Even documentaries program you to expect payoffs. The War Tapes, a powerfully distressing film in which director Deborah Scranton weaves together first-person video footage shot by three National Guardsmen in Iraq in 2004, roughly a year after the invasion began, gives us a literal soldier's-eye view of the current U.S. military nightmare: desolate rides through Baghdad and Fallujah, accompanied by the occasional explosion and always always the fear that the next IED will be the one that hits you. The soldiers speak movingly of that anxiety. It's almost intrinsic to the nature of movies that we begin to wait for that horrific event, the awful ''climax'' to the soldiers' dread.
Yes, there's one chaotic ambush (the only glimpse of the insurgency we get). But that climax never arrives, and that's where The War Tapes transcends the pornography of violence to provide a genuine terror-struck look at what our troops are going through. With tripods mounted on gun turrets and Kevlar helmets, the film captures the shot nerves, the impotence veering into madness, that comes of knowing that the greatest danger you face a landscape of booby traps doesn't even consist of live soldiers. ''This is the most helpless feeling you've ever had,'' says one Guardsman, his despair echoed by the other Americans we hear brave but battered cynics who believe, to a notable degree, they're there to preserve U.S. oil interests. The War Tapes captures how the war in Iraq, for all its terrible carnage and death, is in a way too random in its destruction to even be called ''combat.''