Animal Studies Journal


This essay uses Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower to explore how dogs were used by the United States military in the Vietnam wars to mitigate the territorial advantages of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Relying in particular on the account by U.S. soldier and dog handler John C. Burnam, the essay also shows agency to be situational: since the dogs’ superior sensory abilities enabled them to help significantly the United States military, their presence complicates and at times reverses dogmatic ideas of human agency trumping other animals’ agency. But the operation of contemporary biopower makes such categorical inversions flimsy and reversible: the dogs’ status changed from heroes set for moments above human soldiers to mere machinery, pressed below even animals, in order to excuse official United States policy to leave the dogs in Vietnam. Thus, most of the 4,000 or so dogs used in conflict were abandoned in the war zone when the United States withdrew, leaving many of the dogs to become meat, to be eaten by the Vietnamese. Soldiers’ love for their canine partners heightened the teams’ effectiveness, but it also sharpened the soldiers’ sense of loss, contradiction, and betrayal in the face of the dogs’ abandonment, helping to inspire a legal change in U.S. policy regarding military dogs in 2000. This specific historical case is understood as characteristic of contemporary biopower’s function more generally.