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Origin of the “dogs of war”

Charlton Heston 1970

The phrase “dogs of war” refers, today, to human mercenaries; men who enjoy the macho thrill of killing and maiming with destructive weapons. They take a special pleasure in their work of inflicting the maximum damage on others. The phrase has connotations of particularly insensitive, testosterone-fuelled behaviour in male mercenaries bent on wanton destruction.

Charlton Heston 1970

Charlton Heston 1970. “Let slip the dogs of war”. YouTube screenshot

Although the phrase is a reference to people, the phrase originally referred to dogs fighting in a war. If you go back far enough you will find that these were real dogs trained to attack the frontlines of an enemy army.

The well-known Mark Anthony call, “Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war” is a call for real dogs of war to attack the frontlines. And in retaliation the ancient Gauls sent across armoured dogs equipped with heavy collars bristling with razor-sharp knives. These were also dogs of war and their role was to rush and leap at the Roman cavalry where they tore the legs of the horses to shreds. The ‘let slip’ section refers to releasing the dog’s leash.

The focus of the research on this phrase that I’ve seen online is on how it now refers to people. Wikipedia says that the Mark Anthony call to let slip the dogs of war is a reference to people and that the saying should not be taken literally.

Dr. Desmond Morris in his book Dog Watching states that it’s a reference to real dogs trained to attack the frontlines of an enemy. He is quite clear on that.

For example, the Free Dictionary says that the idiom “dogs of war” is a reference to mercenaries and they use the phrase in a sentence as follows: If we can’t find enough willing soldiers, we’ll have to turn to the dogs of war.

They also say that the phrase is a reference to the chaos that accompanies war. They infer that the phrase’s origin is from hunting dogs being loosed from their leases to pursue their prey.

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This would appear to be incorrect according to Dr. Desmond Morris. He stresses that these were genuine dogs trained in the era of ancient Rome to fight with soldiers, as mentioned. These dogs are the origin of the phrase which is still used today.

Perhaps, for many, the use of the phrase by the actor Christopher Plummer playing the character General Chang in the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, is the one that is most remembered. He is piloting his Klingon bird of prey and in a nihilistic and reckless act decides to attack almost suicidally the USS Enterprise. He delivered the words very well because I can remember them to this day 😃.

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