To begin, let there be no mistake that the lives of non-human animals lost to war are lives taken, not given.
When humans give themselves over to the ideological illusion of patriotic duty to a country, a landmass, a spiritual symbol, or a flag they do so as agents who have to some degree consented to being used for its purposes. Even if they don’t know the true intent of the deus ex machine (God from the Machine, political powers) that reveal to them the solution to their condition as warfare, they are accepting of the prophesying that their actions will contribute to some greater purpose. That is not to say that all soldiers are willing participants of war.
Alternately, non-human animals used in war are a machina ex deus (machines from the God), beings thrust into the world of human ideals and structures which they are limited in their capacity to resist. Forced into wars where their dedication is respected, but their obedience is demanded. They must serve endlessly until exhausted, perhaps never knowing a moment in their lives of the illusionary human ‘freedom’ so much blood and brutality is assaulted upon them in the name of.
Their ‘service’ is not something to be honoured; it is something to be reviled. While we must already navigate the sea of ethical quandaries before us in the awkward integration of other animals in our lives, there is no reason to anthropomorphise the ‘valor’ and ‘courage’ of these beings whose dedication is a testament only to the utter domination of human exceptionalism in cruelty and exploitation over those without the power to resist. War does not bring prestige to the coerced arrangement other animals must endure for their human masters. Monuments erected in their honor do not validate the somber march whipped upon them. Nor should the images of tender moments between soldiers and puppies, cats, horses, bears, pigeons, and more endear us to the notion that these theaters of terror are purified or made less horrific because of the presence of innocent creatures bringing soldiers a reprieve from the madness of war. These images are taken out of context and do not belie the enslavement and abuse experienced by other animals to become seemingly willing participants in something they could not possibly understand.
It may be impossible to actually account for the total number of animal casualties of wars in just the last century. An idea of losses through the last century can be found here. While rulers have used animals to drive fear and awe into the hearts of their enemies in war for as long as written history remembers, the intention has never changed. Other animals are skillful, unique, and intelligent in ways that human animals fail. Even our best machines, fastest computers, and most intelligent robots seem awkward and clunky in real world dynamic environments that are made for flesh and blood to respond to. Other animals have been incorporated into warfare as organic weapons to overcome our own psychological and physical frailty. The idea that these others are more ferocious, more carnal, and terrifying than the sanitized and decorated hero on the mount makes them into an ideal beyond what a human soldier can be. This image is a picture easy to paint, but is lacking in context. They are not born for war or to be vicious, it is the instilling of our abject capacity into their hearts through brutality and intimidation that brings out the most terrifying aspect of their beauty. When the hearts of soldiers have no place or power to affect change, no way to escape the torment of their condition except to march on, then those with the least power will feel the brunt of their suffering and trauma, and be made into the very darkness that consumes the soldiers heart.
Despite this position other animals hold as companions and heroes to many, they will always be treated as less than equals. As much as they can be an intimidating force on the battlefield, they are just as easily manipulated into the ideal test subject by those who believe there is no sacrifice too great in the name of science and the modernistic project of progress that war is a convenient facilitator of. All animal experimentation is a product of the human’s war. When I say the human’s war I do not mean every human, I mean those who embrace the idea of humanity as a project in itself, aside and exceptional to the rest of nature. This is the war that is superimposed on all wars, as if viewing them all through a looking glass. It is the war that turns other animals into machines, into product, and into entertainment. It is the war that grips them and under this gaze forms them into pieces of a game to be played out like the lives of so many others marginalized and exploited by society. Yet, because the looking glass has layers that each human can use from the condition based vantage point they stand at in society, the intensity and focus of the gaze is strongest at the bottom where the weight of all those other gazes is compounded. If the gaze from above imbues the idea that other animals are of lesser value than humanity and that we are entitled to exploit other animals through that value judgement, then without a way of looking back up and turning the looking glass around, it is accepted and the war is justified on those terms.
This is why the purple poppy exists. It is to represent an ideal that stands apart from the war within the war and challenge the dominant discourse that invalidates the experience of other animals. It is a symbol of their victimization in war and recognition of them as more than objects of human design. It does not excuse their torture, their suffering, and fear in the name of some greater ‘good.’ It only remembers the truth that what is the best about them and us is lost when our human ideals overpower our animal sensibilities.
~ In Flander’s Field where poppies grow, none is made lesser by whose blood flowed.
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All animal imagery from The Atlantic: World War I in Photos: Animals at War