Beasts of Battle

Beasts of battle: Humans never ceased to involve animals in one of their worst habits!
Elephants once carried soldiers into battle. Horses participated to conflicts, along with mule and donkeys carrying ammunitions. Dogs and pigeons brought messages. Humans never ceased to involve animals in one of their worst habits: warfare. Let’s take a walk on the wild side of the human-animal connection.

”They had no choice” (Inscription on a monument in London’s Park Lane, built to honour the animals that served and died in war)

Elephants of War

Before heading into battle Indian kings appeared in front of their dazzled subjects on elephants whose ivory tusks glittered with gold and silver.

An elephant mounted by a king is radiant; a king mounted on an elephant is resplendent, says and old manuscript. How the great Indian elephants of King Porus were defeated at the Hydaspes by the cavalry of Alexander the Great remains a mystery, given the psychological advantage of towers of leather charging and trumpeting sounds of rage.

Hannibal, the king of Carthage, is famous for his pachyderm-powered trans-Alps attack to Rome. At his best, Carthage possessed no more than 60 elephants.

Carthage’s elephants were sent first in the battle, with light infantry in between them. In the second rank there was the heavy infantry and then, in the third rank, cavalry and bowmen

During the Second Punic War against Rome, Hannibal brought 38,000 troops, 8,000 horsemen and 37 African elephants, from Spain to Italy, across southern France. Only a handful of pachyderms arrived in Italy because most of them died during the crossing of the Alps due to the harsh freezing temperatures, lack of food and snow slides.

Nevertheless, the few survivors had a big impact on the Roman legions at the Trasimeno Lake battle, in spring 217 BC, when Hannibal won, surprising and killing 10,000 soldiers of Rome and their allies in the muddy waters of the lake.

Despite such ancient heritage, now military elephants are principally used in ceremonies, such as the Sri Lanka Independence Day Parade, when the behemoths march in the streets alongside servicemen. The last official military deployment of elephants took place in 1987 in Iraq, when the animals helped to transport heavy weaponry at Kirkuk, in the north of the Country.

The memory and intuitive intelligence that elephants possess make then ideal candidates for more creative activities and they are not anymore employed in military corps after more than 2500 years of warfare engagement under, over and alongside their human counterparts.

War and Peace

It is well known that involvement of pigeons as message-carrying birds, either in time of war or peace. These tireless animals can cover 160 km a day for up to 10 consecutive days, sometimes reaching the top speed of 33 kilometers per hour.

The Chinese Army includes a new regiment of 10,000 pigeons constantly trained in the Chengdu area, ready to take their service in emergency communications in the case of black-out or default caused by a solar storm or electromagnetic interference with Chinese satellite or radio signals.

Pigeons were important warfare tools amid the chaos of World Wars I and II when the bird’s reliability in delivering messages was a staple. More than 250,000 Allied homing pigeons were active service during WWII and 32 received the Dickin Medal, the highest British military award offered to animals. Among them, an American bird called G.I. Joe stand out for his timely delivery of a message that helped to save the life of 100 Britons cornered during an offensive action in Italy. His stuffed body is proudly exhibited at the military base of Fort Monmouth, New jersey.

Many mysteries surround the war of pigeons. During the 80′ the mummified body of a WWII courier pigeon was discovered in the unused chimney of a house in the outskirts of London. The bird was still wearing at his left foot a container holding a message of 27 five-letter codes. The remains were kept undisturbed for 30 years in a ware-house. Colin Ill, curator of a pigeon exhibition at Bletchley Park and member of the Royal British Pigeon Racing Association, was surprised to know that the message had never been read.

He therefore consigned with a bit of curiosity the metallic container to the GCHQ, the British equivalent of the American National Security Agency, to decode the text which may have been sent during the famous D—day landing .

Unbelievably, despite intense expert effort and computer analysis, few weeks later the government declared the code unbreakable! Did the heroic columbid die in vain? We will never know what the secret message contained……

Is war written in the DNA?

If we are genetically prone to war, vendetta and conflicts, also our ape cousins should be. Our worst behaviours can be observed in chimpanzees, for instance. Their actions sometimes extend to the point of resembling genocide. The winning tribe of a chimpanzee war tend to kill all members of the losing faction even if they do not represent any more a threat.

Examining the behaviour of nomadic hunter-gatherers that still roam the Planet now can help in getting an insight into our ancestor’s warfare. It seems that in traditional societies violence is the result of personal controversies rather than organised group aggression.

Vendetta is much more common than war. According to accounts dating back to the 17th century it is evident that violent deaths were rare in primitive cultures, with occasional violence but not war being the rule.

Recent invention

Some researchers conclude that warfare may have become more common after the introduction of hierarchy in structured societies. After all, chimpanzees exhibit the same kind of intergroup violence and their society shows a specific hierarchy. But their and our cousins, the bonobos, are far more peaceful and collaborative with other groups, even though they live in a structured society.

Such incongruity dismisses the idea of an evolutionary force at work since the distant past on the common ancestor of apes and humans.

To justify the occurrence and inclination for conflict we have to look somewhere else, not in our blood. On the other hand some human societies do not practice warfare and do not hold a different DNA.

Vendetta, conflict, murder and war arose recently. Fundamentally, human societies showed profound transformations on this account only in recent time sand in rapid sequence. The extant traditional societies preserve characteristics that have survived for thousands of years till today. Therefore, their study would bring important observation on the origin of conflicts, from when the first metal tools and weapons were manufactured about 7000 years ago and the first centralized governments were invented about 3500 BC.

Modern man is a maladjusted person locked up in a body and behaviours that do not belong to him, forced to face a conflicting world inherited form his ancestors. Religious, ethnic and economic conflicts lay at the core of the primitive mistrust for the foreigner, the alien and the stranger.

In traditional societies, the foreigner belongs to a category of human beings that has little or no contact with our tribe, that speaks an incomprehensible language and that does not travel to our village without bellicose intentions.

If you meet a foreigner in your territory, in a traditional society like Papua New Guinea, probably he is a dangerous individual that comes to steel pigs and women, to extend his hunting territory or to kill members of your tribe.

Social warriors

Aside chimpanzees and humans, some species of social animals are keen to lead fights of group resembling wars. Lions, ants, wolves and hyenas, among others, fight to kill members of the same species, but belonging to different tribes or groups, in what is called intra-specific violence.

“Mostly lions die because they kill each other” ethologist Craig Packer leader of the Serengeti Lion Project for 35 years says ”the number one cause of death for lions, in an undisturbed environment, is other lions.”

At least 25% of cub deaths are due to infanticide carried on by incoming males. Females too, occasionally kill the cubs of neighbouring prides, since resources are limited and prides are territorial. Male coalitions will kill another male that’s hitting on their females. Males can also kill adult females if it suits their purposes. Male lions that conquer a pride by killing or chasing away the local lion, will kill all his offspring.

So the lion is the number one enemy of other lions. That’s why lions live in groups. They need to defend a territory and monopolize resources and this need requires social cooperation. Lions have to think as a gang of like-sexed companions who work as a single mind to fight fierce leonine battles to control the environment.

Climate of violence

Is the environmental temperature involved in the climate of violence that erupts sometime uncontrolled under this Earth’s sun? Apparently, yes.

Police anywhere around the globe can tell you that when the temperature rises so does the violence rate.

In a recent article published in the Sept 13, 2013, issue of Science and titled Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict, Berkeley scholars Solomon Hsiang, Marshall Burke and Edward Minguel argue that there is a strong cause-effect link between raising temperature and conflict, either crime or war.

The authors of the shocking study analysed 60 texts and a time frame spanning from 10,000 BC to present days, coming to the conclusion that even a slight increase, let’s say of one centigrade in Africa, increases the frequency of interpersonal violence (crime) by 4% and intergroup conflict (war) by a stunning 14%. Projections indicate that by 2050 the inhabited world will warm up by 2 to 4 centigrades amplifying by 2 or 4 fold the rate of human conflict in both low- and high-income countries.

This might be true also for the animals. Until now, no scientist has tested the hypothesis. It is realistically possible that when the whole planet will get hotter the climate of violence will extend to a number of previously peaceful animal populations, as it is the rule within the leonine society.

Ancient inspiration

The ritual lion hunt of the Masai tribe constitutes a passage rite to enter adulthood and in many cultures similar hunting rites (of bear, whale, wolf) are linked to the affirmation of a territory. Neolithic hunter—gatherers took inspiration from the animal world re-enacting wild hunts camouflaged as wolf-warriors.

The Neolithic wars were the continuation of the wars to carnivores of the Paleolithic. When these ended, men started to rage against other men, pouring on each other the excessive energy of self-defense.

Evidently among social animals the war is a frequent phenomenon and independent but not inevitable within the evolutionary lines of man and chimpanzee.

According to primatologist Richard Wrangham two features discriminate the social species that practice war from those who don’t: the obstinate fight for resources and the tendency to form groups of various size, so that when the bigger groups meet the smaller ones they can attack and overcome them without major risks.

Cannibalism is a common practice for many social animals, including at least one hundred species of mammals. There are no moral implications that might refrain some carnivorous species from feeding on the fresh kill of individuals of the same breed. Thousand of years of cultural tabou refrain modern humans to eat but not to kill their peers.

Modern inspiration

Uniforms and weapons are occasionally inspired by the animal kingdom. It is the case, for instance of the peculiar suit of armour that protect the body of squid and octopus, masters of disguise.

In a first step attempt to manufacture of a novel camouflage suit for soldiers, researchers have made a thin film out of graphene and the protein reflectin, copied from the shell with which members of the Loliginidae squid family use to hide themselves.

Raising the pH causes the proteins of the protective film to shrink and the film become invisible in the infrared spectrum of .

Causes of war

Fighting for females, resources and territory seems a common feature of many social animals.

Sperm whale males fight for mating rights by headbutting, often lethally. Perhaps this is the reason why sperm whales store up to three tons of an oil-like substance named spermaceti in a cavernous chamber in the front of their skull, to protect the head from severe shock when they clash.

Thousand of years

Since the days of ancient Egypt and Persian Empires, even the most despised breeds of dog have been employed with distinction in the army. Pit-bull dogs served in the US military since the 19th century. A pit-bull accompanied the 11th infantry of Pennsylvania to the famous battle of Gettysburg. Furthermore, the first dog promoted to sergeant in the US army was a pit and had flashes of stardom!

Large breed dogs carried food and ammunition during WWI and II and went to Vietnam too, where their tick borne recurrent fevers helped scientists to give a name to the monocytic ehrlichiosis: Ehrlichia canis.

Today the canine mob is deployed in many roles: patrol, rescue, detective, guard and search are the most common. Dogs are the most common animals in the army.

The big bat project failure

Bats are far more common than most people realize. There are at least 1200 species of bats, representing about a quarter of all mammal species.

When we think about the extraordinary quantity of insects, up to six hundred, that they can eat per hour, we have to acknowledge that, despite circulating legends on vampire lore, they are among the best human friends.

In the second Wold War the Americans invested a great deal of money and resources into a plan aimed to transform bats into extraordinary weapons of mass destruction. The idea was to arm bats with incendiary bombs and to release a large number of them, perhaps a million, from airplanes over Japan. Strategists speculated that bats equipped with tiny bombs would soon after roost in eaves and attics delivering destruction and death when microscopic detonators on timers would go off.

Bombs, detonators and timers were manufactured within a record time and in the spring 1943 the definitive experiment took place at Muroc Lake, California. The visionary plan, however, did not meet the expected results. Thousand of bats fit out with real bomblets where released in a control test area. To say the truth, everything went wrong since the beginning. The bats failed to shatter the designated targets and attacked instead all the airplane hangars and most of the warehouses located around the Muroc Lake airport. Last but not least, bats destroyed a general’s car. The general’s report next day was definitely not in favour of the use of bats in war. The program was cancelled soon afterwards.

However, in order to discourage similar ideas is worth to mention other unsuccessful experiments. The US Army attempted to launch a mix horse-camel division, but a number of problems arose. In first instance, horses cannot abide the strong smell that emanate from the camels and vehemently refused to accompany them into action.

It was not cowardice, but revulsion, that halted the sensitive equines!

Further reading:

1). David Quammen (2013). The short happy life of a Serengeti Lion. National Geographic August 2013, 28-51

2). Jared Diamond (2012) The world until yesterday. What can we learn from traditional societies?

3.) Wrangham, R. and Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic males apes and the origin of human violence. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

4) Bill Bryson (2011) At Home: a short history of private life. Black Swan Eds.

By Walter Tarello (DVM, MRCVS, MA Cardiology)

Pet Connection Veterinary Hospital, Al Barsha 1, Dubai, UAE

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