What a dog’s death can teach a military officer

On July 15, 2018, with tears sliding from cheek to phone, I told my wife to end Mickey’s life. And she did. She directed the veterinarian to euthanize him. He was dead a few minutes later.

Mickey was our Boston Terrier, but more importantly, he was a constant companion, a furry friend, and truly a member of our family. A little over eleven years old when he died, he had developed congestive heart failure. I was overseas when Mickey’s rate of breathing skyrocketed to the point that he couldn’t eat or move, and so my wife took him early on a Sunday morning to the emergency vet, who informed her that any medical intervention would cost at least $5,000. So we chose instead to let him go.

Beyond how much I miss him, I’ve thought a lot about how Mickey died, and on reflection I think you can learn a lot about being a military officer from the end of a beloved pet’s life. And when one considers that the number of pets euthanized annually in the US is likely well over a million, compounded by the many military officers that have animals, I know there are likely a lot more officers out there that either have or will face a similar decision. So we might as well get something out of such personally painful experience.

Professionally, military officers are bound to defend the nation by making strategic judgments, based on specialized knowledge, specific to the use of force. These judgments are by nature full of consequences for human lives. Essentially, sometimes in dire circumstances at war, officers send troops to their likely deaths in order to gain ground or strategic advantage. As Michael Shaara wrote in The Killer Angels, through his portrayal of Gen. Robert E. Lee, “To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.” This is an awful, but necessary, professional responsibility.

Because one cannot “practice” this part of war, it is often difficult for military officers to find real-world experiences that replicate the very tragic life-or-death decisions that can emerge in combat.

To love an animal (almost as one would a soldier or subordinate) and then have to make such a decision on that animal’s death—is arguably the closest one can get to such a combat decision.

With respect to Mickey’s death, and my role in deciding to let him go, I’ve found three aspects to the decision that fall into Carl von Clausewitz’s “paradoxical trinity”—the irrational emotion and pain of the decision, the non-rational (“chance”) of when it happened, and the rational calculation that led to the choice to end his life.

It’s not hard to know the decision was freighted with emotion. When I first held him as a puppy, he fit in the palm of my hand. His eyes had just opened. He later followed me from Arizona to Washington, D.C., New York to Utah, and Minnesota to Colorado. His looks and quiet determination reminded me of what Sgt. Stubby, the most decorated trench-dog of World War I, must have been like.

As I made the final decision, in my mind’s eye, I could see Mickey playing with my daughters in the front yard. I thought about the girls, and my wife, sitting with him in his last moments and then burying him in that same yard. All without me there.

And so I cried. But I know I’m not the first military officer to well up with emotion at the prospect of a decision to end life (or lives). In the course of my PhD dissertation research I found that generals George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all shed tears in the conduct of brutal campaigns filled with difficult decisions to send young American soldiers to their likely deaths. Of course, in no way would I ever equate spending human lives with ending a pet’s life—but, I think it’s fair to suggest that the two experiences bear some meaningful resemblance.

Then there’s the bad luck of it all happening while I was overseas. The timing was terrible. As Clausewitz described, the nature of war includes chance circumstances and random occurrences that are entirely non-rational. Beyond my family having to confront Mickey’s death without me, there was also the fact that we’d recently taken big blows to our finances—the purchase of a new home and a subsequent hail storm which drove a high deductible payment. Both depleted our otherwise healthy ‘rainy day fund.’ So a vet bill that started at $5,000 (and would likely climb quickly) just wasn’t in the cards. The fact that this happened at such a bad time reminded me that the worst days come when we’re least prepared, which applies to the end of a pet’s life as well as at war.

Which meant that the rational calculus we rapidly went through stacked the deck against Mickey. There wasn’t a choice to be made, really—we just couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t escape the natural consequences of our momentary financial situation.

Not to mention the after-the-fact second-guessing that goes on: Should we have bought pet insurance? Why didn’t we get his chest X-ray sooner? When was his last vet visit?

The questions persist, and, like regrets that continue after deaths in combat—they don’t go away.

And neither will Mickey, for our family, not physically or emotionally. He’s buried in the yard where we’ve made a little marker to his memory. Because he’s not forgotten, he’s not entirely gone.

Mickey once sprawled his entire black-and-white body in my hand, and when he did, little did I know that eleven years later, he would teach me the hardest lesson a professional military officer can ever receive. Experience really is the toughest teacher—and the lessons are always incredibly costly.

I just wish I could have Mickey back.