“Inside Combat Rescue" 10 p.m. Mondays, National Geographic Channel
“Glory Hounds" 8 p.m. Thursday, Animal Planet
By Neil Genzlinger
It’s awfully late in the cycle of embedded and ride-along war journalism, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan having been covered by news organizations and documentarians to the point, some might say, of oversaturation.
And the Pentagon is certainly adept at using its gatekeeper ability on such coverage to whip up support for troops and the budgets that support them.
Those caveats duly noted, two programs this week about the war in Afghanistan, both turning up where you wouldn’t expect to find them, are harrowing reminders that whatever you think of that war, the jeopardy of combat is frighteningly real.
Tonight, a six-part series called “Inside Combat Rescue" begins on the National Geographic Channel, an outlet that can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be known for trash television (“Doomsday Preppers," “American Gypsies") or mild workplace reality fare (“Wicked Tuna") or halfway decent docudramas (“Killing Lincoln").
The program follows Air Force crews who treat and evacuate the wounded from battle zones via helicopter.
It is filmed in part with cameras mounted on soldiers’ helmets and on the rescue helicopters, jittery imagery that makes the heart race. What those cameras capture can be horrific, and it is shown here in blunt, bloody detail.
Interspersed among the combat footage are quieter moments with the crew members, who talk movingly about missions they have flown and their reactions to them.
“My first call, G.S.W. to the chest, and he ended up passing away," one crewman says, using the shorthand for gunshot wound. “I can tell you what he looked like, how tall he was, how much he probably weighed. I’ll never forget it."
The crews rescue both American and Afghan soldiers, and in tonight’s premiere, everyone is on edge because of what the military calls green-on-blue attacks: incidents in which Afghan soldiers turn on their American counterparts.
During one tense rescue of a wounded Afghan, a friend of his tries to board the helicopter, and the crew has a near riot on its hands as it tries to push him out while tending to the injured man. It’s a chilling moment, and the camera work makes it viscerally real.
The series is not shy about showing serious injury and death, and neither is a similarly constructed special Thursday night on Animal Planet called “Glory Hounds."
Its focus is on the combat dogs used in Afghanistan to sniff out buried explosive devices. The program has a fair amount of feel-good filler about the bond between the dogs and their handlers, but when it comes to showing these pairs at work, it is blunt and disturbing.
Though these dogs have been credited with saving many lives, the scariest scene involves an improvised explosive that does its job despite the presence of one of the animals. In the resulting chaos, a cameraman for the program, who was just a few feet away, turns into a medic briefly.
Both programs may have the odd effect on viewers of being pro-troop but anti-war. Neither does a good job of conveying what purpose is being served by the injuries documented.
“Glory Hounds" in particular makes the missions seem like a pointless, deadly game of hide-and-seek-the-explosives, showing soldiers and dogs going on patrol for no apparent reason other than to walk through known minefields.
No one watching these programs will doubt the bravery of the soldiers — and, yes, the dogs — involved. But most everyone will be relieved at President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that 34,000 troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan in the coming year.