Animals as Military Targets

2nd October 2008

Like others, I have recently been notified of the US Army’s “training program for soldiers that consisted of shooting live, anesthetized pigs with high-powered M16A2 and M4 rifles, claiming that this cruel exercise was carried out to prepare combat medics to deal with battlefield injuries”. Congratulations to In Defense of Animals for researching the issue. See here.

Of course such news occasions shock and horror. But condemnation is not enough. Condemnation without understanding is never enough.

What we have to do is to ask ourselves why individuals and institutions sanction these callous acts. It is too easy to say that there are some especially cruel or inhuman people in the world. And neither is it enough to say that some institutions are especially so (though of course many are). We have to dig much deeper than that. The problem with animal maltreatment is not the foibles of one or two individuals or even the collective blindness of institutions (which are usually even less responsible than individuals).

No, the problem is that the prevailing, culturally-validated view of animals is that they aren’t really worth anything, at least not worth anything compared with any kind of human interest – however hypothetical or indirect. Animals just don’t really matter. They are, variously, seen as machines, tools, resources, commodities, things – means to human ends. They are not (in Kant’s famous phrase) ends in themselves. They are just means to our ends – made for us – and to be used by us.

One can’t adequately address (let alone unpick) this culturally validated negative view by a few protests, letters or petitions, however important protest may be. What is needed is a much deeper wrestling with the underlying philosophy that legitimates abuse. We need, in short, an ethical view of animals as deserving respect as sentient beings; beings of value in themselves, who exist for themselves, regardless of human needs or wants.

Moving from one view to another, and, in the process, exposing the inconsistencies, absurdities, and calumnies of treating fellow creatures simply as objects, rather than subjects, is the challenge of animal ethics. But it is first and foremost an intellectual work requiring hard thought, mental acuity, and involves no little personal courage, as working against the mainstream invariably does. What we need to remember is that our maltreatment of animals doesn’t happen because there aren’t enough protests (welcome and important though these are), but because we fail to subject what is nothing less than common prejudice to rigorous intellectual engagement and, most of all, ensure that the ethical question receives the time and attention it deserves. We cannot change the world for animals without also changing how people think about animals.

Andrew Linzey