The narrative war movie exhilarates us with the action scenes, while investing us in characters. The documentary is a different animal altogether. The documentary examines history, and tends to focus (usually rather critically) on policy decisions. Here’s a list of my top 10 favorite war documentaries, with my number one choice being my vote for the best war documentary ever made. (This, it should be noted, is a separate list from the top 10 war movies of all time.)
This 2010 film follows Battle Company across a fifteen month deployment in the Korengal Valley, as they attempt to build, and then later defend, firebase Restrepo. An intense film made all the more vivid in the realization that this is real combat; though the style of combat portrayed as chaotic and confusing is not one familiar to most American film viewers. As a former infantry veteran, I can assure you this is the real deal. Perhaps one of the best films ever made at capturing the real life chaos of war: Soldiers that aren’t sure where to return fire to, an enemy that is rarely seen, and a civilian population caught in the middle. Directed by Tim Hetherington (a war journalist killed in Libya in 2011) and Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm and War), the film is made with deep conviction and a love of the subject material. Whenever I've been asked what Afghanistan was like, I simply tell them to watch this film.
Directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), this documentary opens with the simple story of a taxi driver in Afghanistan who had the bad luck of picking up the wrong fare. Before long, the taxi driver, with no known affiliation to terrorism, is in U.S. custody, being tortured and interrogated about a war he knows nothing about. Eventually, the taxi driver is killed in custody, and the death covered up. And all of this is just the set-up for this probing and thoughtful 2007 documentary that, like Standard Operating Procedure, examines the new role of torture within the U.S. military. Ultimately, though, the film has larger ambitions, as it explores how engaging in once forbidden behaviors, just might have ended up changing the soul of a nation.
3. 'Hearts and Minds'
This 1974 film has been criticized for being heavily manipulative in its editing and presentation of facts. Nonetheless, the film’s point remains, that there remains a tremendous gulf between the ideals alluded to by President Lyndon Johnson of “winning the hearts and minds” and the reality of warfare, which is often violent, horrible, and antithetical to the idea of winning over the native population. A film that is especially relevant given our current occupation of Afghanistan.
Love him or hate him, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, remains a potent screed against the Bush administration and their planned war in Iraq. To this day, this film remains the top-grossing documentary of all time. If you watch this film with friends, you might end up arguing, but at least you’ll have something to talk about.
This 2006 Robert Greenwald film is guaranteed to ignite the indignation of anyone who watches it, regardless of his or her personal politics. The film details the massive force of government contractors that keep the war machine running smoothly: feeding soldiers, doing laundry, and building barracks. It also details the rampant abuse and outright fraud, including risking the lives of soldiers by driving empty trucks across Iraq simply to log more paid trips, and using sub-standard building equipment in order to save costs. Most memorable is the contractor that simply blew up vehicles that weren’t working rather than repair them due to the profit plus clause in their contract that incentivized them to spend as much taxpayer money as possible. This film made me so angry, I’m getting upset just writing this summary!
This 2010 film tells the story of Army Ranger and former professional football player Pat Tillman. Most Americans will be familiar with the basic details: Pro footballer gives up lucrative contract to enlist in the Army. Deployed to Afghanistan, he’s killed in combat during a firefight with the enemy. However, it’s later revealed that he was actually killed by friendly fire. This documentary takes that fascinating story and delves deep, offering a mosaic of government cover-ups, and an administration that wanted to use Tillman’s death as a recruiting ploy. Throughout, the film provides interviews with Tillman’s family and friends who are always interesting and immensely watchable.
This 2004 documentary takes viewers inside the Al Jazeera media organization during the start-up of the war in Iraq. What’s most fascinating about this documentary is that it offers viewers an alternative view of history as it re-tells the build-up to Iraq from the perspective of the Arab world. Regardless of personal politics, viewers will find the resulting film to be intellectually fascinating, as they see American history from the perspective of outsiders.
8. 'Winter Soldier'
This 1972 documentary chronicles the Winter Soldier Investigation that investigated the occurrence of war crimes in Vietnam by U.S. forces. There isn’t much narrative here; the film mostly just records a series of vets going up to a microphone, each telling of a grisly, awful tale of murder and violence against the civilian Vietnam population. While some have questioned the veracity of the stories told within the film, this documentary is nonetheless compelling viewing. Its inclusion on this list is mostly for its historical value, as this was one of the first documentaries to begin offering a counter-narrative to the Vietnam War within popular culture.
This 2008 Errol Morris film detailed the torture and abuse occurring at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq, exploring what occurred and why it occurred. This documentary also managed to interview a number of key personnel from the prison, including Lynndie England, a private who was made infamous through photos of her holding a leash attached to an Iraqi prisoner’s neck. (Her comments justifying her actions are quite shocking.) When the film concludes, there are a lot of questions left unanswered – one thing the viewer is sure of is that this scandal went a lot further up the command hierarchy than was recognized by the public at large.
This 2007 documentary systematically examined each mistake and blunder made by the Bush administration as it marched toward war with Iraq. From failing to provide security amid the looting that followed the invasion, to disbanding the Iraqi Army, to failing to develop a post-war reconstruction plan, the documentary is sure to invoke strong feelings in the viewer. Filled with interviews with once prominent Bush insiders, it’s a scathing indictment of an administration dead-set on having America mired in a second ground war.