The War Tapes

A singularly authentic portrait

In The War Tapes documentary, Sgt. Zack Bazzi, who speaks Arabic, says in his videotaped section, "A good American will always love his country and be suspicious of his government." Although I usually look for criticism of the Iraq debacle, this statement isn't a criticism of neocons but a sincere, self-protective code of behavior.

Three National Guardsmen were given cameras in 2004 to film their personal points of view one year after the beginning of the conflict. The result is a mixture of grunt humor, often better than anything scripted, and unsettling danger, where the cry of one narrator, ''This is the most helpless feeling you've ever had,'' rings solidly true as you feel the awful omnipresence of improvised explosive devices but never see them.

Ditto the enemy, whose face is seen only on a mangled body but almost never on the battlefield of the deadly road to the Baghdad airport or the dark streets of Fallujah. There the IED's rule in their phantom terror. The documentary brings to the screen the reality of all war from those who know it best, the foot soldiers.

As in most war films, there must be cuts to grieving or lonesome loved ones stateside, in this case rural New Hampshire. The histrionics of the usual Hollywood melodrama are absent; instead a mother, a wife, and a lover try to deal with the often unclear reasons why these men went to this war and how, upon their return, their relationships can ever return to normal because of the inevitable trauma.

I was pleased, however, to see the three videographers quietly disdain having to play security guards for the civilian contractor KBR, Inc., a subsidiary of Dick Cheney's Halliburton. That these contractors are the ones to profit from the war at the expense of the American people is a fair inference from the soldiers' commentary.

So The War Tapes becomes, to my simultaneous approval and disappointment, not a screed against an unjust war, but a singularly authentic portrait of the troubled heroes who make it work.