Monday, May 19, 2008

Animals at War - Elephants

In one week's time, we will be celebrating Memorial Day. Our government views Memorial Day as "one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values." Nowhere in the White House Memoranda does it state that those honored and revered must be human. Perhaps this Memorial Day you can also remember the millions of animals that served and gave their lives in our armed services.

Animals have been integral in manmade conflicts for thousands of years. They have not volunteered for these duties and yet military outcomes have hinged upon their service. Using elephants as living battle tanks became a mostly advantageous military practice in 4000 BC. Although some were outfitted with archery towers and lance men, elephants were mostly driven forward and used for shock value. Horses were terrified at the mere scent of them and would frequently refuse to charge. The elephants didn't have as much difficulty in charging, and when goaded by their riders into a maddened stampede it little mattered which army stood before them. This is where the idea of elephants as a military advantage could (and frequently did) fall apart.

Perhaps the most famous practitioner of the "Elephant Offense" would be Hannibal. Histories are replete with tales of him taking a herd of African elephants over the alps to fight the Romans. What the histories fail to mention is that over half of Hannibal's army and all but a few of the elephants died during the crossing. The elephants that Hannibal used to win a victory in the Battle of the Trebia River, were different elephants altogether, but elephants all the same. There were about 30 of them, positioned on the flanks of Hannibal's main forces. The elephants played their part well, fostering terror among the enemy and scattering or trampling Rome's forces. Although given credit for a successful battle, many of the elephants were mortally wounded in the fight. Those that did not die on the battle field later succumbed to the cold and Hannibal was once again elephant-less.

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