When a Western soldier goes off to war in a hard-bitten country like Afghanistan, he prepares himself for heat and dust, danger and hostility. He is expected to put his emotions on hold, trust no one, get the job done and get out. But if he is an animal lover, with a couple of pampered hounds waiting back home, it is impossible for him to ignore the hungry packs of dogs who linger outside every military outpost, desperate for food and just as eager for human companionship.
I know this because I manage a small animal shelter in Afghanistan, and I receive dozens of emails each month from foreign servicemen and -women who have adopted a local dog or cat — sometimes a terrified new mother with pups or kittens, sometimes a scarred Shepherd being forced to fight — and are frantically trying to save it before their deployment ends and they are whisked off in a helicopter, leaving their best friend behind to its fate.
One of the first such messages I received, more than four years ago, was from an Englishwoman named Lisa whose husband, a sergeant with the British Royal Marines, was desperately trying to rescue a group of dogs in Helmand, a remote province where British forces were fighting daily battles with the Taliban. After numerous emails and phone calls, several harrowing journeys and frustrated rescue attempts, three of the dogs and 13 puppies finally reached our shelter in Kabul.
I realized it had been a miraculous escape, but I knew only the barest outlines of the story until much later, when I read One Dog at a Time by Pen Farthing, whose wife had called me back in 2006. What he and his fellow marines endured to save the dogs amid firefights and mortar attacks, what they confronted in official disapproval and local animosity, and what they gained from the affection and gratitude of the dogs of their particular war, make a vertiginous and inspiring memoir of compassion amid combat.
The most moving passages are those in which Farthing confesses his own ambivalence and anguish. How can he win the “hearts and minds” of Afghans when he finds a frenzied, cheering crowd of policemen egging on two bloodied dogs to fight? How can he make a split-second choice about which dogs to squeeze into a truck to safety, and which to leave behind? How can he worry about a stray mutt when his fellow marines are dying, when Afghan villages and schools have been reduced to rubble?
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“Maybe deep down, I was just missing life back home and looking after these dogs was my way of pretending I was somewhere else,” Farthing confides at a low moment, when he realizes he may have to abandon the pack of once-wary creatures he has seduced with food, shelter and belly rubs. Although caring for the dogs keeps him and his fellow marines human in a hellish time and place, he also experiences a frustration I too know well: the visitor’s inability to change a society where fear, neglect and abuse of animals are widespread.
In the end, the exhausted and injured marine made it safely home with just two of the Helmand dogs, Nowzad and Tali. A third, Jena, came to America and now visits me at the beach every summer. Most of the puppies succumbed to a virus, and the other grown dogs were lost to the desert, perhaps also dead by now. But the title of this valiant book declares a practical philosophy I also share, and that Farthing and I — though we have never met — both carry on in our continuing Afghan missions. You try, you fail and you focus on saving one dog at a time.
Pen Farthing can be reached at nowzaddogs.co.uk. Pam Constable can be reached at kabulcritters@ gmail.com.