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Innocents at War

By William Rossiter

Even war has rules. It is evil, unethical and immoral to use innocents in war, because they cannot understand the purpose or the danger, their resistance is weak, and it is not their conflict. To use innocents as military assets denigrates and defames a nation, no matter how easy, expedient and efficient it may seem to those in power. We believe the same rules should apply to the use of innocent children as human shields on one side and innocent dolphins in combat on the other.

Dolphin mine sweepers easily search large areas to find mines with echolocation. To them it is a game, perhaps even fun. The game starts when the dolphin is dumped out of a boat carrying a locator device, which the dolphin leaves near the mine to show the humans at the surface where the mine is.

The Navy's dolphins think that they are playing a game when they search for mines with their sonar. They like challenging games, but they love getting the food and attention that comes when they play the games well. They have no choice but to play the game, because it's better than being ignored and hungry, and they have no idea where in the world they are. All games aside, they know that they must return to the boat to survive in this unknown place.

Tacoma did just that, two days after he vanished immediately after his handlers released him in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. It was no joke that he was labeled AWOL, or Absent Without Leave. The underlying attitude of the Navy is that these dolphins are on duty, although they haven't announced plans for a court martial for Tacoma ... yet. The Navy says the dolphins are in no danger, but after at least one peacetime NATO exercise they left a dolphin behind, and in this war many things will be left behind. Tacoma had no choice, but he made his point. A companion minesweeper is Makay, 33, who also went AWOL in Florida once. His back is scarred from the shark attack that may have convinced him that he had no option but to return to Navy duty, where he will live out his already long life.

K-Dog is another of the five bottlenose dolphins involved in the mine clearing. As his name suggests, the Navy wants us to think of the game like a dog eagerly searching for a ball, but it's more like getting a child to run into the street after a ball, or urging someone to stick their head up to see if the shooting has stopped. Who knew that the mines in Iraq weren't redesigned to blow up when a dolphin's echolocation clicks got too close? That overdue countermeasure might signal that a mine was present, as the dolphin vanishes, but would the remaining dolphins be used to locate more mines if it meant saving ships at war? The dolphins are military assets. To the Navy field commander their survival is more justified by efficiency than by being humane. To save a ship or assault force from such mines, a field commander's worst-case concern might turn into running out of dolphins before the mines are all destroyed.

The Navy sees the trained dolphins as expendable "biologics", animals suited to tasks too difficult and dangerous for humans. As military assets the dolphins are expected to perform their mission, and it's not up to them whether or not to do it. But if the dolphins knew what the mine was, and what they were really being told to do, would they do it?