The animals of war kill me every time, and not in a good way.
When Hannibal crossed the Alps to attack Rome in 218 BC, he brought 38 elephants along with the army.
Or he tried. Of the 38 that began the trek, only a handful—maybe even only one—survived the crossing. Those remaining were all dead by the end of the first battle and made no real contribution to Hannibal’s victories.
I imagine those poor elephants struggling through the mountains, driven without mercy by their handlers. Cold, malnourished, faced with terrain far different than their natural habitat. I see them dropping one by one. Was each elephant mercy-killed on the spot? Or just left to suffer as the rest of the army moved on?
It kills me.
But what about the 13,000 human dead in the crossing?
Hannibal’s campaign is one of my favorite bits of history. It pops up from time to time in my textbook work, though I sometimes read the story again in my spare time. Why? Because I’m weird, and because the Internet.
Even brief mentions of Hannibal send my thoughts to those big gray cuties.
So why do I have no reaction to the loss of people?
I could blame it on time. These events happened over 2000 years ago. Distance numbs the heart. But the elephants died 2000 years ago, too.
Is it some kind of human-specific sociopathic disorder? No. (Translation: I hope not). We love our animals deeply, especially the domestic ones. It flows in part from our symbiotic bond and their vulnerability, but mostly from their fuzzy little faces.
Hey, I’m not a psychologist.
Is human empathy for animals greater than it is for fellow humans? It can be—at least in the abstract. This Wired article describes an experiment that measured reactions to fake news stories. Some were about human victims, some about animal victims. Guess which elicited more empathy? (The piece also describes some bleak real-life incidents, so be warned. I skimmed those parts.)
There is a Hollywood wisdom that says no matter what you do in your film, do not hurt an animal. Kill thousands of people, kill millions, rip out hearts and eyes and intestines, boil brains, destroy the whole human species… but spare anything with four legs.
That advice even formed a crucial plot point in the 2008 film What Just Happened. Robert DeNiro plays a film producer who struggles to stop his director from killing a dog character onscreen.
Some movies get away with it, but only with extreme scale-balancing. A puppy dies early in John Wick. The film compensates by having the protagonist slaughter roughly one million humans.
Only once have I seen a film in which the protagonist chooses to kill a cute animal: 2008’s Drag Me To Hell. In this case, a housecat. She does it to save her own life, but it’s still a brutal scene. Guess what happens to her at the end of the film? A demon literally drags her into Hell.
Sigh, all better.
I doubt Hannibal’s elephants ever lived a comfortable life. They were war animals, trained with rigor to be unafraid of attacking forces. But they were well fed, lived in their natural habitat, and they had each other. Sob.
Not long after Hannibal arrived in Rome, he faced a massive Roman force at Cannae. All the elephants were already dead. His army numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 men. The Romans had 86,000.
Hannibal annihilated them, killing between 50,000 and 70,000 Romans in a single day. He lost less than 8,000 of his own troops. A brilliant execution. I love reading about it, though if I traveled back in time to witness the battle in person, I would be a puddle of traumatized goo.
There is another important conclusion to be drawn from Cannae.
Hannibal never even NEEDED the damn elephants.
A Hollywood version of Hannibal’s story has been in the works for ages. IMDB lists it as still “in development.” But the last online mention of the film is from 2014, so the project is likely dead for now.
If the movie does get made, I expect the filmmakers to fib the elephant’s contribution. Pump it up, make them a key part of Hannibal’s early victories. It’s fine. Hollywood.
I just have one small request. When the battles end, Hannibal must give all the elephants comfy blankets and cakes made of tree bark.
Is that too much to ask?
How many armies would you slaughter to save a kitten? A puppy? How un-cute must the animal be to dampen your bloodlust? A gerbil? A bat? Naked mole-rat?