Comedy and Tragedy

'The War Tapes' may be one of the best documentaries you've ever seen

I can sum up The War Tapes with one word: Wow.

There have been a lot of documentaries about the Iraq war lately, most of them somewhat negative. It seems that many in "Hollywood" would prefer that we not toss more human bodies into the violent hell-pit where civilization was born. Boo hoo, "Hollywood." It's a soldier's job to get killed for his country's chief executive's incoherent war rationalizations. If you don't like it, move to Peacenikia and start an ultimate hacky-sack league.

The War Tapes, unlike every other documentary on this or any war, was filmed by the actual soldiers who are fighting it. It's an interesting idea which could have gone terribly wrong. Strangely, it goes terribly right, and gives a soldier's-eye picture of just what it's like to risk your life defending Halliburton.

Which is exactly what these soldiers do, assigned as they are to guard the convoys that make the money that pays our vice president. (Yes, he'd get the money even if Halliburton went bankrupt. Ergo, he's completely unlikely to ever favor them, and there's nothing fishy about all the payouts and the huge stock options he owns which have skyrocketed in value and which, even if he gives them all to charity, would net him an incredible profit in tax write-offs.)

Strangely, after a short time in Iraq, the men become different. They start to look forward to killing people. They start to hate Dick Cheney. Their camerawork improves. They put together footage that will be edited by director Deborah Scranton into one of the best documentaries I've ever seen.

The three soldiers Scranton picks are Zack Bazzi, a Lebanese-born sergeant who is one of the few non-Bush supporters in the military; Mike Moriarity, an engineer whose very human sympathy for the foreign workers who must drive through a mine field of IEDs and snipers is oddly balanced by his deep satisfaction in seeing the mangled bodies of dead Iraqi insurgents; and Steve Pink, a young man just starting out in life who quietly and with great reserve undergoes a tremendous personal transformation as a result of his war experience.

Bazzi is probably the most interesting of the lot, as he's one of the rare soldiers who can speak Arabic, and he's also the only career soldier in the group. He clearly likes being in the military and sees it as a calling, and at the end of the film, he's the only one who has definitely decided on re-enlistment.

He also becomes a U.S. citizen, in spite of a deep disagreement with U.S. foreign policy. Bazzi comes off as deeply admirable (as do all the men) but also deeply strange, as he's able to divorce his job from his political beliefs, in spite of the fact that his job is to carry out a policy that's contrary to his political beliefs.

Moriarity has some great moments due to his incredible honesty and openness. He talks about being confronted by people who accuse him of fighting a war for oil. Damn right, he says; if you don't want a war for oil, stop driving your car. He's also the only married soldier in the group, and the longing for his home and his wife is particularly painful, especially in the final scenes when he returns home with a physical disability and an inability to relate to the people he loves.

Much of the same happens to Steve Pink, who, while not physically disabled, is clearly scarred by the war.

What makes War Tapes so much better than most docs on Iraq is the credit it gives to the soldiers, and the way it exposes their minds. In one scene, Moriarity asks his commander why they're in Iraq. "To spread peace and democracy and stability ... in the Middle East," he says, to which Moriarity responds, "What do you really think?" Without breaking character, the commander adds, "And after that, we should buy everyone in the world a puppy."

These comic moments are horrifyingly contrasted with scenes of mangled bodies and frightened soldiers running for their lives as bullets fly around them. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army had some say in what footage would be allowed out, and Moriarity has to narrate a section that was censored. (Walking over the shattered forms of dead insurgents, he curses them and expresses his desire for the same fate to come to others.)

Then he goes home to hug his young son and try to live in a world where people hang out and drink beer without constantly worrying about snipers and roadside bombs.