9 Best Documentaries about Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Combat Vet Selects the Best of the Best Films

If you're looking for a way to understand the "war on terror" or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and want to watch a documentary instead of reading about it, there are a few great films that give you the run down in a more realistic manner with a decent degree of accuracy. 

These nine movies are the best of the best from analyzing the news media perspective to the feelings going on in a soldiers head as he pulls the trigger. These selections were made by a war movie expert and Afghanistan combat veteran who has lived through it.

The Kill Team
The Kill Team.

In every war, there are war crimes and the films about them. "The Kill Team" is a documentary about a kill team that existed within a small group of infantry soldiers in Afghanistan. 

One of the real key parts of the documentary is an explosive interview with one of the soldiers convicted as part of the kill team, a soldier who spouts off at length about killing and loving war and loving the chance to shoot at people.

A lot of veterans angrily denounce this guy, and for good reason. What's fascinating about this documentary is it shows the thin line between villains (the soldiers in this film) and the heroes (other soldiers). The tough part is that the feelings expressed by the convicted soldier in the film are pretty normal for infantry soldiers. The big difference is that those thoughts are never (or rarely shared) with a documentary film crew. 

Restrepo

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (since then, he was killed in Libya), spent a year with the second platoon of Battle Company, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team as they sought to secure the Korengal Valley. Two movies "Restrepo" released in 2010 and "Korengal" released in 2014 are essentially one story split into two parts. The second film is told in the same style with excess footage from the first. 

Both films capture the intensity of infantry combat in a way that no other documentary has ever done. Both films illustrate the unique difficulties of fighting in Afghanistan, with an enemy that is hard to find in difficult mountainous terrain and a population that will offer you tea one minute and dig holes for IEDs (explosives) the next. Both are equally good and both get top billing for two of the best war documentaries of all time.

Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld. Getty Images

"The Unknown Known" is a film by Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris that takes a spectacular look at something the American people should know about but didn't garner much attention: the multitude of mistakes and fumbles.

In the film, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld puts on a charm offensive, shrugging off any consequences for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, making light of them as if they were no big deal. The most telling takeaway is that he seems to be indifferent to mistakes that were made. This would be fine if others (and American lives) didn't have to pay for them.

No End in Sight
No End in Sight. Magnolia Pictures

Though "No End in Sight" is outdated, it accurately captures the unsettling feeling of a time and place in American history when the Iraq war had no end in sight. Everything was going badly. The American people were in a quandary about the search for weapons of mass destruction that should have taken six months but dragged on for years.

This Academy Award-nominated documentary deftly examines the mistakes that were made, who made them, and why they were made. The film does take sides and stakes a position. To some, the movie may not seem objective. Regardless, the film treats the war with the reverence it deserves. It is one of those documentaries that might leave you feeling angry and upset.

Standard Operating Procedure
Standard Operating Procedure. Sony Pictures Classics

Errol Morris directed "Standard Operating Procedure" in 2008 and takes a hard look at Abu Ghraib and the use of torture. This documentary includes interviews with lower-level service personnel who were convicted. The film points out that although the orders came from the top of the administration, the people who carried out the orders (some went terribly overboard) were the only ones to get punished for it. 

Another recommended film on this topic is "Taxi to the Darkside," a companion piece to this film and the second film about the same tactics used in Afghanistan.

Iraq for Sale
Iraq for Sale. Brave New Films

No list of documentaries about the "war on terror" would be complete if you didn't touch on the fact that war is big business. For a lot of people, having soldiers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan made them money and lots of it.

Knowing who profits from war, when it arises, is always an area that needs to be explored. This film raises important questions. It is a documentary that will make you angry and upset at all the people out there in the world cheating the system and profiting off of the misery of others.

The Tillman Story

The story of Pat Tillman is about a former NFL player that quit a lucrative professional football contract to join the U.S. Army. He was accidentally killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. The documentary illuminates federal government-level corruption. Tillman's death was covered up by the Bush administration. It shows how the administration was anxious to use the heroic NFL player as a recruiting tool and make Tillman out to be a figure in death that he had never been in life. For example, there's a scene at the funeral ceremony where Tillman is made out by the Army to be a God-fearing patriot who never questioned the mission. The truth is that Tillman was an atheist and didn't support the war in Iraq. 

Body of War

The "Body of War" won "best documentary" by the National Board of Review about a single soldier, Thomas Young. He fought in Iraq for just a few weeks before he was shot and returned home into a ruined body. You learn about his struggle to live a normal life, to endure constant pain, and to manage relationships, love, and life, while physically decimated. This is not a comfortable or easy story to watch. But, it is an important film that shows how so many soldiers came home this way. It tells you their collective story through this one soldier. A few years after this documentary was released, Young died from complications as a result of his war wounds. 

Control Room
Control Room. Magnolia Pictures

This documentary, released early on during the Iraq War, is about the media and how the media narrative shapes the contours of the public conversation.

In war, as in most issues of national security, public perception is sometimes more important to spin than the absolute truth. In "Control Room" you learn everything is relative, and how something looks to any particular individual largely depends on the information they've been fed.