One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Afghanistan, by Pen Farthing (2009).
Clearly there’s something going on with dogs and the North American psyche these days, as everyone, including publishers, seems dog-crazy. There are books on training, specific breeds, the lives of vets, canine intelligence, dog evolution, and of course countless volumes on how really badly behaved dogs have saved people from themselves.
I’ve read an awful lot of them (which could accurately be written as “I’ve read the awful lot of them.” Many of them are quite bad, though it’s not really fair to tar all of them with the same brush). And there’s certainly are times when a person is wiped out and tired of work and sick of cold rain and just needs some comfort reading– preferably along with a bowl of cheesy mashed potatoes and a warm fleecy blanket.
So. You can tell what my mindset was when I chose Pen Farthing’s One Dog at a Time over the book Teaming With Microbes. But I’m pleased to say that One Dog holds up pretty well. It’s written by a British marine who was posted to Now Zad, Afghanistan, in 2007 (I think). He’s a middle-ranked officer (a “small commander,” as he tells the Afghan police when they ask, with limited English, if he’s the one in charge), so he has just enough autonomy to feed leftovers to one of the many stray dogs that hang around the post. He quickly realizes that tending to the dog is a tiny and very necessary escape from the constant tedium and occasional terror of his daily life.
Farthing’s writing is clear and unsentimental, so he avoids a lot of the dog-saves-human fairy tale language that prevails in this genre. Instead, we get a portrait of a man who sets his alarm 30 minutes early in order to spend time with the dogs (the number grows quickly), even though he only has two hours for sleep before he’s due at a 2:00 am shift.
Farthing also has the decency to wonder about the ethics of saving dogs when so many people around him are in dire straits. His answer, essentially, is that dogs are unwitting victims who people drag into terrible situations– so we have an obligation to help solve the problems that we create. But how is that different from the situation of many people in Afghanistan, and especially of many Afghan women and children? Farthing himself struggled to try to do good in Afghanistan, only to feel defeated by the incredible complexity of the problem. Toward the end of his posting, for example, he led some marines to a damaged school to salvage usable books to bring to a neighboring village, where the school desperately needed books. The effort ultimately fails, though, when the schoolmaster rejects the books, afraid to take them from coalition forces for fear of Taliban reprisals against the village.
Dogs are wonderful creatures, but much less complicated than people. Reading this book makes me wonder if we don’t save them simply because we can.