The war in Afghanistan is the longest military conflict in which the United States has been involved. The operation is nowhere near as successful as hoped, which is part of the reality of fighting a war in Afghanistan, a lesson that the Soviet Union learned in the 1980s. Much of the logistic difficulty comes from the terrain and the size of the country. For the US, this difficult was compounded by its attempts to rebuild infrastructure and develop trust with the civilian population. Part of the issue here may be some of the troops themselves.
The documentary Kill Team chronicles one instance of egregious war crimes that US troops perpetrated against the people of Afghanistan. One army unit played a game in which they’d murder innocent civilians and pretend that they were enemy combatants.
One of the most chilling things about Kill Team is the matter-of-fact way that one of the troops characterizes these kinds of war crimes: it happens way more than we think, they were just the ones who got caught.
[This review was original posted as part of our coverage of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. It is being posted to coincide with its theatrical release.]
Director: Dan Krauss
Release Date: July 25, 2014 (New York, National rollout to follow)
The primary focus of Kill Team is Private Adam Winfield and his family. Private Winfield was the whistleblower who attempted to bring attention to these criminal acts for months. Despite his efforts and his family’s efforts, military brass never acted in an urgent way. Private Winfield’s own father, who also served and was the reason that Private Winfield enlisted in the Army, reached out to as many professional contacts as he could that might be able to do something. None of these people could help, and many deferred responsibility to other parties.
The reason these kills took place was the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Gibbs is an imposing figure, an all-American freedom machine with the features of a GI Joe. He served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in addition to his hardcore machismo, there’s a major psychopathic and sociopathic streak to him. He looks at the Afghan population as sub-human, and even makes a necklace of index finger bones for his own amusement. As trophies of his kills, Gibbs also gets tattoos, and he encourages those under him to do as he does.
Gibbs is never interviewed for the documentary, and it’s no surprise that he’d avoid participating in this film since he wouldn’t come out of it in any sort of positive light. A few of Private Winfield’s fellow soldiers are interviewed, however, and they are so blunt about what happened it adds additional chill to what they say. It’s like they’re describing trips to the store rather than the murder of innocent people; as if they’re talking about others planting grenades and pulling the triggers rather than themselves. It seems like they viewed the peacekeeping side of the mission as tedious rather than essential, while the firefights were where the fun was at.
Private Winfield was coerced to murder an innocent civilian himself under threat of death. The rest of his company knew he wanted to reveal what they’ve done, and they made it known that if he blew the whistle, they’d kill him and make it look like an accident. If they could make innocent civilians seem like enemy combatants, it wouldn’t be so hard to make another murder seem like part of routine combat. Under that kind of duress, Private Winfield had no choice but to comply. His parents were helpless to help, and Army higher ups weren’t too concerned. On top of that, Private Winfield’s small in stature and even though he has a lot of heart, his rucksack weighs as much as he does.
Private Winfield seems like the only person interviewed that shows any remorse about the killings. He recalls the moment and calls it the worst thing in his life. The other troops who are so matter-of-fact describe a kind of compartmentalization of military action and civilian life. Back home, a troop may be filled with angst and anxiety that they try to tamp down as best as they can. They express no desire to kill when on leave, but things are different when back in Afghanistan. Obviously this isn’t the case with all troops and the documentary isn’t painting everyone who serves in the same light, but Kill Team does a good job of profiling just how dark these impulses can become.
Much of the film’s focus is on Private Winfield’s fate and how his family copes with the legal defense. In some ways this points out part of the film limitations in its exploration of this issue. No doubt a lot of this had to do with access, and director Dan Krauss makes the most out of his time with the Winfields. While some of Private Winfield’s fellow troops participate in the documentary, none of their families appear. Part of me wonders how their experiences were and what their personal stories involved, especially in the case of Gibbs’s loved ones. Did they notice something wrong? Did they know what was happening? How do they feel now that they know what’s happened?
One minor issue I had with Kill Team had to do with its presentation, of all things. When Krauss is in documentary journalism mode, the film is brimming with power. The more cinematic flourishes in the film seem less effective, though. The cinematography is nice, but it seems like a bit of a distraction — a kind of garnish rather than something that complements the content. There’s also the slow crawl of text from Facebook chats between Private Winfield and his father, which are more affected than effective. It’s a testament to the power of this story, maybe, that I’m critical of a choice of presentation that gets in the way of the facts.
Quibbles aside, Kill Team is an important film that may be the first of many to come. Once again, as we’re told in the film, this is something that happens more that we think. Other units have engaged in similar actions, and the civilians who witness it are going to harbor deep and legitimate resentments that will be passed through villages, conveyed to the next generation. When more of these stories are revealed and more time has passed when the last troops have left, we may get a larger and more complicated picture of the country and the conflict. The silence can’t last for long.