Books

A beastly thing, war

THE WAR ANIMALS by Robert E. Lubow

BARBARA AMIEL September 5 1977
Books

A beastly thing, war

THE WAR ANIMALS by Robert E. Lubow

BARBARA AMIEL September 5 1977

A beastly thing, war

THE WAR ANIMALS by Robert E. Lubow

(Doubleday, $8.75)

It was downhill all the way. After Hannibal’s elephants, the Persians’ lions and Charlemagne’s noble steeds, it was inevitable that, by the time of the Vietnam war, the Americans would be drilling platoons of cone-nose bugs. Early military efforts to press lice into action failed when the little

creatures turned out to be pacifists. Ticks, like the Swiss, preferred to be neutral.

For some readers, Professor Robert Lubow’s book on animals on the contemporary battlefield may be a provocative social document raising fundamental questions about the ethical use of insects et al in warfare. But Lubow’s account of projects undertaken by various military establishments (particularly the United States and Israel) illustrates—as if by now any further illustration were necessary—the extraordinary cost to the taxpayer caused by the almost touching faith of modern government in the mumbo jumbo of most1 social scientists. In this case it is the behavioral scientists who have snared their share of the public purse by pushing the thesis that “conditioned” responses in animals could aid troops in action.

Lubow himself is a believer. Apart from his professorial duties in experimental psychology at both Yale and Tel Aviv universities, he is the whiz behind Behavior Systems, Inc., a private company which chalked up one impressive feat in the training of mine detection dogs for use in

booby-trapped Vietnam. But the remainder of his account of work in this field is replete with (unconscious) humor. The animal trainers of Darius the Persian worked with more efficiency and common sense than the U.S. military. Among the schemes described:

• Bats with incendiary bombs strapped to their chests to be air-dropped over Japan. After two years of research a trial run was held in New Mexico. On the first attempt some bats, showing decidedly un-Skinner like independence, escaped and blew up a two-million-dollar hangar and a general’s staff car.

• The training of pigeons as reconnaissance teams over jungle areas to pick out man-made installations. Unfortunately, maintaining the pigeons’ flight pattern depends on “reinforcement” via food and no method was devised to remind a hungry pigeon that a juicy patch of Vietcong jungle wasn’t as good eating as the grains of food in a Skinner conditioning box. Lubow speculates that “electrodes in the pigeon’s brain” might be the answer.

The most effectively trained group of animals did in fact turn out to be a set of kamikaze pigeons who worked as a rudimentary guidance system on missiles. After a faultless demonstration for a group of U.S. senators the project was canceled— much to the mystification of the scientists. The explanation might have been simple. The senators, being hawks, probably didn’t wish to see doves of any kind in the employ of the Pentagon, BARBARA AMIEL