Cable documentaries continue to do a more-than-creditable job of lending perspective to the war in Iraq, with HBO’s haunting “Baghdad ER” (which repeats on Memorial Day) followed by this sober A&E account focusing on Lima Company, an Ohio Marine unit that lost 23 of its 184 members during a seven-month tour. Evenhanded yet quietly powerful, producer-director Michael Epstein’s film draws on ample footage shot by the Marines themselves as well as interviews with the surviving soldiers, offering valuable insight into the war’s toll.
Most effectively, “Combat Diary” helps put a human face on those slain, who otherwise risk becoming mere statistics. Young and vibrant in the video shot, they are shown joshing around with their comrades or, in one particularly painful sequence, taping a video birthday card for a young daughter. The father who did so would be killed not long afterward.
The doc progresses chronologically. The Marine reservists initially assume they’re unlikely to see much action, but before long, Lima Company is dispatched into some of the most dangerous hellholes in Iraq. We see them kicking in doors, exploding mines and improvised explosives and engaging in firefights, all the while creating a video archive — processing the war as their own real-time movie.
Subsequent interviews with the soldiers (one of whom expresses distaste for gaining public attention simply because his unit was harder hit than any other in Iraq) and family members capture the sacrifice of the fallen. That discussion also explores the possibility of “supporting the troops” even if one objects to the war — a point the soldiers acknowledge upon receiving a heroes’ reception when they come home, though their psychological scars will clearly require more time to heal than any physical wounds.
Other channels, including Discovery Times, have also offered intimate looks at U.S. servicemen in Iraq, and virtually any such endeavor is open to being politicized. Whatever the viewer brings to the experience, however, the clear intent here is nothing more or less than appreciation of those who have served.
Of course, grouping such productions around Memorial Day seems like a rather hackneyed use of the holiday, a quick break from A&E’s regular menu of “Intervention” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Nevertheless, for the soldier who says he is living his life now as a tribute to those who did not return, this “Diary” is surely a welcome reminder of what true “reality programming” looks like.