Rex, a small German Shepherd at the heart of Mike Dowling’s new memoir, Sergeant Rex, ranks as the longestserving military working dog (MWD) in the Marine Corps. In this thoughtful account of their shared tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, Dowling shows Rex to be impressively brave, competent, even funny in the way only a dog can be. But canine courage is an old saw. Dowling is neither the first soldier to write well about dogs in the Middle East — pick up Royal Marine Pen Farthing’s moving bestseller, One Dog at a Time, which covers his rescue efforts for the strays of Afghanistan — nor the first to venerate the canines of combat. (William Putney’s Always Faithful and Lisa Rogak’s The Dogs of War are the standard- bearers in this department.)
What’s confounding and original about Mike Dowling’s narrative is how genuinely he writes about protecting Rex, all the while embroiling him in situations of brute violence and deadly risk. Deployed as one of the first 12 Marine dog teams embedded with infantry units since the Vietnam War, Rex and Dowling were successful in their assignment to sniff out IEDs (improvised explosive devices, or bombs). Rex alone unearthed hundreds of caches.
This track record no doubt contributed to a Pentagon task force’s conclusion that MWDs are better bomb detectors than any military technology, by far. The armed forces have taken note MWDs on active duty rose from 1,800 in 2001 to 2,700 in 2011, with about 500 dogs being trained each year. With their unparalleled sense of smell, dogs are functionally suited to the task. Physically and mentally, however, they experience some of the same maladies as their human counterparts. Though the military does not make statistics readily available, dogs are also suffering from a canine form of PTSD and traumatic injury, as well as dying in considerable numbers. So when Dowling “speaks” for Rex through italicized interjections of die-hard zeal and ooh-rah patriotism on missions in the most dangerous areas in and around Fallujah and Baghdad, it’s difficult to believe his assertions that he has the dog’s best interest in mind. After all, every dog in the military is drafted without consent.
Dowling, a voluntary soldier, writes about the U.S. military cause with pure enthusiasm. A capable dog handler, he nurtures Rex’s skills. He loves this dog, and cares for him with unassailable constancy. That much is apparent. But Dowling conflates Rex’s interest in doing the job before him (for the reward of a game of ball) with a conceptual allegiance to the American values these soldiers are defending. In one harrowing scene, Dowling brings Rex, who is already injured, along on a mission anyway. “A barrage of blasts” rattles their vehicle and “Rex goes jittery as hell. He keeps glancing at me with a look of real pain on his features.” In another scene, Rex fixes his protector with “a lonely, frightened gaze, like he’s convinced he’s been abandoned.” In yet another, Rex urinates out of fear. No matter how faithfully allied Dowling is with his dog in combat, these scenes are nevertheless excruciating for an animal lover to read.
Early in the book, Dowling reflects on setting out for their first mission. “Rex trusted me 100 percent, in that unique bond between man and dog. Yet he had no choice in my taking us to war, and he had no idea of the dangers we were flying into.” Everything Rex accomplishes, everything he survives — Dowling is right: Rex does deserve a Purple Heart for his courage. And Dowling deserves the acknowledgment he has earned too. But a medal for military service would mean nothing to a dog. He would not understand why he was receiving it.