The Best Defense

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: 'NCIS' episode highlights military dogs in Afghanistan

By Rebecca Frankel

Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent 

Tuesday's episode of NCIS, titled "Seek," not only features a military working dog and his handler but revolves around them. Without giving too much away for anyone who missed the show, the episode begins with this Marine handler and his dog, a black lab named Dex, searching a village lane in Afghanistan. Moments after a harrowing encounter with an IED, the handler is shot and killed by a sniper. Shortly after this, the NCIS cast of characters is called in to track down the handler's killer with Dex lending a helping paw.   

Co-executive producer, Scott Williams, blogged about the making of this episode, writing that inspiration for the storyline came last year after the photo of Hawkeye "laying faithfully beside the flag-draped casket of his late master, Navy SEAL hero Jon Tomlinson," went viral.  

I've never watched NCIS before and, as you might expect with a storyline like this, there's a bit of creative license taken with its portrayal of the handler-canine combat-zone experience, elements of which are plied for dramatic effect. But aside from some overwrought canine wordplay, I was surprised by how few head-shaking moments there were; the show's producers appear to have been very committed to an accurate representation of an MWD's role in wartime -- from the jargon handlers use to expository dialogue with a bit of war-dog history. Even the episode's title "Seek," referring to the command a handler gives his dog when on an explosive-seeking patrol, felt like an authentic tip of the hat to military dog teams.

There's good reason for this accuracy, as the television network hired a few MWD experts to work behind the scenes while filming, including our friend Mike Dowling, former Marine handler and author. Dowling, who worked on the show as a technical advisor, says he enjoyed consulting with NCIS writers and actors. "I really appreciated how they wanted to make sure they were honoring the military dog community properly," he says. "They were very open to listening and learning about the heroic work military dog teams do." Dowling also mentioned that Dexter, the dog actor playing "MWD Dex," was "simply brilliant." I agree, for while you'd be hard pressed to find a dog who didn't pull heartstrings in this kind of story, Dexter alone makes the show worth watching. 

If you missed it, you can watch the episode online (though fair warning, the amount of commercial interruption alone is prohibitive). The moment of the episode that really struck a chord with me came during one fairly unremarkable scene where Mark Harmon's character, Special Agent Gibbs, interviews a military contractor who witnessed the handler being shot. When Gibbs wants to know what dog team's assignment was, the man replies, "[To] save our lives."

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The Best Defense

The FP transcript (VIII): Can we buy a fully capable force as defense budgets fall?

[Here are Parts IIIIII, IV, V, VI, and VII.

Crist: One of the things as a federal employee who works on current Middle East issues, and having studied pretty extensively for a project on the Joint Staff the lead-up to decisions on Iraq, the thing that has struck me is that the lessons learned among policymakers from Iraq is there was a lot of thought given -- which was not the case in 2002 and 2003 -- given to second- and third- order effects of American action and what are the ramifications for this that we don't anticipate. Whether that can be sustained over the next generation or just each generation learns its lesson, institutionalizes it and [inaudible].

Dubik: The lesson-learned process and what people learn from our 10-year experience is important. There is a reasoned way to think through using force, there is a useful process in increasing the probability that you'll get it more right than wrong -- not that you'll ever get it absolutely right.

I fear that we are throwing out counterinsurgency because we are never doing that again. But we already did that once: It was post-Vietnam. Counterinsurgency is not a strategy; it's a way to deal with an insurgency, and if you face it again, it gives you a relatively decent structure to think through these things. It certainly shouldn't be a national strategy. It was never designed to do that.

Ricks: Another person who could not attend today, Kyle Teamey, who some of you may know, a terrifically smart young man, sent in this question: "Is there anyone at this table who thinks we will not do counterinsurgency again?"

For the record, I want to note that everybody agrees we will do counterinsurgency again.

Mudd: But we went in to do counterterrorism, and now all we talk about is counterinsurgency. So success on Sept. 12 would have been, "Is there going to be an attack against the United States?" and by 2003 that answer was no. And now we say success is: Should we have a third election? And my view would be, if the Taliban wins, I don't care as long as we have a residual capability to eliminate the target we went in to get.

I hate counterinsurgency, because it wasn't our threat. Just a quick asterisk: In parallel with these major wars we had intervention in places like Somalia and Yemen. There's been no tactical conversation here, and I think appropriately -- but especially with the new tactical capability-- we've been able to say, "Man, we are giving the president in some cases better options, but in some cases much tougher?" You want to go into Mali? You want to go against Boko Haram? I want to know why we are not talking about armed drones against cartels, which were a much bigger threat to this country than terrorism ever was or ever will be. But it is interesting that parallel subwars or campaigns is part of this war and what they mean about American intervention in the future that leads not only to things like increasing the capacity of the partner but also unilateral use of force against a target without ever having to put a boot on the ground fast.

Ricks: What do they tell you?

Mudd: That tells me that we are going to be into it because we are going to say there's a way to get out of this without putting big green on the ground.

Flournoy: I think that there probably will be some point in the future where we decide to help a government deal with its problem of insurgency, and that's the thing: It's not our insurgency. The question is: Can we come to some consensus on what's the right model? Is there a single right model for that, or is it really entirely case by case? To me, after the experience of the last decade or more, the El Salvador model looks a lot more attractive than the conventional occupation model of Iraq and Afghanistan, but is that just being falsely wedded to something? Can we generalize from these different experiences to say there is one approach that either is generally more effective or, from our own political culture, generally more acceptable and sustainable to the American people?

Ricks: I'm going to try and answer your question. I would say, yes, clearly: Light footprint, minimal American boots on the ground, leading from behind, helping host nation abilities, or even helping third parties like we've been helping the Colombians help the Mexicans on the drug war. These are the things that work; these are the things also that go to the issue of sustainability. I once was talking to Elliott Abrams, and I said I thought secretly more Americans had been killed in El Salvador than were killed in the 1991 Gulf War. He said, "Yeah, but I won my war."

Alford: You also have to design the force to support your strategy. You got to start thinking about the force.

Ricks: We have a force that's tactically magnificent, but is it relevant, Colonel Alford?

Alford: No, I don't think we are organized the way we should be right now for the future.

Ricks: How should we be better organized?

Alford: Well, I mean all the things you just talked about were what the U.S. Marines do from amphibious ships. We are balanced, we are flexible, we are adaptable, and we are forward deployed. We can go in and be out and not have to put a footprint on the ground for any significant period of time. And that's what we want.

I mean, I love the U.S. Army -- we have the best U.S. Army in the world, but in Kosovo when you take in 24 helicopters and it takes 6,000 troops to support those 24 helicopters, that's not the future.

Ricks: I need to go now to the Army generals who have been shaking their heads.

Dubik: We have a great Marine Corps for a reason, and I'm glad we have it. But we have a great Air Force, and Navy, and Army for a reason that we need also.

But I play golf with 13 clubs. And I like to solve problems with more than one conceptual framework. So I'm not at all satisfied with a conclusion of our last 10 years of war that "quote, unquote" this approach works. I think that that would be a dangerous way to come out of this war. For me, the lesson learned is come to a war with more than one conceptual framework. Because every war, while it may have some common elements, every war, as Clausewitz says, is a chameleon, admits to its own solution, and you have to think through that solution. So the light-footprint approach that you talked about works in many, many circumstances, but there are an equal number that it won't.

Ricks: So be adaptive is what you're saying?

Dubik: Intellectually adaptive.

Ricks: I've been reading another history of World War II recently which Churchill keeps on saying in ‘39, ‘40, ‘41 that this will not be a force-on-force war.

Dubik: [Laughs.] Yeah, well it ended up being that way.

And that gets to my comment about adaptability. It's not just intellectual adaptability but force adaptability. If you predict one future and you optimize your force for that future, you're either a hero or a goat. You're a hero if the future unfolds as you predict. You're a goat because you've got the country's reputation on something that now is not relevant. So in our force-structure decisions coming up necessarily as a result of the position we are in strategically and fiscally, maintaining as many options as we possibly can is an important way forward in an uncertain environment. It's organizationally important to have alternatives.

Ricks: Is it possible to maintain options in an era when I'm guessing defense budgets are going to go down 30 percent in the next few years?

Dubik: My own answer is yes. The number of options may be reduced, but you can still retain a good number of options if you are willing to break some rice bowls in terms of current organizational structures, active, guard, reserve in each of the components.

Mudd: A sand wedge is what you're saying.

Dubik: Yeah, I use a sand wedge.

Alford: One of the four words I used there was adaptable. You've got to have a number of tools in the box to cross the threat that we are going to face, which I believe is going to be a more hybrid, irregular, not a toe-to-toe threat. That's going to be the most prevalent, I believe.

Ricks: And the other head-shaking general?

Fastabend: I'd like to make two comments. Jim [Dubik] talked adequately about the need to have 13 clubs in the bag. I can't restrain myself from saying this now that I'm retired: You can't help but love the Marine Corps. They are simultaneously one of the greatest and most insecure institutions that I've ever encountered in my life.

(More to come, as the Army-Marine smackdown continues)