On Sunday, Donald Trump announced that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, fatally detonated a suicide vest in an American military raid on his compound in northwestern Syria. According to Trump, the ISIS leader was chased “whimpering and crying and screaming” by a team of dogs into an underground tunnel, where he detonated a suicide vest and “died like a dog.” (Though Trump watched drone footage of the raid, the drones were not inside the tunnel and he was clearly making those details up.) One dog and two humans sustained injuries during the operation.
On Monday, Trump, a noted hater of dogs, tweeted a declassified photo of one of the dogs who assisted in the raid — presumably the one which had been hurt — saying that she did a “GREAT JOB.” That same day, The New York Times reported that “the president wanted to meet the dog,” who appears to be named Conan, and that she had been “invited to the White House.”
Obviously, these dogs did not make a choice to do what they do, and the one who was injured has no idea that Donald Trump tweeted a picture of her. But the idea that our military has actual teams of killer dogs seems… sinister and distressing? This isn’t to say that it’s a surprising thing to be reminded of, but it does underscore the way in which war is this viscerally ruthless enterprise that we inoculate ourselves from by not focusing on the details.
We have declassified a picture of the wonderful dog (name not declassified) that did such a GREAT JOB in capturing and killing the Leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi! pic.twitter.com/PDMx9nZWvw— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2019
It is entirely possible that Donald Trump believes the dog would think going to the White House is a great honor. But there is no way that a dog can accept an invitation to visit the White House, and if its handler accepted the invitation on its behalf, it is still impossible that the dog would understand the cultural significance of having an audience with the president. If you’re a dog, the White House is just another place where you’re not allowed to pee. If you, a dog, sat still while Donald Trump patted you on the head and told you that people used to be much meaner to dogs, until he became president, and now everyone thinks dogs are terrific, which is a thing we are saying more and more, and oh by the way, he once beat Air Bud in a game of basketball but the media never talks about this, very unfair, you would simply be doing so because you had been trained to have unlimited patience and restraint in the face of imbecility.
But the real issue is that Donald Trump is so clearly and achingly desperate to have anything happen that distracts from all of the scandals, inhumane policies, and sheer incompetence that surrounds him like the cloud of dust did Pigpen on Peanuts that he and/or his communications team have decided to use a picture of a military dog as a prop to drum up support for what he wants to pitch to the American public as his “killing Bin Laden” moment. The jingoism is cynical and gross, and we can be all but assured that the story that the Trump administration is pushing is at least partially made-up. (This isn’t to say that way the Obama administration touted the killing of Osama Bin Laden was any less grossly jingoistic or potentially made-up, but they were a bit subtler about the whole thing.)
Comparing people negatively to dogs is a favorite insult of Donalt Trump — in TrumpWorld, you can be “fired like a dog,” “dumped like a dog,” and “[beg] for money like a dog,” which doesn’t really make sense but whatever. It seems transparently disingenuous and craven of him to turn around and valorize an actual canine for playing a part in the demise of a human who, in his words, “died like a dog.”
You can also go to war like a dog, quite literally, and the ethics surrounding this are complicated. Vanessa Woods, a research scientist at Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, told me that the working relationship between humans and dogs is one that stretches back into antiquity, and that we have historically relied upon dogs to assist with hunting, protection, and to a certain degree, combat. In the age of contemporary warfare, she tells me, dogs are more needed than ever for help locating improvised explosive devices in potentially dangerous areas. “The fact is, you can’t get a machine to sniff out chemicals and compounds like a dog can. Dogs are in many cases are more accurate than the leading technology out there,” she said.
Such canines are eager to please, and a well-trained dog will act counter to its own best interests if it’s asked to do so. Military working dogs, she said, “actually have very little self-control. They don’t think about [danger], they just go.” Part of the way that the military mitigates the risks facing its service animals, Woods explained, is by not forcing dogs who seem uninterested in sniffing out bombs to complete their training and instead adopting them out. Additionally, if a dog is in a perilous situation in the field, they’re most likely going to be accompanied by a handler who is at similar risk as the dog itself, so despite all the terrible things the U.S. military does, it’s not like they’re treating dogs as cannon fodder.
Even still, it would never occur to Donald Trump that it might be a bit morally dodgy to have a team of dogs participate in what was effectively a political assassination (of an admittedly bad man), and then to play up one of those dogs’ roles in that event in the most politically advantageous manner possible. The idea that we are able to force animals into such situations without their consent, and that Donald Trump may denigrate those he dislikes by comparing them to animals, are both part and parcel to a binary between human and non-human that, writes philosopher Kelly Oliver of Vanderbilt University in an essay on animal ethics, “continue[s] to feed hierarchies not only among species but also among human beings.”
The real issue, in other words, isn’t that Trump thinks that some humans are animals and that some animals are human, but that the existence of such a divide feeds into the cycle of otherization that got us to where we are currently. “Perhaps,” Oliver concludes, “we cannot stop treating other people like animals until we stop treating animals like animals.” I’m inclined to agree.