Everybody had a camera, and if they didn't have it, by the time you left they did," says Sgt. Steve Hicks in "Combat Diary: the Marines of Lima Company," the best in a newly crowded field of documentaries on Iraq. Lima Company's tour in Al Anbar province last year was notoriously bloody; the 184-man unit took 59 casualties, 23 of them fatal. Director Michael Epstein lets the soldiers speak for themselves, skillfully weaving their low-resolution digital-camera clips with after-action interviews. The soldiers' wisdom and honesty shine through. Lance Cpl. Travis Williams evokes the thrill of combat: "Before anyone got hurt it was almost exciting and fun, like a videogame." His buddy adds, "There's no drug in the world that can jack you up like that. In the beginning it's just awesome ... and then the bad stuff happens and you'll have some of the worst days of your life."
Lima Company's experience was exceptional; the New Hampshire National Guard's deployment probably comes closer to the norm. Director Deborah Scranton gave 10 of them video cameras and directed the filmmaking by IM during their yearlong deployment at Camp Anaconda, subject to review by the military's public-affairs office. What little actual warfare the soldier-cameramen in "The War Tapes" do see gets excised from their takes. Professionals are behind the cameras in HBO's forthcoming "Baghdad ER," and it shows. Emmy-winning filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill spent two months at the 86th Combat Support Hospital, "the CASH," Baghdad's main field hospital in the Green Zone, bringing home the war's carnage. Asked what he hopes for on the Fourth of July, one doc replies, "To not have a dead soldier in my EMT today." Unsentimentalized, the Americans in these films will not always make viewers proud. In "The War Tapes," a sergeant says how pleased he was to see dogs eating insurgents' corpses. But no viewer will fail to be moved by the home video Cpl. Andre Williams ("Combat Diary") makes for his daughter's 6th birthday. "I'll be home real soon," he tells her. He never made it.