Full Battle Rattle gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “war games.” Co-directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss peer into a world concealed by the government and unknown to the general public. For that reason alone, this vivid documentary is educational and enlightening.

In California’s Mojave’s Desert, in a billion-dollar recreation of an Iraqi village they call Medina Wasl, a U.S. Army battalion simulates what is like to live and fight in the actual Middle Eastern country. For authenticity, the Army uses Iraqis who have immigrated to the U.S. to play-act soldiers and civilians. In this elaborate setup, the American soldiers learn how to pretend to fight and kill the “insurgents.” But they also learn how to “keep the peace,” prevent a civil war, and win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqis.

Even the well-meaning politicians today who talk about the “war on terror” costing blood and treasure on two fronts—in Iraq and Afghanistan—don’t mention this third war. There may not be much blood shed, but the costs to the taxpayer are astounding (and since Full Battle Rattle is mostly done vérité-style, there isn’t whole lot of mention of those costs in this documentary, either). But at least filmmakers Gerber and Moss put a spotlight on an unsettling practice—not nearly as bad as the war itself or the satellite “rendition” chambers (where the U.S. Army gets away with torturing enemies), but hideous enough in concept.

Gerber and Moss withhold judgment as they eavesdrop on the army maneuvers, and there is a theory that if more little boys (like George Bush, Jr.) would just “play out” their hostilities as youths, the world wouldn’t have as many wars. So Full Battle Rattle runs the risk of being seen as vicarious fun (paging Hollywood) or used as a pro-war recruitment tool. Then again, Mr. Bush likely would have been a hopeless case no matter how he had been raised. He didn’t even grow up to be a bully. He grew up to be someone who hires bullies to do his dirty work.

And that’s where Full Battle Rattle re-emerges as damning criticism. The training simulation has pop-culture videogame written all over it, yet the denouement suggests the underpinning of horror and begs several questions. Not that wars are ever noble, but did the U.S. Army have to turn Big Sur into the beaches of Normandy in order to rehearse the D-Day invasion before the famous World War II turning point? And what has this colossal “play” war achieved? Is it really helping? Or is it a big waste of time, possibly making things worse?

Gerber and Moss secure amazing access (to Americans and Iraqis alike) and, on a purely technical level, the filmmakers demonstrate true professionalism. Less would have been more in the use of soundtrack music, since it is important we see the images just for themselves. After all (and as far as we know) this isn’t a mockumentary, it’s a documentary about a mockery!