Not all soldiers are human, and some of the most valuable enlisted animals are dogs. Dogs of War glorifies the stories of three heroic canines assisting U.S. troops in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. Though each part is set during a different era with increasingly traumatic horrors of war, the loyalty and simplicity of the warfighting dogs is a constant factor. In the first story, medical dog Boots and her plucky young human Marcellinus McDonald brave the trenches of World War I. Boots eventually saves Marcellinus’s life. In the second, sled dog Loki does the same for World War II airman Cooper as she helps thwart a Nazi plot to steal vital war technology from a downed plane. Finally, Sheba, a scout dog in Vietnam, protects her handler Lanford, who is later rescued from his own toxic memories by landside puppy Bouncer. Notice a theme? Hint: if it weren’t for the dogs, the humans involved would all be toast—Marcellinus blown up by Germans, Cooper shot by Nazis, and Lanford caught in deadly Vietcong traps. Any more heroic, and I’d wonder if these pups were employed by the army office of public relations.
The stark nightmare landscape of Boots’s World War I story is probably the most immersively warlike setting, but even there, both sides unite for a poignant and picturesque soccer game. The book depicts some of the harsh realities of battle such as trench rats and big guns, but it all feels oddly streamlined and grit-less, like a cartoon for children who are just becoming old enough to understand about war. Running in the same vein, Loki’s World War 2 arctic adventure feels like a boys’ story from the 1940s. There’s never a real sense of danger, possibly because there’s no development of the protagonist beyond his role in the unit and his relationship with Loki. Lanford’s life in the trailer park and experiences in Vietnam suffer from a similar problem. Lanford and his buddies seem like smoothed-out stock characters from a movie: readily likeable, shallow, simple, and completely devoted to their dogs. While the book does go into some of the horrors of war, like booby traps and razor wire, even these are watered down and fairly picturesque, safe for kids, and usually related to the ways that a good dog can prevent soldiers from stumbling into them. Even Vietnam vet Lanford’s PTSD is written as a fairly mild restlessness interspersed with memories of his dog and battle buddy. In fact, readers unfamiliar with PTSD and its symptoms might be confused by Lanford’s behavior. Is he sick? Depressed? What’s going on? Granted, real-life PTSD can be very confusing, but this is a book intended for children, so more explanation might have been in order.
This isn’t really a book for readers seeking war stories, but it might be a good diversion for kids who are learning a bit about history, really love dogs, and want to think of their best friend as a hero.