Television review

Documentary about dogs at war will warm — and break — your heart

 

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

There’s nothing metaphorical about the dogs of war in Glory Hounds. Animal Planet’s new documentary about the canine soldiers that tramp through the bleak deserts of Afghanistan, sniffing the ruined landscape for explosives and assassins, is too grim to be poetry. Though, like all true war stories, it is something of a love story; and like all true love stories, it will break your heart.

If you saw Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial (and excellent) film about the U.S. military mission that killed Osama bin Laden, that dog trooping along with the Navy SEAL raiding team was not a bit of Hollywood license. Some 2,500 military dogs patrol Afghanistan hand-in-paw with their U.S. handlers. Their main mission is detecting improvised explosive devices, jargon for landmines and booby-traps. But some are also trained to sniff out — and even, on command, attack — enemy soldiers.

Glory Hounds focuses on four dogs and their handlers, all working in remote firebases in Helmand and Kandahar, the two deadliest Afghan provinces. And it’s apparent from the first frame that this is no cute YouTube video of a dog peeling a banana. The main footage was shot by four embedded camera crews (it took Animal Planet a year get the Pentagon’s permission) and augmented by video from handlers’ helmet-mounted cameras that’s collected for training.

In war, the first casualty is bureaucratic military doctrine. The Pentagon regards the dogs as just another piece of equipment. The soldiers, inevitably, see them as foxhole buddies — “my sister in arms,” as one Marine puts it. Says another: “To try to remove your heart from the situation is really asking too much of the handler.” And in any event, the bond between dog and soldier is more than just emotional. “You want that bond. You want that dog to know they can confide in you,” says a handler. “Because you’re literally putting your life in their hands.”

Inside the base, the young soldiers could be mistaken for boys playing with their dogs back home, tossing them balls, cuddling and crooning baby talk to them. But taking your dog out for a walk in Afghanistan involves a lot more than carrying a pooper-scooper, and once outside the base, it becomes a partner rather than a pet. The terrain is arid, ugly and hostile. The patrols are stupefyingly boring until the moment they’re not. Combat is usually fleeting and often hopelessly confusing. Shots break out. From where? Under that tree? Behind that wall? Who knows? The American troops shoot back or, at least, shoot. The enemy fire stops. Shake and repeat.

Like the rest of the grunts, the dogs are exhausted and overworked. Sometimes they want to knock off and lie in the shade. They’re perpetually thirsty. And — beaten down by the 125-degree heat, tempers frazzled by the constant tension — they make mistakes. One of the most unnerving scenes in Glory Hounds is a training mission in which an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois named Azza is supposed to locate a small cache of explosives buried by a handler. She passes it twice before finding it on the third try. Her handlers cheer her performance.

For all the praise heaped on them in Glory Hounds (the soldiers note that the dogs’ effectiveness has made them a major Taliban target), it’s clear that they’re not fail-safe. Nor, for that matter, is any of the technology the troops deploy. One of the show’s starkest lessons is that, for all the flashy gimcracks and war-game-tested tactical doctrines we’ve added to make combat safer and more precise, it remains fundamentally a matter of walking around outside, shooting and being shot at, until somebody’s dead.

Forget that at your own peril while watching Glory Hounds. Grenades come flying over walls. Unseen hands click detonators, and cameras are buried in clouds of dust and debris, the only sign that your television is still functional the strained, understated plea of a soldier: “I don’t feel good, man.” And when a lonely body deposited on a helicopter is draped in an American flag, it’s not going to matter to you whether it has two legs or four.

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

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