5. Navy Dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins have served alongside sea lions in helping the U.S. Navy patrol the seas since the 1960s. The brethren of Flipper use their sophisticated biological sonar to search for mines based on the concept of echolocation. A dolphin will send out a series of clicks that bounce off objects and return to the dolphin. That allows the marine mammal to get a mental image of the object, and it can then report to its human handler using certain yes or no responses. The handler can also follow up on a yes response by sending the dolphin to mark the object’s location with a weighted buoy line. Those mine-marking abilities came in handy during both the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War, with Navy dolphins helping to clear the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq during the latter. Dolphins can also tag enemy swimmers, but the U.S. Navy denies rumors about training dolphins to use weapons against humans.
4. War Elephants
The largest living land mammals on Earth left their mark in warfare as creatures capable of devastating packed formations of enemy troops. Elephants could trample, pierce soldiers with their tusks and even throw hapless humans with their trunks. They sometimes wore armor or carried archers and javelin throwers. Ancient kingdoms of India may have been first to tame elephants as living tanks, but the practice soon spread to the Persians in the Middle East. Alexander the Great encountered enemy elephants during his conquests of the ancient world, and eventually the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans made use of war elephants at certain times. Horses feared the sight and smell of elephants, and human soldiers also had to deal with the psychological terror of facing down the huge animals. Still, elephants could go mad with fear or pain after taking too much punishment, and the advent of cannons on the battlefield essentially ended their combat role.
3. Military Mules
Mules have played an unsung but crucial role throughout the history of warfare by carrying or pulling along much of the food, weapons and other supplies needed by armies. Born from a male donkey and a female horse, they became preferred over horses for carrying loads because of their greater endurance. They also displayed more intelligence and unwillingness to push to the point of injury, which led to the stereotype of being stubborn. Still, the ancient Roman legions marched with about one mule for every 10 Roman legionaries. Napoleon Bonaparte himself rode a mule across the Alps, in addition to using the animals in his baggage trains. The U.S. Army alone used about 571,000 horses and mules in Europe during World War I, and lost about 68,000 killed in action. Mules have continued to find use even today, as U.S. Special Forces, marines and soldiers rely upon the animals to keep supply lines open for remote outposts in the mountains of Afghanistan.
2. Dogs of War
Most people may look upon man’s best friend as a cuddly creature, but humans have let slip the dogs of war for thousands of years. Large breeds served as war dogs on the battlefield and as defensive sentries for everyone from the Egyptians to Native Americans. The Romans equipped some of their dogs with spiked collars and armor, and the Spanish conquistadors also used armored attack dogs during their invasion of South America in the 1500s. Many European factions and nations used war dogs in ancient conflicts and throughout the Middle Ages, but more modern warfare reduced the battlefield role to that of messengers, trackers, scouts and sentries. The U.S. military and others have more recently trained dogs as bomb-sniffing detectors to work in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the four-footed companions get their own bulletproof vests.
Perhaps no other animal has played so great a role in the history of warfare as the horse. Humans domesticated horses as early as 5,500 years ago in modern-day Kazakhstan, and the spread of horses across Eurasia soon gave rise to their use in large-scale warfare. The ancient Egyptians and the Chinese used horse-pulled chariots as stable platforms to fight from, before the invention of an effective saddle and stirrup gave mounted warriors a decisive edge. Armored knights on horseback could deliver devastating charges against all but the most steadfast foot-soldier formations. The stability provided by the saddle-and-stirrup combo allowed the Mongols to fight and shoot arrows effectively from horseback, and gave them the mobility to conquer much of the known world. A thunderous appearance of horses on battlefields often signaled the beginning of the end for civilizations that lacked similar warrior mounts. Major combat use of horses did not waver until the modern era of warfare, when tanks and machine guns entered the fray.