In Jalawla, in eastern Iraq, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was an occupying American soldier, and the Iraqis watched me very closely. They watched all of us very closely. Whenever anyone in our platoon did something stupid, the Iraqis would laugh, while often trying to hide their amusement. On a summer day in 2004, their laughter came after we tried to kill a small black dog. This stray had made a kind of home in the shady brush near the Iraqi National Guard (ING) headquarters in Jalawla. When our platoons stopped there every day, our soldiers would feed and pet it. Stray dogs were everywhere. They wandered the streets, the desert hills. Many Iraqis we knew viewed them as unclean, nothing more than annoying pests that carried diseases. On multiple patrols, I watched Iraqi soldiers stand in pickup beds and throw rocks at dogs barking along the road. I remember feeling uneasy about it: sure, I wanted any vicious, dangerous dogs to get out of the way, but I also—being a typical American cynophile—didn’t want the dogs to get hurt. To worry, self-consciously, about the well-being of Iraq’s dogs was also a source of self-assurance: I’m such a good person.
We American soldiers rarely expressed anything but superiority to the Iraqi soldiers we dealt with. Yes, at least according to our mission, we were there to train them, but our general attitude toward the Iraqis was a mixture of condescension, prejudice, and hubris. Oddly, I felt this hubris most acutely at our worst moments, when we did something dumb enough to elicit Iraqi laughter. One day on a foot patrol, a tall guy in our platoon tripped and fell. He’d been carrying his M16, a pistol holstered on his leg, a shotgun slung across his back. When he went down, it sounded like someone had dropped a dozen cast-iron skillets across the pavement. I remember the Iraqis, including some children, poking their smiling heads out of windows or over courtyard walls to observe the disaster. I can only imagine their joy at seeing that an American soldier couldn’t even walk safely down a street. “Every white man’s life in the East,” George Orwell characterized his service in the Imperial Police Force in occupied Burma, “was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” We weren’t all white, but the argument still holds.
We wanted to be taken seriously, but we were also insecure. We felt superior, dominant, omnipotent—and we were bothered whenever the Iraqis’ perception of us didn’t align with those sentiments. Most of the time I did feel dominant, powerful. Flying down roads in an up-armored Humvee. Covered in ammunition and a ballistic vest. Watching one of our jets streak across the sky. Of course, we wore the uniform for a multitude of complicated reasons. But one pleasurable and welcoming effect of our camouflage, not to mention the weapons we held, was how it forced others to take us seriously, to not laugh in our presence.
Before we shot the dog, I was standing near my truck, sipping water, listening to traffic pass through Jalawla’s city center. I stared at the spacious ING parking lot, all sand and gravel, old knotted rolls of concertina wire piled in corners like tumbleweeds. American and Iraqi soldiers wandered around, chatting and smoking. Inside the compound, you could relax because the entire lot was enclosed by towering Hesco blast walls filled with dirt. At all times, two armed Iraqi soldiers stood out by the busy road where a gate and a coil of wire blocked the entrance. We’d been driving here almost every day to train members of the ING, take them on joint patrols and raids. Date palms and eucalyptus surrounded the three-story brown stucco ING building. Six or seven Doric columns rose up to support the building’s open-air rooftop, encircled with black balustrades. Behind the building, thick brush had grown a kind of wall against stacks of sandbags and more Hesco barriers. Beyond this, a small hillside dipped down into a slow-moving river of sewage—the shitstream, we called it. The compound, I mean to say, was completely enclosed.
I noticed commotion in the far corner of the lot. I walked over to where a few soldiers in my platoon stood with a half dozen ING soldiers. All of them were staring at the dog, which was clearly injured. One of the Iraqis told us that the dog had been hit by a car. I moved closer. I could see damp, red, raw skin on the dog’s back and rear. It hopped along the gravel-covered ground, dragging two bum legs—one front, one hind—and then sort of collapsed, tongue out. It would get up and do this again and again. I don’t remember who said it first. I don’t remember how we came to the decision. We simply knew that we had to kill the dog. We had to put it out of its misery.
Post-9/11 American veterans, myself included, have a particular affinity for telling stories about the trials and tribulations of dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former Army officer and scholar Peter Molin proclaimed in 2015 that “shooting stray dogs in theater” continues to be one of the “stock scenes” in “contemporary war writing.” In her article “Stray Dogs and Grievability,” literature professor and historian Iclal Vanwesenbeeck notes how “packs of stray dogs roam the corpus of Iraq War literature.” Steven Moore, writing in The Longer We Were There, explains what happened to two dogs he befriended while serving in Afghanistan: “A few of the officers had been concerned that the dogs carried diseases … and now the sergeant used this concern about sickness as an excuse. … He took the puppy outside and shot it with his nine-millimeter.” Shortly after, Moore tells his wife over online messaging, “they shot my goddamn dogs.” Jerad W. Alexander, an Iraq War veteran and author of Volunteers: Growing Up in the Forever War, writes about this emotional attachment: “We love dogs because they remind us of dogs at home, but we are also afraid of dogs because of their hunger and disease. Sometimes we must shoot them. It is a wretched thing, and when we do, it feels as if we have betrayed ourselves.” Tonee Moll, an Army veteran and former “bomb-sniffing dog handler,” writes about their many experiences with military dogs, particularly the difficult task of euthanizing one of their unit’s best-trained German shepherds. Matt Young, a Marine who served multiple tours in Iraq, writes about “how we shot dogs in Iraq” multiple times in his memoir, Eat the Apple. In an essay published in Business Insider, Marine veteran Geoffrey Ingersoll explains the more practical, tactical reasons behind dog shooting. “I’d be lying if I said we didn’t shoot dogs,” he writes. “We shot dogs. It was either shoot the dogs or let them expose our positions. … If I had to choose between shooting a dog and not going home, well, I choose to go home.” This echoes what Phil Klay captured in his 2011 short story “Redeployment,” which later became the title story of his 2014 National Book Award–winning collection. Arguably the best-known short story collection about the Forever Wars by an American veteran, Redeployment opens with a confession from the narrator, an American veteran home from war: “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.”
Dogs appear so often in these stories for two reasons: first, to avoid discussing human deaths; second, to appeal to the sentiments of American readers. In Klay’s title story, the real subject stays off the page and is suggested through subtext or a not-so-subtle implication. Writer Roy Scranton has examined this canine-centric focus in “Redeployment,” remarking how “Klay allows American readers to ignore the unpleasant fact that we shot people.” Klay’s story avoids the more obvious target of American soldiers and American weapons. Imagine this version: “We shot Iraqis. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Iraqi Freedom. I’m a people person, so I thought a lot about that.” Too on the nose? Too ethically complicated? Klay’s premise involves the ironic undercurrent beneath the narrative: it’s more palatable, more comforting, more emotionally appealing to discuss dogs. “A dog,” Scranton argues, “can simply be pitied and his killer simply empathized with.” How could we not be drawn in by the uncomplicated pathos for a helpless, innocent-bystander mutt?
“Redeployment,” then, is not so much about the act of shooting dogs in a war zone as about American readers’ expectations when it comes to stories about war. The American public has never liked seeing, or thinking about, dead Iraqis—not to mention dead Americans—so Klay’s narrator adopts a savvy self-awareness about what kind of war story readers will tolerate. “The sad fact Klay plays on,” Scranton writes, “is that most American readers will care more about a dead dog than they will about a dead Iraqi.” When Klay opens the tale with the brisk monosyllables We shot dogs, he captures his readers’ full attention and curiosity. From a craft perspective, this is smart: his terseness suggests a stereotypical papa doesn’t talk about it tone. The confessional elements build the narrator’s vulnerability and closeness with the reader. By using the first-person plural we, the narrator also distances himself from the act and suggests that the dog shooting was an activity in which all soldiers participated. To use the first-person singular would put all the responsibility and shame on one character’s shoulders—far more off-putting for readers. What story could open with “I shot dogs” and not force readers to slam their books closed in disgust? The I suggests that it was done by one cruel, abhorrent, immoral soldier. The we spreads the blame. By writing about dogs, the narrator knows he’s offering a gentle reminder that dog shooting, while painful, might make readers think about other targets of American guns. Had Klay’s story faced this reality more directly, how many readers would have been interested?
I didn’t take the shot. Of all people, it was Doc. I don’t remember if someone asked him or if he volunteered. Doc, our medic. Six-foot-five and 250 pounds. Doc, whom I’d once watched place an IV into an infant’s scalp in the middle of the night. Doc, covered in tattoos—name of an ex-wife on one shoulder, Kiss band logo on the other, his stomach adorned with Old English font: Doc above the belly button, Thompson below it. Unlike many of us with M4 carbines, Doc carried an M16, which also fired a 5.56 round but had a longer barrel. I guess it was appropriate: the man tasked with treating wounds was now tasked with treating the injured stray. Doc tried to corner the dog against the Hesco wall. A few Americans and the Iraqis tried to flank it from both sides, but the dog kept moving.
From the back, I followed the small crowd that Doc led around the lot, his muzzle aimed at the dog. Of course, the dog could sense that something was off. It must have noticed the sudden quiet, must have noticed something different in our eyes, something unnatural in our movements. The dog limped, hopped, and finally Doc got very close to it, just a few feet away. Doc didn’t, as we had all practiced and trained, put the rifle sights up to his eye and aim—that didn’t really make much sense when the target was so close. He sort of just eyed it, pushing the M16 toward the dog as if trying to nudge the mutt with his muzzle. I could tell Doc was trying to aim at the head, which bobbed and shook as the dog stumbled. When the dog was finally cornered against a Hesco wall of dirt, Doc pulled the trigger.
We heard the pop, saw a burst of dust from the wall, but mostly, eclipsing everything, we heard the dog yelp as if, well, as if it had just been shot. It was as if the shot had sent some surge through the dog’s body, making all four legs burst back to life. The dog screamed, sprinted through our group, weaving between legs, then ran like hell and disappeared into the brush behind the building. The bullet, coming at such close range, had gone through the dog’s upper jaw and out the other side. Specialist Decker, a friend of mine, said the bullet had also blown off the dog’s snout. I didn’t even notice this since the dog had vanished so quickly. I remember thinking, Straight through the jaw, like a quick hole punch. Two Iraqi soldiers, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, walked toward the brush, as if they could do something to help. They looked at each other and grinned. And this is when the laughter began.
As a 20-year-old Army specialist in Iraq, I thought I always had to be fearless, strong, apathetic, and most of all, superior in every way to those inferior Iraqi soldiers. But every few weeks during my early months in country, we’d do something that made me realize that, despite our superior resources, training, and weaponry, we were lacking in many other ways. Although I was a tall, skinny, clumsy, stuttering, insecure boy from northeastern Ohio, I represented a global superpower, the greatest army—allegedly—the world had ever known. But then, one afternoon, you watch as your buddy, with a perfectly workable M16, backed by a dozen Iraqi and American soldiers and the support of the entire American military apparatus, can’t even kill a cornered dog with two bad legs.
The American enthusiasm and eagerness for stories about dogs and war is almost insatiable. There’s Craig Rossi’s memoir Second Chances: A Marine, His Dog, and Finding Redemption, which tells “the uplifting story of how Craig found Fred, a stray, while serving in Afghanistan—and brought him home.” Or take one of the most famous accounts of an Iraqi dog that did not get shot, the 2009 children’s book Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle, which tells the tale “of a Marine and the fiercely loyal dog he befriends during the Iraq War,” as the back-cover synopsis informs us. The Marine, Major Brian Dennis, forms a friendship with Nubs—so named because, through vague circumstances, the dog’s ears had been cut off. The narrative takes a turn when Dennis’s unit must “relocate a full 70 miles away.” Nubs does not, the synopsis carefully explains, have any “way of knowing that Marines were not allowed to have pets.” And then Nubs somehow makes “an incredible journey … through a freezing desert, filled with danger” to eventually reunite with Dennis. Ultimately, Dennis pulls some strings and transports Nubs back to the States. Nubs, the “Iraqi dog of war,” fights adversity from all angles and ends up safe in San Diego. As the Iraqi-American writer Dunya Mikhail writes in The Beekeeper, her collection about Daesh’s abductions and enslavement of the Yazidi people of northern Iraq: “I’ve heard from my relatives that Americans care more about their dogs than about other people.”
One might argue that Dennis was writing for children, but many American adults have basked in the book’s “heartwarming story,” as one online reviewer calls it. “Tugs at the heartstrings!” another one writes. “I cried through the entire book!” someone else proclaims. And who wouldn’t? The book seems like an apt narrative chaser for the Iraq War. Nubs was on The New York Times children’s picture book bestseller list. Both Dennis and Nubs made guest appearances on most of the major talk shows—Ellen, Today, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. I understand Dennis’s point: a small furry animal can make war just a tad easier to get through. My company, too, had many wild dogs on and around our base, and some soldiers treated them like pets. Like many others in my platoon, I steered clear of dogs out of fear of catching a disease or getting bitten. I remember standing on guard duty for hours, staring at desert, while other soldiers passed time by petting some of the smaller dogs and feeding them MREs. Sure, some of them were cute, but I knew these dogs would not end up in sunny San Diego. There were so many, big and small, friendly and unfriendly, that when they disappeared, as they always did eventually, I never knew if they had simply wandered into the desert or been killed by our soldiers and thrown into the burn pit. And frankly, amid the blasts of mortars and IEDs, I didn’t really care.
In 2010, five years after I went home, the Baghdad Governorate Council hired teams of riflemen to take care of the dog problem: in Iraq’s capital alone, they shot and killed more than 40,000 stray dogs.
The Iraqi soldiers laughed when the dog ran off. Some of our guys cussed and ran toward the sound of the yelping, rifles at the ready, intent on finishing the job. The Iraqis, though, just grinned and wandered around the lot without doing much to help. I couldn’t help but feel that they were mocking us. I burned with embarrassment. I wanted to hide, to go sit in the truck. Better yet, I wanted to load everyone up and drive back to base so that the Iraqis could let out all their laughs out of earshot. I wished so deeply that I could just go home and never show my face in Iraq again. There were many moments like this.
Doc walked over to the brush, rifle pointed. I knew Doc pretty well. He sat in the back of our truck, and I’d bunked near him in many barracks and trailers and tents. Beyond his whispered cussing, he didn’t say anything. I think he knew he had let the platoon down: he hadn’t finished this small detail, this mission, but had only made the situation worse. He stomped around the brush, trying to get eyes on the source of that screaming. That was the most awkward part: not just the piercing, high-pitched whining from a terrified animal, but the unrelenting, uncontrollable shriek of immutable pain. It rose and fell like a police siren constant over the lot, the compound, the traffic, the entire city of Jalawla.
While Doc aimed, the rest of us tried to corral the dog from the brush, to flush it out into the open. I hadn’t fired the shot, but I felt responsible for the sound we couldn’t stop hearing, for the entire situation. Whenever one of us did anything, good or bad, it was an extension of us all. In basic training, drill sergeants pushed this idea of collective responsibility down our throats when they’d punish all of us for the actions of one. Had I fired, I probably would’ve made the same mistake. But what I really sensed, and it arrived with so much anger and disgust at my platoon and myself, was palpable shame. Shame at our failure. Shame at how weak and stupid we all looked. Shame at how, even then, at age 20 and without much sense of history, the whole scene—the smiling Iraqis, the angry Americans with their guns, the yelping dog—felt like a metaphor, a symbol. I knew it wasn’t. Rather than let nature take care of the dog, we—the powerful, well-armed, beneficent, American occupiers—thought we could, with care and ease and efficiency, give the little mutt a happy home in doggy heaven. The dog made our pathetic failure known loud and clear throughout the city.
From 1922 to 1927, George Orwell served in the Imperial Police Force in British-occupied Burma (modern-day Myanmar). One day while on patrol, he was called to “do something” about an escaped elephant that “was ravaging the bazaar.” In an essay recalling the incident, Orwell describes the arduous process of approaching the animal and deciding what action to take. In the end, he decides to shoot it—and he does so, many times. “I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool,” he writes. Although he despises imperialism and his role as one of its enforcers, he cannot, under any circumstance, allow this hatred to show itself beyond the “mask” that “his face grows to fit.” “To come all that way, rifle in hand,” he writes, “with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me.” This desire to not be laughed at, to be taken seriously, to be seen, as Orwell puts it, as “resolute” and to “do definite things” reminds me, first, of the many “traditional” performative expectations of masculinity; second, of those many boyish, naïve—though all-consuming and insistent and seemingly inescapable—reasons for enlistment that lay hidden behind whatever uniform one wears, whether it belongs to the Imperial Police Force or the U.S. Army. People join the military for a multitude of reasons, but I can’t help but think that I, like so many other boys, joined in order to be taken more seriously.
Today, we might call this “fragile masculinity.” But I think that’s too pat. Reductive. The phrase fails to account for the ways in which the very human feelings of loneliness, fear, self-doubt, and isolation account for enlistment. Most people don’t want to be laughed at. I remember checking out autobiographies and histories from my high school library and reading them during study hall or before class. Boys would ask, “Is that for homework?” “Yeah,” I’d say, because I’d be laughed at or considered weird if I’d admitted I was reading “for leisure.” I kept up this lie all throughout high school.
So many of our actions in Iraq—I naturally say our since one always, in any military unit, moves and thinks as a squad, a platoon, a company, a unit—were driven not by necessity but by wanting to control how both Iraqis and other soldiers perceived us. And perhaps this was necessary to be successful, to maintain any authority. I wanted to appear resolute, definitive, certain, unwavering. Don’t be a soft target, I’d heard our officers and higher-ranking NCOs yell at us hundreds of times. By soft target, they meant a soldier showing any semblance of weariness, apathy, complacency—a yawn, a slouch, a stretch, the slightest nervousness or unease. But that was the problem: I almost always felt, especially pulling security in town, walking on patrol, driving a Humvee, nervousness and unease. It was always an act to act like I didn’t. To yawn—and I did yawn many times in Iraq—in country, especially in front of Iraqis, might put a small dent on the face of the American war machine.
Orwell knew that if he showed unease, showed hesitation to shoot the elephant, he would not only be laughed at but also be seen as weak, ambivalent, unmanly. Just a “fool” with a rifle. Sure, there might have been real danger there: to not kill the elephant—and he has to fire, he says, dozens of shots to do it—could have put his life, or the lives of others, at risk. But in that situation, as he makes clear, pride and hubris superseded logic and reason. Orwell also knows that his expression and the barrel of his rifle were the faces of imperialism. For him to waver, to back off, to lower that rifle—this might, perhaps, have jeopardized the whole project. One afraid, hesitant rifleman could be the first domino to take it all down, to expose “the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.” He explains how “a white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives.’ ” To show hesitation or fright wouldn’t only mar the pride, the safety, the well-being of the soldier holding power over the following mob but, more largely, show the fragility of imperialism and empire. Once the “natives” laugh at you, you’ve lost all power. The mob takes over. The dark sunglasses, the rifle, the suit of body armor and Kevlar—the locals see right through it to the scared little man underneath.
If you ever need to put a dog down with a gun, don’t ask me for advice. I don’t know how to do it. And I don’t want to know. In the end, I don’t remember Doc, or any of us, finishing off that dog. I remember its yelping, somewhere in the brush by the shitstream. When we climbed into our Humvees and drove off, after spending another hour or so trying to find the dog, I could still hear the yelping. I don’t know when or how it died. I don’t know if its corpse was used for an IED. I don’t know if other soldiers passing through had given that dog a name. I just know that days later, when we came back to that same parking lot, the yelping was gone. Doesn’t that tug at your heartstrings?
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