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Army manual on using horses, mules in combat slammed by animal rights group

Michael Roston
Published: Thursday February 1, 2007
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A recently revealed manual written for the US Army's Special Forces extensively details techniques for managing pack animals like horses and donkeys in combat operations around the world. A major animal rights group has slammed the contents of the document for encouraging cruelty against animals.

The newsletter Secrecy News, a product of the Federation of the American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, first made the document publicly available. Retired members of the Special Forces said in interviews with RAW STORY that the contents of the manual should not be taken too seriously, with one going as far as to dismiss the document "as an exercise in ass-covering."

Lengthy manual details pack animal management procedures

The United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg produced the 225-page manual "for Special Forces (SF) personnel to use when conducting training or combat situations using pack animals...It captures some of the expertise and techniques that have been lost in the United States (U.S.) Army over the last 50 years," according to its preface. The guide notes that while more advanced military technologies resulted in the deactivation of formal pack transport units after the Korean War, military operations in Haiti in 1994 and Afghanistan since 2001 have resulted in new attention to the deployment of troops with pack animals.

Its ten chapters then take up such topics as managing the health and welfare of pack animals, methods for packing materiel to be carried by the animals, horsemanship, and tactical considerations when Special Forces using pack animals are confronted with attacks on the ground or from the air.

The Army document devotes much of its content to proper care of pack animals' health and welfare. Specific attention is paid to euthanizing injured animals, and readers of the guide are warned that "Euthanasia under field conditions is frequently a rather brutal affair." With cultural issues in mind, the manual points out that "An injured or debilitated animal may be of no use to the local people except as a significant source of food. It may be more practical for them to humanely destroy the animal and salvage the meat for food, rather than provide the animal with long-term care."

The manual also includes detailed meditations on the personalities of various pack animals. Referring to donkeys, it asks "The first thing a person thinks of when a donkey comes to mind is what? Big ears? Or maybe a short whisk broom tail?"

Later, it describes donkeys as having "a strong sense of survival. If they deem something as dangerous, they will not do it. It is not stubbornness — it is Mother Nature, and they are smart enough to know when they cannot handle something....This strong, calm, intelligent worker that does not tend to run away in terror after being spooked and has a natural inclination to like people adds up to an animal that is easy to take care of and easy to work."

The manual also discusses other possible pack animals such as llamas, camels, dogs, and even elephants. Though the manual emphasizes that elephants "are considered an endangered species and as such should not be used by U.S. military personnel," it describes many characteristics of elephants in the guide should they be used, such as the appropriate heart rates and body temperatures, and the amount of water the animal would need on a daily basis.

In describing the personalities of elephants, the manual says that they "are not the easygoing, kind, loving creatures that people believe them to be. They are, of course, not evil either."

The guide then recommends that "The secret of becoming a good trainer is to learn" an elephant's "biological pattern, shaped by evolution."

Animal rights group takes exception to guidelines

Animal rights activists who looked at the Army guidelines took issue with the discussion of elephants in the manual.

"The U.S. military is willing to do anything to any animal. Are we back in 246 BC with Hannibal who had very limited transportation choices?" responded Erin Edwards, Media Liaison at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Elephants may be tough but they’re no match for today’s weaponry."

In an e-mail response to questions from RAW STORY, the animal rights group found other reasons to take exception with the guidelines in the document.

Edwards explained PETA's general opposition to the use of animals by the military. "In this day and age, the military’s use of animals in the dirty business of war is as abhorrent as their use for fur – there’s just no excuse for it," she wrote. She added that PETA was opposed to "any use of animals in the military."

Though calling the manual's guidelines on keeping pack animals well fed and watered "fine in theory," PETA questioned whether they would actually be followed by Special Forces soldiers. "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a donkey, mule, or horse, could never carry enough feed for itself to maintain a proper body weight on an extended 'mission,'" she said.

PETA also condemned "hobbling," a practice recommended in the manual of binding an animal's hooves close together when animals cannot be tied in place and kept staionary. "Hobbling is a cruel practice whether it is used on animals for war or entertainment. Even if it is only done for the purpose of keeping mules, donkeys, or horses confined in a difficult area, it condemns them to injury and death should conflict arise," Edwards explained.

"Imagine how terrifying it would be to find yourself unable to run when every instinct tells you to do so!" she added.

Edwards also criticized the ability of individual soldiers to make veterinary judgments about the health of animals, including the possibility that they might need to be euthanized. "It’s never a good idea to have inexperienced people making judgments about any animal’s health needs," the PETA representative said.

She added, "Knowing that the military cannot even provide proper armor for servicemen and women, we should be very skeptical of its ability to provide proper care to animals in war."

Ex-Special Forces soldiers say use of pack animals common

Special Forces units may have more knowledge of care for animals in the course of military operations than a group like PETA would expect. An ex-Special Forces soldier who spoke with RAW STORY said that as a Special Forces medic, he had been trained using goats, and received basic veterinary instruction.

"All medics have veterinary training, and I actually treated some horses in Haiti," said Stan Goff, a retired Special Forces Master Sergeant who writes at the web site Insurgent American, and authored the book Hideous Dreams about his experience in the US military intervention in Haiti.

After one such successful treatment of an injured animal in Haiti, he said it became "a pain in the ass, all of a sudden I became the horse doctor, and people were knocking on our doors at all hours."

James Hanson, also a retired Special Forces Master Sergeant who blogs under the handle "Uncle Jimbo" at the website Black Five, thinks Special Forces soldiers take good care of the animals they use in combat operations. "I think most SF types are likely to treat animals very well and that was the case in all instances I am aware of," he said in an e-mail to RAW STORY.

Hanson said his unit's medic taught basic first aid and medical care for injured animals, and that while engaged in operations in the Philippines, his unit stitched up a cut one of their pack animals received.

Goff agreed that Special Forces soldiers were sensitive to the comfort of animals for another reason -- the way most animals are treated in American society. "Most folks in the Special Forces come from working class and middle class backgrounds, and they tend to be more sentimental and think first of their pets," he explained.

Pointing back to his experience in actual operations, he said that "Haitians will take a club to the flanks of a stubborn mule, but you're not as likely to see Americans do that, they've been acculturated to respond in a more empathetic way."

Goff said that using pack animals for Special Forces operations was in many circumstances a simple necessity, but also had military benefits. "It became part of our doctrine in Haiti with its poor infrastructure, and you can carry more stuff, and sustain in remote areas for a longer period of time," Goff explained. He added "Using animals also gets soldiers in contact with the local population, you have to negotiate with them for the animals, and that serves an intelligence function."

Hanson didn't think the manual's prescriptions were very realistic. "Like most military manuals, this was written as an exercise in ass-covering as much as a guide to actual operations," he wrote, adding "Much that is in there would be nice in an ideal situation, but it would certainly be modified and simplified in any situation."

He also had no qualms about any ethical concerns, like those expressed by PETA. "If it is important enough for people to die over, it is important enough for critters to die also," he said.

Goff was a bit more reserved. He noted that it would be rare that pack animals would be dragged into an actual firefight under any deliberate circumstances, but said "It's no more or less ethical to expose animals to conflict than humans." He added that, "The animals most frequently exposed to war aside from combatants are human civilians."

No reply from Army authorities

The manual, published in 2004, was authorized for distribution "to U.S. Government agencies and their contractors only to protect technical or operational information." It was signed by General Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's Chief of Staff. RAW STORY did not receive comment from the Army's Public Affairs Office after multiple phone calls over the course of several days.