12 military movies and TV shows that we desperately need right now

Matterhorn. About Face. The Last Stand of The Tin Can Sailors... the list goes on.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Jan. 11, 2021 and has been updated with additional suggestions from readers — of which there were many. Please, send more.

When it comes to recent military movies and television shows, I’ve got to be honest: They could be a lot better.

There are some excellent films, like 1917 and The Outpost that have come out in the last few years, and even a decent series or two (most recently, Netflix’s The Liberator), but by and large military-centric entertainment has gotten a bit stale. Or rather, it’s been that way for a while, with movies frequently returning to the same well of inspiration: It’s either gonna be a World War II action blockbuster, a Navy SEAL or some other special operator-focused flick, or an emotionally exhausting look at the costs of war. You know, the tried-and-true PTSD drama.

As for military TV shows, the majority feel like they were created by people whose only experience with the topic came from watching other military shows, and then whatever barely-passable premise they came up with in the writer’s room meeting was diluted by marketing research tests and focus groups before some network slapped their label on it. Don’t believe me? What about that time the same network tried to make a JAG knockoff and when that bombed, tried their hand at an Afghanistan War dramedy with strong M*A*S*H vibes. Both shows from CBS, The Code and 68 Whiskey, were widely hyped by the network, before being torn apart by critics, eviscerated by military and veteran viewers online, and canceled after one season.

Related: CBS’ new dark comedy ‘68 Whiskey’ is everything that’s wrong with network military shows

I can’t say with any certainty why this keeps happening. Perhaps there’s just a lack of interest in a portrayal of wartime service that touches not just on the horrors of war, but the moments of humanity and humor that make it bearable. When it comes to World War II movies, maybe filmmakers keep going back to that era because the average viewer prefers the moral clarity of that war to the ambiguity of more recent conflicts. As for the cringe-worthy procedurals, that might just be a result of risk-aversion, which is ironic because trying to recapture lightning in a bottle to recreate the mega-hit military series of the 1960s and 1970s isn’t a safe bet. In fact, it’s not working at all.

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This is hardly the first time these concerns have been raised. When it comes to the country’s most recent conflicts, it could simply be that not enough time has passed for that experience to be processed, reflected upon, and then distilled into an emotionally authentic work of art on screen.

“It takes a while for people to reckon with themselves and their own memories, and their social circle,” said C.J. Chivers, an author, New York Times reporter, and Marine veteran, during a 2018 roundtable discussion on this topic hosted by The New York Times’ At War. “Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, you know, that came out in 1990, 15 years after Saigon — 15 years. We’re nowhere near that yet with Afghanistan and Iraq.”

It’s worth noting that it was only this year that O’Brien’s seminal Vietnam War novel was given the green light for a movie adaptation, a full three decades after the book debuted.

As for why there’s a lack of film and television that accurately captures the military experience, that might be a consequence of the civil-military divide — a growing gap between the general public and the military and veterans community. Perhaps there are too few veterans involved in the creative process, and so are unable to share their perspectives with their civilian peers, thus contributing to a broadening of that gap in the entertainment industry:

“I feel like a lot of veterans put the onus on the civilians, like ‘oh, they’ve got to understand us,’ you know?'” Maximilian Uriarte, another Marine vet and the creator of the popular Terminal Lance webcomic, said during that same panel. “Technically we’re part of the 1%, or whatever it is of America that went and did this weird, crazy thing that was 100% voluntary that none of us had to do. And so you have to understand that for veterans, we’re the ones that went through this crazy experience, we’re the ones that did this to ourselves. And it’s up to us to kind of come back down from that extraordinary level and be like, ‘this is what it was like.’ It’s really up to us to tell them what it was like. I don’t put the onus on civilians, at all, to understand what the military experience is like. I think a lot of veterans don’t consider that enough.”

It’s hard to know which one of the above plays the biggest role in bad military television and films, but I do think there’s one solution: Instead of trying to create a new war story out of thin air, or attempting to double down on the box-office successes of other films in the genre by repackaging a tired premise and giving it a modern-day makeover, why not pull from any one of the many excellent novels, biographies, memoirs, articles or other written works already out there?

It’s not like this hasn’t been done before and to spectacular effect. Just look at Generation Kill, the HBO miniseries based on a book of the same name by Evan Wright that offered a close-up look at the visceral reality of modern warfare as it follows the Marines of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the invasion of Iraq. It managed to be hilarious and poignant all at once, with laugh out loud moments interspersed with tragedy — just as they often are in real life. The series is as much about the actual push into Baghdad as it is about the failures and incompetence of senior leaders — all refreshingly told from the perspective of the rank and file; those who did the bulk of the fighting, killing, and dying on the ground.

And that’s just one show based on one book about one war. There have been so many other stories since, and even more that came before, so we here at Task & Purpose decided to put the word out to readers and asked for their suggestions. They did not disappoint.

https://twitter.com/PeterLucier/status/1346122591069679622

Here is a list of movie and television ideas based on books about war and military service that won’t suck. In fact, these would actually be worth watching, and not just for service members and vets. (Some of these responses have been lightly edited for clarity and style.)

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

I’m going to show my bias right up front and say that Matterhorn is a masterpiece that’s tailor-made to be a major mini-series. Set in 1969 during the Vietnam War, the novel follows a Marine infantry lieutenant as he leads his men through hellish combat under constant fear of death and violence. Their herculean efforts and terrible sacrifices are wasted by inept commanders as they fight in an unpopular war on behalf of a country ravaged by its own divisions.

Each of the characters is relatable, and their losses are felt profoundly, not just by their brothers-in-arms, but by the reader as well. The character development in the book gives it the potential to be as impactful and moving of a series as HBO’s Band of Brothers — perhaps even more so, given that Matterhorn’s premise offers an unblinking look at a mismanaged war from the perspective of those who waged it.

As reader Mike Betts recently commented on a related Task & Purpose story: “I’ve read quite a few books about the Vietnam conflict and none of them have depicted the utterly miserable existence of the grunts fighting that war more vividly than Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. The grunts had to fight an enemy who chose when and where to fight, usually when the VC/NVA had a marked numerical advantage and/or the weather negated the use of airpower by our forces. In addition to this, grunts had to endure warfare in an environment that could kill them even if the enemy didn’t due to the heat, humidity, and the jungle which hid snakes, insects, and even tigers. Marlantes put all of this on the written page and it should be brought to the screen so that Americans can see what we endured.”

Gates of Fire by Steve Pressfield

Although the Battle of Thermopylae was technically adapted to film after being used as the basis for Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, I for one would love to see a miniseries that builds off of Steve Pressfield’s historical fiction novel about the 300 Spartans (and thousands of other Greek warriors who are frequently overlooked) as they fought and died during the opening battle of the Second Invasion of Greece by the Persian Empire. Some of the most memorable parts of the book had less to do with tactics or combat and more to do with the interactions of the individual warriors; how their bonds were forged, tested, and made stronger by hardship and loss.

Eat The Apple by Matt Young

This Iraq War memoir fulfills a similar role as Anthony Swafford’s Jarhead did for the Gulf War, offering an introspective look at Marine infantry culture, masculinity, and what it’s like to come of age during, and through, military service. In many ways, the book is a case study in belligerence, and how to toe that fine line between disobedience and discipline. As such it’s well suited for an adaptation on the big screen, assuming those handling the script and casting do so with care and ensure that the book’s soul — that gallows humor, piercing wit, and brutal self-reflective honesty — are not lost or made into a spectacle.

Ghost Fleet by P. W. Singer and August Cole‎

The book tells the unsettlingly plausible story of a Third World War which kicks off with the United States military being utterly crippled by a first strike cyberattack, followed by an overwhelming conventional assault by Chinese and Russian forces. The U.S. is forced to take to mothballed warships so they can fight back, relying on analog technology against a next-generation digital threat. It’s got all the trappings of a blockbuster action flick, with the added benefit of a whip-smart premise. Assuming nobody tries to cast Liam Neeson and Rihanna in lead roles, it could make for a pretty solid movie, or even a series if the creators were willing to devote a few episodes to the occupation of Hawaii, which China seizes in their initial blitz through the Pacific.

About Face by David H. Hackworth

As Steve Beynon pointed out, this autobiography by and about David Hackworth could form the basis for a mini-series that follows a private who after missing out on World War II feels out of place alongside veterans of the campaigns in Europe and the Pacific. He later cuts his teeth in Korea and rises through the ranks before becoming a colonel in Vietnam dubbed “Mr. Infantry,” only to grow disillusioned by how the war is being waged, at which point he becomes an outspoken voice against that conflict.

13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio

Yet another war novel that’s ripe for a miniseries treatment, in the words of Jerad Alexander, it’s akin to “The Thin Red Line of Vietnam. It’s about a company in the 101st going through the day-to-day of a search & destroy operation in 1970. It gets into racial issues (the CO is a black lieutenant), the nature of war as a political means, and its corrosive effects on humans. It’s also detailed in terms of infantry operations in Vietnam, but without overloading the reader with jargon.”

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer

Now, this is one book that I had absolutely no familiarity with, but after seeing every other respondent name-drop it in the comments, it seemed prudent to go back and ask why so many people are so desperate to see it adapted to TV or film. The short answer: This story has it all; blunders by commanders; incredible acts of sacrifice and heroism by junior sailors; and victory in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds during the Battle of Samar of World War II, which took place on Oct. 25, 1944.

On Twitter, David Alman called it a “classic David vs. Goliath story. The Fast Carrier Task Force is off seeking glory, leaving the invasion force covered by just the light escort carriers and their escorts. A massive Japanese surface group surprises them. Instead of running, the destroyers/DEs charge. Meanwhile, the aircraft from the light carriers make repeated runs to try to slow down the attacking Japanese. Most of the DDs/DEs are sunk as they try to launch torpedoes, but the Japanese retreat in the face of such heavy resistance. The invasion force is saved.”

The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck

The book follows the establishment of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program of World War II, which saw thousands of female pilots risk life and limb in the air, only to have their contributions discounted and forgotten with the unceremonious dismantling of the program following victory in that war. As Victoria Thomas put it on Twitter: “This book is perfectly suited for a screenplay. It’s incredibly well researched & tells the story of early aviation & pre-WWII society as much as women’s role in both. Loads of aviation megastars featured as well.”

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman and July Crisis by Thomas G. Otte

This double-feature style recommendation for a cinematic portrayal of the events leading up to World War I comes from David Larter.

On Twitter, Larter called for a “no-bullshit, high production value portrayal of the July Crisis, Guns of August but with some updated scholarship incorporated into the script. I can’t think of anything more appropriate in this great power competition discourse than a treatment of 1914. Kaiser Wilhelm and Edward Gray would make fantastic main characters. They are polar opposite human beings and yet probably the two most important characters to understand in the whole crisis. Not in the crisis itself, mind, but in the run-up.”

Hooligans of Kandahar by Joseph Kassabian

Not originally on our list, we’ve added this one after the fact since we got a number of messages and tweets about the book being another possible post-9/11 war movie.

Here’s how Francis Horton described the Afghanistan War memoir in his 2018 review for Task & Purpose:

Hooligans of Kandahar is the book that no one asked for but is desperately needed. The stories and language are raw because it tells a truth about war few have the courage to tell, a courage born from not having an agenda to push. Between the hilarious stories are the ones many veterans keep to themselves: the feeling of being lost when home on leave because you’re in a world that isn’t made for you or your experiences, and of frustration after missions end with the bad guy simply walking away because command tells you ‘not today.'”

And then there’s this portion, which gets to the lighter side of deployed life: “It’s not all doom and gloom though; war is hell, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it. Between stories of melancholy and terror, Kassabian weaves lighthearted tales of his friends and teammates. In one chapter, they speak of the Memphis Blues, a sickness that ran through the platoon which sounds like dysentery and an exorcism had a plague baby. Of course, sickness doesn’t mean the war stops, and at it turns out Kiowa Warrior helos see…everything.”

The Bridge at Dong Ha, by John Grider Miller

One reader, Elaine Donnelly emailed us after publication with another pitch, this one was to see the story of Col. John W. Ripley, as told in Miller’s nonfiction book The Bridge at Dong Ha made into a feature film:

As a 33-year-old captain, John Ripley and his small band were ordered to ‘hold and die’ in the face of the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive in April 1972. The only way to hold was to blow the bridge spanning the Dong Ha River.  Ripley accomplished this task by dangling from the bridge’s I-beams, climbing along the length of the bridge hand-over-hand, his body weighted down with explosives, the enemy shooting at him, desperately trying to kill the lone Marine hanging beneath the bridge.

In a June 2008 interview for Marine Corps Times, Ripley explained how he had to swing like a trapeze artist and leap over the I-beams and work himself into the steel.  ‘I used my teeth to crimp the detonator and thus pinch it into place on the fuse. I crimped it with my teeth while the detonator was halfway down my throat.

Ripley set the charges and moved back to the friendly side of the river, all the while under heavy fire. When the timed-fuses detonated, Ripley – running for his life on the road leading away from the bridge – was literally blown through the air by the massive shockwave he had engineered. The next thing he remembered, he was lying on his back as huge pieces of the bridge were hurtling and cartwheeling across the sky above him.

Someday a feature film recreating this real-life Jack Bauer scene should be recreated on film

Old Silk Road by Brandon Caro

A personal addition of mine, this work of magical realism was entirely unexpected when I first read it. At times the novel feels like it’s part Divine Comedy and part Heart of Darkness, with the kind of self-reflection you’d expect from a war memoir sprinkled throughout.

The story follows Norman Roberts, or ‘Doc,’ an Army medic in Laghman Province, Afghanistan in 2007 who has grown disillusioned by the war and addicted to his supply of morphine. He’s haunted by each patrol and mission, not just by the dangers they present, but by the fear that a casualty might threaten his precious store of drugs; his sole escape from a reality he no longer wants to be part of. There’s plenty of opportunities for visual storytelling in an on-screen adaptation — during his drug-addled dreams ‘Doc’ is visited by the specter of Pat Tillman who sends him on a secret mission. Add to it that the character’s inner monologue offers an honest accounting of the state of that war, at that time:

“It was all so structured. So squared away. … The war was often like that, it seemed. Copacetic in appearance, but in a de facto state of disorder. And though clean-shaven, trained, and even battle-tested, our ranks were staffed mostly by dropouts and fuckups — the ones who’d nearly slipped through the cracks — redeemed for our delineation of the straight path of success by our taking up the cause of war. And I was the greatest fuckup of them all.”

If nothing else, it would make for a film (or miniseries) unlike others we’ve seen in recent years, and that is kind of the point of this whole list.

Now, unfortunately, we weren’t able to get to every great story out there — there were a lot, and that’s kind of the point of all this. That said, if you have suggestions for books that you think are ripe for the silver screen, or that would make for an excellent series, drop your ideas in the comment section on social media and let’s keep this conversation going. You can also email me at James@taskandpurpose.com with your thoughts. Who knows: maybe talking about all this openly and voicing our collective frustrations with the genre as it stands, and our hopes for what it could be, can help serve as guide rails for those in the entertainment industry who create these works. If nothing else, it gives all of us new material for our reading lists.

Update: This post has been updated after publication with new additions from readers.

James Clark

James ClarkJames Clark is a senior reporter for Task & Purpose and a Marine veteran. He provides a mix of pop culture commentary and in-depth analysis of issues facing the military and veterans community. Contact the author here.