Dog Soldiers: K-9s & Their Human Handlers
by Jonah Raskin, April 19, 2017
“War is hell,” General William Tecumseh Sherman observed during the hellish American Civil War. It’s hellish for human soldiers and also for dog soldiers who play a valuable role in the so-called war against terrorism. Indeed, if you love dogs you might love Nancy Schiesari’s hour-long documentary, Canine Soldiers: The Militarization of Love that is showing on PBS stations in the Bay Area and around the U.S.A. Then, again, if you love dogs you might find it challenging to watch a film that pulls no punches and that explores the role that Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds play today in bloody combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The canines share the screen with the soldiers who train them, bond with them, go to war with them and bury them. Rin-tin-tin’s real life was never this traumatic, though he served in World War I before he starred in more than two-dozen Hollywood pictures.
Schiesari’s film begins with scenes from a funeral for a dog who has been killed on a far-off battlefield. It goes on to trace the lives and the deaths of several dogs, and it follows the military careers of half-a-dozen or so soldiers. If the dogs are the celluloid heroes, so also are the men and women in uniform, especially Sgt. Marcin Radwan and Sgt. Danielle Jennings, who tell their gripping stories on camera.
The title of the film comes from a comment by Kent State University Professor Ryan Hediger who looks at the emotional ties between canine and human soldiers and says, “What we have here is the militarization of love.” Indeed, the dog trainers exploit the K-9 desire to please the men and women who take them, sometimes on a leash, into desolate and deadly landscapes where enemy forces have planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The dogs sniff out the homemade bombs and save human lives. Sometimes they lose their own lives in the line of duty. As one soldier astutely observes, the dogs will sacrifice themselves for the soldiers who pet them, feed them and sometimes sleep with them side-by-side. On the battlefield, love between man and beast can be a dangerous and a deadly thing.
If Schiesari wanted to make an anti-war film she has definitely succeeded, and she has succeeded because she looks at war, to a large extent, from the dog’s point of view. The human point of view isn’t far behind. Indeed, Canine Soldiers honors our two-legged warriors. Some of the most striking scenes in the film depict Sgt. Marcin Radwan and Sgt. Danielle Jennings on camera talking about the trauma of war. Jennings is gorgeous and eloquent, too. She explains that she has suffered from anxiety, depression, panic attacks and PTSD. But she’s not a pacifist or a critic of war. “I would do it all again in a heartbeat,” she says and sounds as though she means it. The dogs seem to share the same afflictions as the humans, though one has the sense that if they had a choice they would not go back to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Making Canine Soldiers took all of Schiesari’s grit and gumption. Lackland Air Force Base in Texas closed its doors to her, and she had to scramble for access to another base where she could film. Fortunately, Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas came through.
“I learned that many of the soldiers leave the States and go overseas gong-ho,” Schiesari said. “They often come back as broken people who have lost their comrades-in-arms.”
Schiesari says that she started the film with a cynical point of view. “A lot of people don’t seem to empathize with our soldiers,” she said. “I thought, maybe they’ll care about the dogs who protect the troops and them with provide comfort and companionship.”
Canine Soldiers tells war stories that need to be told in an age when there’s so little first hand reporting about the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. If every American saw Schiesari’s sobering film there might be a hew and cry to bring back the dogs of war and the troops who take them into battle and who often owe their lives to them.