Mules in the modern military

The things they carry are Band-Aids,  bullets, and cardboard cases of Meals Ready To Eat; also, sand for making concrete, Stinger missiles for making holes in airplane fuselages, rucksack, machine guns, body armor, Kevlar helmets, blankets, boots.

They are mules, and they are the US military’s latest tool in foreign wars.

The New Yorker article contains many fascinating mulish trivia.

As recently as 1930, there were more than five million mules in the United States, and mules were active in the military until December, 1956, when Army mules 583R and 9YLL, also known as Trotter and Hambone, were deactivated.

Among the first mules in the United States were a herd belonging to George Washington…

Washington believed that a good mule was essential to successful agriculture… and he was determined to breed “a race of extraordinary goodness.”

I’ve always been surprised by the absence of mules in Sub-Saharan Africa. Is it disease? Or is technology diffusion really so slow? Draft animals ought to be a surefire boost to agriculture.

I only once saw an NGO import donkeys into a small town in northern Uganda. No one told the recipients that you can’t treat a donkey like a cow; if you beat it it will not move. Eventually the locals gave up on them, and the animals roamed free about the village for the rest of their days, a nuisance for all.

Coca-Cola, at least, thinks they have potential. Here is a picture I took in Morocco last year:

20 thoughts on “Mules in the modern military

  1. Western Kenya, specifically the Kakamega region, uses them with decent frequency. Most towns I saw had a few that were used for pulling the carts on the dirt roads.

  2. No mules, but we keep some donkeys on our dairy in Seeta outside Kampala:

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/yfcda7b

    The problem is most of the workers never handled donkeys, so they pretty much roam around with the cows, including coming to the shed at milking time, but not doing anything useful. I guess if someone started training a few kids to handle donkeys and mules then eventually they’d be used, but I suspect tractor use would become more widespread before there are enough donkey handlers to matter.

  3. Regarding the use of draft animals, in certain parts of Uganda, like Teso, oxen are used to plough the fields. My dad spent 13 years trying to introduce ox ploughing to the Luwero area in Uganda, to support the local agricultural practice of hand-hoeing land. He found that ox ploughing was far more efficient than hand-hoeing, and more sustainable than tractors..

  4. I’ve read about this before, but damned if I can recall where (this means it’s probably Africans). Tsetse fly, and something to do with diet, isn’t it? That’s why they’re more common north of the sahara.

    as an aside I travelled by mule in Morocco from Asilah’s train station to the town. Cheap and pleasant journey, really laid back town.

  5. To echo others, I’ve always heard tsetse cited, and there are donkeys all over highland Ethiopia where tsetse is generally not a problem. Maybe fewer mules because 1), they cost more, and/or 2), a poor farmer can’t afford to invest in an animal that won’t reproduce.

  6. If I remember well Diamond in “Germs, steels and weapons” says that no big mammals were present natively in sub-saharan Africa could be domesticated (you can’t domesticate zebra or elephants or hippo).
    Horses got sick in tropical Africa. You can find some in Mali or Senegal for instance but they are hard to breed in Cote d’Ivoire or Benin.

  7. The US DoD being what it is, of course it also has its high-tech version. For a number of millions of dollars equivalent to the price of a normal mule in single dollars.

  8. I’ve seen loads of donkeys in Mali, Kenya, and Botswana. Donkey riding seems a popular pastime among children on the Kenyan coast. Not so many horses, thus no mules.