In continuing to follow my interest in animals and animal-human relations in the Southeast Asian past, I was looking around the web site for the Imperial War Museums for information about mules in Burma during World War II.
Mules were used to transport weapons and goods for the Chindits, a British special forces group that entered Burma from India and fought the Japanese, and they are mentioned quite often in the oral interviews on the Imperial War Museums web site of soldiers who served in the Chindit expeditions.
So it looks like one could use what humans have written and said in order to write a history of mules in World War II Burma. What one could not do, however, is to incorporate a “mule voice” for that history.
The reason why this would be impossible is not simply because mules don’t speak human languages, but because the mules that carried weapons and supplies for the Chindits were actually “de-voiced” in India before they headed off to Burma.
A doctor by the name of A. J. Moffett claims to have invented the technique for doing this. In an article that he published in the British Medical Journal in 1983, he recalled the following:
“Sometime in 1942-3 I was the ear and throat specialist to No 14 British General Hospital stationed in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, India. I was approached by Colonel Stewart of the Indian Army Veterinary Corps. He had a problem.
“A mule makes a loud braying noise that can be heard for two or three miles. The First Chindit Force – at that time a very hush hush operation – led by Colonel Orde Wingate used mules for transport. This braying of the mules alerted the enemy to the position of the force. Wingate wanted the mules silenced. Could I as a laryngologist suggest what could be done.”
A. J. Moffett goes on in his article to explain that he developed a simple technique for cutting the vocal chords of a mule so that it could no longer make sounds. He did this after the mule had been put to sleep with general anesthetics, and laid on its side.
However, an animal transport officer with the Chindits by the name of Francis William Geoffrey Turner stated in an interview that the Imperial War Museums has digitized that when this technique was actually implemented, veterinarians just used a local anesthetic, and the operation only took about three minutes, during which time the mule remained standing.
Turner then makes some interesting remarks about the consequences of this “de-voicing” of mules. In particular, he argues that this de-vocalization “messed up” the mules because it took away their ability to speak to each other “which in effect therefore had the undesired effect of a mule having to see before he would go as opposed to be able to talk before he went.”
As an example of this, Turner talks about a time when the men and mules that he was with needed to cross the Irrawaddy River at a place where it was about 800 meters wide. It was very difficult to do this, because the men had to force the mules to not turn their heads back when they entered the water, because when the swimming mules looked back and saw other mules on the shore, they automatically wanted to turn back.
He notes that, “The mule you see would [have] liked at that stage to be able to call out to his friend on the other side before he entered the water.”
However, by de-vocalizing the mules, that ability to “talk to each other” was taken away. It was only when mules got far enough out into the water so that they could mules that had already crossed and were on the other side, that they then were able to move forward on their own.
So mules were literally silenced in World War II Burma. At the same time, mules and other animals have also been largely silenced in many of our accounts of the past. In listening to various interviews on the Imperial War Museums site, however, it’s clear that many aspects of the past were experienced together by animals and humans, and that many human experiences in the past are closely interconnected with animals.
I therefore think that it’s time then to “re-vocalize” the animals in history, so that we can gain a fuller understanding of the past.