Last week, the Taliban went viral. In what is thought by experts to be a unique case, a website affiliated with the Taliban released a video showing a captured military working dog. The dog, a Belgian Malinois named Colonel, is shown wearing a sophisticated flack vest and surrounded by Taliban fighters who display captured rifles of the type commonly used by U.S. and British commandoes.
For lack of a better term, it was an animal-hostage video, an unholy new mash-up of internet genres. News editors smelled blood in the water and rose to the challenge, generating headlines that ranged from the straightforward (“Taliban: Dog now a POW in Afghanistan”) to the preposterous (“Taliban: Dog POW demands the best food, bed”) to the unabashedly corny (“Bow-wow POW: Taliban claim to have captured a dog”). NPR covered the video, and National Geographic used it to delve into a brief history of military dogs, including a Navy canine captured by the Japanese during World War II.
After the headlines, things only got worse. As if Colonel the dog weren’t already ripe for our sympathy, reporters strained too hard for adjectives to describe his expression. Fox News called him a “doleful hound,” while the Washington Post preferred the less stylized, “slightly befuddled-looking.” To NPR he was “rather sad,” to NBC News, “sheepish,” and the New York Daily News went so far as to speculate that the dog “occasionally wags its tail, hinting that it’s possibly more confused than afraid.”
Reading that, I felt like we had reached an absurd new low in the theater of terrorism. Think, The Dog Whisperer meets Zero Dark Thirty.
It would be ridiculous enough, absent context, but what made Colonel’s story more disconcerting was that other prisoner of the war in Afghanistan, the one whose captivity hasn’t managed to break through to the otherwise war-weary YouTube crowd and become an internet meme.
What I missed in each of the 20 articles I read on Colonel was any mention of Sergeant Bowe Berghdal, the U.S. soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan or Pakistan since 2009. Berghdal is America’s only current P.O.W. Colonel the dog, it turns out, is British.
The comparison between the two is not facetious. Berghdal’s story immediately came to mind when I heard about the dog’s capture. It seemed only logical that others would make this leap and associate the two; after all, Berghdal was in the news recently for his own video, the first proof of life released by his captors in three years.
Given this, I expected articles about Colonel to connect his smaller story to Berghdal’s larger saga, to remind Americans of the stakes, to show deference to Berghdal’s family and to others who have lost loved ones in the war; basically, to demonstrate that we will not disregard, even in the midst of a heart-wrenching animal video, our servicemen and women stuck over there.
Boy, was I wrong. What I found during the course of my unscientific media analysis was all dog, no human. The fact that an actual P.O.W. was being held by Taliban affiliates came up exactly once vis-à-vis Colonel’s story, in a video clip posted to CNN. Other than that, Berghdal was totally absent from the narrative. He had been upstaged by a dog at war, just as the war itself is continually upstaged by internet ephemera, stupid cat tricks and celebrities behaving badly.
Consider the proof in the page views. The top YouTube video associated with Berghdal has garnered about 567,000 in 3 years. The top video of the captured Belgian Malinois? 283,000 in 4 days.
Looking at the numbers, it’s hard not to think that Americans pay attention to the war only when it affects someone who might actually live with them. Probably not a son or daughter in the military, because that is statistically unlikely. Definitely not an Afghani, because most people have never met one. But Fido—nearly half of U.S. households include a dog.
So, in the long struggle between war and the animal video, the animal video wins hands down. It wins because we can relate and because there is a certain amount of suffering-burnout at play, too. With all the stories of human misery only a click away, we take solace in lighter fare. This should come as no surprise but it disappoints nonetheless. When the risks and results of fighting are not equally distributed, we default to a world that delivers “Bow-wow POW.” If a headline like that is what it takes to bring our attention to the war in Afghanistan, we can’t get our people out of there soon enough.