that possesses stoicism and patience for a kind not all too worthy.
Mad Dog is resting between the thighs of César, his head propped up on César’s knee, looking at him intently with those golden brown eyes. César’s eating a Beef Roast w/ Vegetables MRE and letting Mad Dog lick the fork after each bite like they’ve done for years. In thirty minutes, it will be lights out, and Mad Dog, instead of being put in his kennel, will curl up next to César’s chest. César will nuzzle him behind the ear, where the fur is velvet soft, and wrap his arm around him, pulling him close. When the thump sound of IDF mortar fire comes calling from the distance, Mad Dog will be up before everyone else, searching through the blinding darkness of the Afghan desert. This place plays more tricks on a man’s vision at night than during the stifling heat of day, where everything is two-degrees from melting, and mirages blur even a dog’s memory of what was there just minutes before. Nighttime shelling has increased since our two eggbeaters, and over half the company were pulled out last week. When the mortars stop, César will coax Mad Dog back to bed. We’re all right boy, he’ll tell him. Good boy. We got patrol again in the morning.
When I got back, I read a bunch of stuff on dogs like César’s Mad Dog and on animals in general. Here’s the skinny: Dogs have been used in combat since man figured out their furry counterparts would fight on their side without question: Alyattes of Lydia used dogs against the Cimmerians around 600 BC. Attila the Hun used giant Molosser dogs during his warring escapades. In the Battle of Pelusium, Cambyses II used dogs as a psychological tactic against the Egyptians by placing the religiously revered pooches on the front line. In the Battle of Agincourt, after Sir Piers Legh was wounded, his mastiff stood over and protected him. Because of this, Mastiffs would be bred in England for the next five hundred years. The Spanish conquistadors used large breeds against Native Americans in their stampede of greed. The British used dogs to attack the Irish and the Irish used wolfhounds to attack invading Norman knights. Fredrick the Great used messenger dogs during the Seven Years’ War with Russia. Napoleon was often seen with his shorter, four legged pals. Dogs were often featured in WWI and WWII propaganda posters.
Mad Dog is at César’s heels. They move to the second Humvee in the convoy of three. César gives him a boost into the tailgate; Mad Dog tries not to spin around in the back, but he’s excited. He knows he has to be still because there isn’t much room and there’ll be more equipment coming in. César hops up next to him as the Captain, and the rest of the company fill in the vehicle. Mad Dog gives them a hello with a forceful push of air from his nostrils. They don’t reach to pet him, or give him a treat; Mad Dog would bite their hands off if they babied him now. His eyes narrow over his snout. He’s a Ground Pounder. There aren’t no fucking Chicken Men here.
Everything in the Humvee rattles; every bump has Mad Dog’s back paws clawing to keep a grip. César holds the top of his harness tight, trying to support him. Even though it’s approaching dusk, the heat is still cooking them inside the vehicle like a microwaveable meal; they’ve been inside this bomb box all day. Mad Dog is panting heavily and César squirts some water into his mouth. He bites at the stream then drools most of it out. César gives him another squirt; he bites at the water again this time revealing the little freckle on his gum line that makes César smile. César pours a little water on top of Mad Dog’s head and rubs it down his neck. The wheels screech to a halt underneath them. “You’re up again,” says the Captain. “Report says this is the last possible would-be in our AOR.”
The back door opens and Mad Dog’s paws are the first on the ground; his nose runs over the sand like he’s already found something. He weaves back and forth. César keeps at Mad Dog’s heels now.
A dog’s nose extends from his nostrils to the back of his throat, giving him an olfactory area 40 times greater than a human. A dog also has 294 million more olfactory receptors cells, and 35% of his brain is allocated just for deciphering smells. The training at Lackland Air Force Base has allowed Mad Dog to use his nose to distinguish smells that are associated with explosives and their chemical ingredients: urea nitrate, hydrogen peroxide, powders, commercial dynamite, TNT, and water gel and RDX, a component of the plastic explosives C4 and Semtex. A dog can pick up odors in parts per trillion; he can smell an invisible particle of shit on your ass before he even sees you. A regular household dog jams his nose into a visitor’s crotch not because they are saying hello, but because they are warning their owner that this particular visitor is a dirty SOB.
The design of a dog’s nose should also be noted. When air enters its nose, it is split into two separate paths, one for breathing and one for smelling. The nostrils also work independently of one another, helping to locate smells. Upon exhaling, the air leaves through slits on the side of the nose. This allows a dog to continuously smell over numerous respiratory cycles without breaking the stream of air. Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition researcher at Barnard College, states in her book Inside of a Dog that their noses are so sophisticated that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth. Another dog scientist likened their ability to catching a whiff of one rotten apple in two million barrels.
The mountains to the west lean over Mad Dog and César. They can see their base at the edge of the horizon four klicks to the south of their position. Mad Dog carves down the side of an empty irrigation canal looking for the footprint of the 82mm mortar that fired on their base last night. César is doing the calculation in his head for max distance; Mad Dog knows this is the spot. He’s carefully clearing the path for César. Their ultimate goal is to track the insurgents back from this point. In the distance, Mad Dog hears the bang of a discharged bullet. He looks back at César, who ducks and shoulders into the bank of the canal. The Captain radios César not to move. A couple more shots ring out, but no one knows what they’re targeting; the bullets aren’t hitting anything, no dings off the armor-plated fenders, no sand burst, no whistling misses, nothing. Nothing until the stray shots turn into heavy contact and everyone confirms, with autonomous movements and sharp brows, that we’re definitely being shot at. The Captain radios César that we’re coming to him. Mad Dog barks back not to drive off the road. César quiets him with a pat. Mad Dog barks again at the rumble of the Humvee as it comes over the bank and then the explosion.
A number of different animal species have been used in battle, most notably the horse: The saying goes—dog is man’s best friend, but kingdoms were built on the backs of horses. People forget that horses are prey animals. Dogs are predators. Humans are predators. Horses are skittish. There is a nice poem about them by Henry Chappell, "The Soldier’s Kiss." Besides horses and dogs, it is important to remember messenger birds, Navy dolphins and sea lions, bomb bats, bees, camels, and multiple types of mules. To name a few specifically: There is my personal favorite, Wojtek the Syrian brown bear who served in the Polish military. He was a Private and was honored for his services during the Battle of Monte Cassino, where he fought the Germans by carrying crates of ammunition to cannons during the fighting. There is Simon the Cat, who served on the Royal Navy sloop HMS Amethyst killing rats. There is King Neptune the Pig, who helped sell war bonds during WWII; Lin Wang the Elephant, who pulled artillery cannons through the jungles of Burma for the Japanese army until they were defeated by the Chinese; and William Windsor the Goat, though I’m not quite sure what he did.
César checks himself, then Mad Dog. The front of the Humvee is on fire; Hugo leans out of the door, tumbling to the ground. His blood soaks up the earth and sticks to him like pancake batter. We’re taking contact from all directions. Mad Dog is jumping to go, to get back up top. César holds his harness tight then shouts at him to work. “Let’s work, boy,” he calls. “Search.”
Mad Dog and César make it to the first Humvee. They have to clear the area before the medic can come over. Bullets ding off everything and everyone is sticking close to the doors and returning fire, except for Mad Dog, who continues with his nose in the sand, and César, who is at his tail to flag any more IEDs. Dion starts hollering from the Humvee in the rear, “Fred’s been hit. We got to move. They’re sweeping across behind us.” I scan the road leading back to base. There are two sets of men in the road bending down into the dirt. “They aren’t building fucking sand castles,” Dion yells again. “We got to go.”
“Good boy,” César calls to Mad Dog. “Come on now. We got to work fast.” Shots are landing close to Mad Dog. César is returning fire; I can tell he’s praying Mad Dog doesn’t get hit. I can tell he wants to pick him up and stick him back in the truck. He wants a miracle ceasefire and to be on the base playing fetch, or resting his cards on Mad Dog’s ribs while the men play poker between the cots—no one dares to look at César’s hand when he goes to take a leak. Now, every bullet he sees strike the sand by Mad Dog’s paws is like a lash against his back. César wishes he was close enough to the enemy that their guns would become useless and he, like a canine, could lunge at them and bite their throats out. Mad Dog signals the okay and the medic moves in.
César heads to the last vehicle and hoists Mad Dog into the back for protection. The Captain joins them. “We’re going to secure here. Then we’re going to secure the road back after nightfall.” They both watch their enemy, down their road home, run off into the desert. César knows that he and Mad Dog are going to have to trek on foot out front of the convoy to clear the road of IEDs; he knows the enemy will be aiming for him and Mad Dog and if they get tagged the company will be a sitting bag of dicks. “Don’t worry, we’ll be running dark and we’ll cover you with the 50s. You just flag’em and we’ll figure a way to crawl around,” the Captain says. César looks in at Mad Dog; it sounds good to him. César splashes some water on Mad Dog’s nose to clear the dirt.
I’ve decided there are two distinct categories of animals in contention for the title of World’s Biggest Threat to Humans. In the first category, the animal being nominated must possess a pure sense of lethalness. An animal that possesses a pure sense of lethalness is an animal whose physical traits—speed, strength, toxins, size—make it deadly.
In the first category, there are a few well-knowns. The shark, about which Hollywood is responsible for extracting the most fear, is in actuality only responsible for around 10 deaths a year. The hippopotamus is responsible for 500. Then there is the crocodile, which is responsible for around 1,000 deaths a year; the dog, which accounts for 25,000 deaths; and the snake, which results in 50,000 deaths annually. Mad Dog Caveat: the dog is the only animal from the above list that is also responsible for saving human lives.
Night in a desert isn’t really night; it is just a different form of day. It has its own brightness, its own undulating frequency of alertness that isn’t created from man-made lights broadcasted from busy cities or dim ones in droopy towns. A man born and raised in the desert could easily ascribe night to day and vice versa. Night in the desert is the better time to be awake. It’s when the majority of animals move and sand mountains shift, and the highways of belly crawlers mark the ground in hieroglyphics that lead toward the moon.
César puts on his night-vision goggles and finishes packing extra clips of ammunition in his vest. He steps to the front of the Humvee; Mad Dog moves forward and sits a butt cheek on his right boot. The hollering and gunfire has turned to moaning and waiting. All the lights on the vehicles are off, but the convoy looks just as noticeable, open, totally exposed in the green shade of César’s lenses. The exploded Humvee still glows hot and I think about fire in the desert. There ain’t nothing to burn here and when something does, it creates a distance from the feeling that anything actually belongs in one place or another. The Captain motions César forward. Mad Dog can sense the tension in César’s toes and gets up. They start walking.
In the second category for the title of World’s Biggest Threat to Humans, the pool of applicants is shallow. These animals may not physically possess the required lethalness but can obtain it. The category is only composed of humans and mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes, like humans, are not born with their deadliness, but gather the capacity over the course of their lifespan. Mosquitoes, with a lifespan of only 10 days, are able to acquire a host of deadly diseases and infect millions of people, resulting in the deaths of around 800,000 people a year. Still, the mosquito holds no compass of harm. Humans, who have a much longer lifespan, possess a quality mosquitoes do not: ingenuity with intent. Yes, those humans who are about to fire on Mad Dog and his handler, and the humans who will fire back, and the new humans who will learn of this event and fire back years from now, all wield death-dealing devices. From the stone, to the bow, to the sword, to Kalashnikov, to the atom bomb—humans kill on average around 475,000 other humans annually with peak years climbing into the millions.
Mad Dog has picked up the pace and César is grunting hard to keep up. The Humvees stay 50 yards back to keep the noise off their asses and lower the possibility of a remote detonation. The vehicles are loud monsters though that choke smoke and rev effusively every time Mad Dog takes a position. César radios back their need to race the engines every so often in a running neutral. Mad Dog signals his first IED and César flags the spot with a reflector stick.
The awaiting gunshot crackles through the air like the atmosphere just ripped in two. It echoes in every bone of the spine, pulling the shoulders up to the ears. Mad Dog and César keep working as the 50s erupt behind them. The muzzle flashes light up the sky, casting shadows at length toward their targets and on Mad Dog.
César watches Mad Dog work the road back and forth. César keeps his gun pointing just above him and swivels it from one bank to the other on either side of them. César won’t return fire unless he can confirm contact. His enemy only knows where the Humvees are and they need to keep it that way.
I can see the base clearly up ahead; it must only be a mile now. Mad Dog signals another IED, but he is doing something I’ve never seen before. He is crawling on his belly up to the device. César reaches him and gives him a pat. He looks at César and his eyes flash green, reflecting the bursts of ammunition from behind them. César marks the spot and tells Mad Dog to keep moving. Mad Dog begins crawling forward again, still on his belly. “Mad Dog. Come on, boy. We got to work,” César calls. “Search.” He doesn’t get up, but keeps crawling. César tells him to stop. He notices the crunch under his feet and gives the sand a kick. They’ve covered the road in glass and nails. Motherfuckers. César feels Mad Dog’s paws; his little toes that swat César’s knee or rest in his hands when he wants a piece of jerky or a Cheerio, are sharp to the touch, and the fur on his belly is soaked through. He can feel a large shard sticking out. Mad Dog pulls his paw back. César notices the end of Mad Dog’s tail is missing. What total chaos has to be happening in the world for a dog's tail's to be shot off in battle. “You’re okay, boy,” César tells him. “We are almost there.” César picks up Mad Dog and holds him to his chest, gable gripping his hands around him. Mad Dog keeps his nose up and at attention, still working. César begins pounding the dirt again.
Mad Dog is fighting with César to be let down. César tells him everything is alright, but he nips at the side of César’s face. César puts him down and Mad Dog begins his crawl forward, leaving his own hieroglyphic track in the desert. César keeps telling him he’s a good boy. “Find it, Mad Dog. Good boy, Mad Dog. Search, Mad Dog.” He puts his nose out over the spot and César places the marker. César picks him back up in his arms and kiss him on the head. Mad Dog gives him a lick in the air.
César can see the lights of the base and the boys on the walls firing out into eternity on both sides of him. Mad Dog isn’t making any more attempts to be put down. They've got 500 yards left, and César is huffing it. Mad Dog’s nose is running, and César’s nose is running, and they're both drooling on each other. The blood from Mad Dog’s belly is running down both of César’s arms, and Mad Dog has rested his head back on César’s shoulder. The convoy pulls up next to César, and the Captain waves at him to get in. “Nice job. We made it.”
César doesn’t look over; he counts every step: 64, 63, 62, 61, to keep pace, to keep calm, to keep moving. “Come on, Mad Dog. Good boy, Mad Dog. We’re almost there. Just a little further now.”
When my turtleback pulls up next to César, he is holding Mad Dog in his arms. The shooting has stopped except for some sporadic bursts of suppression fire. Josh is waving him over, but César won’t stop walking. I call to César from my mount behind the 50. “Come on, man. We’ll get MD help.” The spotlights from the towers are blinding him; he’s running right at them. I can see his eyes puking water; his best friend is in his arms, who he knows is dying, and all he is trying to do is put one foot in front of the other. The Humvee revs and pulls behind César. The spotlights widen around him, like he’s standing center stage in some big concert hall, but the audience is just us and the boys from the base, all watching César and Mad Dog glow like smoke trapped in front of a flashlight; the grains of sand underneath César’s feet blur to a single sheet of earth; César looks like he’s running in place, or down an infinite hallway, or in the wrong direction. Mad Dog drapes from his arms like my father’s bear coat, wet from hiking in the snow or like the statue in my parents’ bedroom where the savior is taken off of his cross and lays like fabric ready to be sewn in the arms of his mother. But no trumpets sound now, just more suppression fire from the walls of the base, and Josh yelling at me to make sure no one is at our six as the Humvee revs and chokes another gear through the gate.