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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Spielberg's Version of "War Horse"

Blog by Dr. Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted Dec. 11, 2011

Michael Morpurgo’s book, War Horse, which was transformed into a Tony-award winning Broadway play, opened on the big screen since Christmas Day 2011.

It is hard for us to fathom the massive loss of animal life in the history of war. Morpurgo humanizes the plight of military animals in WWI by making the horse, Joey, the narrator of his own story. He is a British boy’s beloved work horse who is sold into the British cavalry. Through an unusual twist of events, Joey ends up going into battle on the side of the Germans, as well as the British.

The emphasis on Joey’s  health is a subtext of the story. The critical service of both British and American veterinarians and veterinary stations are described many times throughout the book.

When the fighting ceased in 1918, Joey’s plight as a surviving horse on French soil is also chronicled as he and his emaciated equine comrads are auctioned for slaughter as horse meat. This characterization of war animals as “equipment” is repeated years later in Vietnam. At the end of that war, American military dogs which had served so faithfully to locate injured GI’s, warned of enemy ambushes, and searched out booby traps, were left to their own fate―including slaughter for food―as the troops were forced to return to the U.S. without their beloved canine service companions.

Though we instinctively imagine that the millions of horses lost in World War I would have been through combat, Morpurgo paints a more accurate picture where malnutrition, starvation and disease were the greater scourges. Joey’s near fatal encounter with tetanus following his recovery from life-threatening combat injuries is a vivid reminder that horses are highly susceptible to this dreaded infection.

American veterinarian Dr. D. L. Proctor served in India during WW II and was in charge of preparing horses and mules for service in the mountains and jungles of Burma. He told me of the problems with protozal diseases, lacerations, shrapnel wounds. But as far as tetanus goes, things had changed in the 35 years since WW I. “I never saw a case of tetanus while I was in the service because the horses and mules were all vaccinated”, he said. “And this is something because tetanus was the greatest cause of death in horses at that time.”

Animals are still fighting and suffering in war. The New York Times ran an article that captures some of the modern day impact of war on dogs. Titled “After Duty, Dogs Suffer Like Soldiers”, James Dao describes the post-traumatic stress disorder of military dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What War Horse tells us is that animals don’t discriminate between the “good” side and the “bad” side. Joey fought for both British and German armies and received veterinary care from each side.

And this confirms my interview with  WWII Japanese veterinarian, Dr. Takehiko Takahashi, who cared for the war horses assigned to him in Burma with the same zeal and compassion as Dr. Proctor did for the American horses.

Veterinarians take an oath to prevent animal suffering, and in war as in peacetime, it should not matter where they were born or who owns them.

Above photos of the book cover and of the documentary describing the creation of the puppetry in the play version of the story are by Dr. Smith, who invites comments on this and all blogs at