‘The Kill Team’ provides slanted account of Maywand District murders

Adam Winfield at Fort Lewis, August 2011.  Photo by Dan Krauss.

Adam Winfield at Fort Lewis, August 2011.
Photo by Dan Krauss.

“I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to tell somebody what was going on,” said Specialist Adam Winfield, recalling his time with the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, stationed outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. The unit became known as “The Kill Team” when five of its members were accused of murdering three Afghan civilians in 2011. A new documentary by the same name explores the aftermath of the killings, focusing on the story of Winfield and his family. In the end, this perspective is more limiting than illuminating. At every step of the way, the film depends on emotional manipulation, rather than dispassionate, evidence-based argument.

Following the Maywand District murders, government officials portrayed the atrocities as the product of a few bad apples rather than systemic issues within the armed forces. It is laudable that director Dan Krauss sought to interrogate, or at least contextualize, this framing of the crimes. In all likelihood, there is a documentary to be made about the institutional conditions and leadership vacuum that made the crimes possible. But “The Kill Team” is not that movie.

Instead, the film focuses exclusively on Winfield’s victimization — first, at the hands of a rogue platoon and then at the whims of the military justice system. In interviews, Winfield claims that he tried to blow the whistle on the killings but was blackmailed into silence. Krauss recreates Facebook messages between Winfield and his father, in which Winfield discusses not only the murders but also his larger disillusionment with his platoon: “The army really let me down out here,” he writes. “I find out it’s all a lie.”

Adam Winfield (center) with his parents, Chris (left) and Emma (right). Photo by Dan Krauss.

Adam Winfield (center) with his parents, Chris (left) and Emma (right). Photo by Dan Krauss.

Still, it’s not clear that Winfield brought his concerns to higher-ups in the military or sought to go public with evidence of the crimes. Instead, he recalls being threatened and intimidated by his fellow soldiers, including squad leader Calvin Gibbs, who is currently serving a life sentence for having spearheaded the crimes. No matter his conscience, he was, in the end, a bystander.

None of this is to pass any moral judgment on Winfield, a 100-pound, 21-year-old who enlisted to “make a difference” in Afghanistan. Instead, I aim only to complicate the notion that he is an unambiguous hero, whose efforts to procure justice were thwarted by the military at large. What’s more, Krauss’ focalization on Winfield’s vantage point comes at the expense of broader conversation about the military’s admittance policies and the ethical challenges of counterinsurgency.

What we learn about the crimes is truly heinous: American soldiers were strategic about camouflaging their murders. They dropped guns next to their victims to make them appear armed and exploded untracked grenades, blaming Afghan spectators for the deaths of innocent civilians. Specialist Jeremy Morlock, who was convicted of three counts of premeditated murder, called a “warrior’s paradise,” where the rules of engagement were questioned and fog of war took over. By all accounts, the perpetrators were bored, impressed by Sgt. Gibbs’ machismo and eager to win his approval.

The murder victims included a disabled man, an Islamic mullah and a 15-year old boy, Gul Mudin, who was working on his father’s farm. American soldiers stripped Mudin’s corpse, severed the boy’s pinky finger as a trophy and posed for photos with his mutilated body. Krauss makes no move to explore the effects of these killings on Afghan communities.

Meanwhile, he spends much of the film portraying the Winfield family, observing legal briefings and dinner-table conversations. What emerges is a heart-rending portrait of a family under stress and parents fighting to keep their son out of prison. Ultimately, though, it’s a bit difficult to get behind the idea that an American family is the primary victim of the Maywand District murders. The film’s silence around Afghan suffering is disturbing.

“The Kill Team” is not an even-handed interrogation of the war on terror, its psychological realities or dubious operating procedures. It claims a monopoly on moral outrage but does more to impoverish than enlighten our conversation about military culture and policy. In the end, this is not a principled documentary. This is a disappointment.

 

About Gillie Collins

Gillie Collins works as the Chief Film and Visual Arts Critic at The Stanford Daily. A New York City native, she enjoys snacking on pumpkin bread and reading. At Stanford, she studies International Relations and English Literature. Contact her by paper airplane or email at gcollins 'at' stanford.edu.
  • Mencken30

    “…yet another tragic beat in the American heart of darkness during the post-9/11 era”

    http://www.alternet.org/culture/documentary-kill-team-captures-nightmare-war

  • Sam

    Geez Louise. It’s a film about being trapped in a killing nightmare. Adam talked about the innocent victims and his psss.

  • Sam

    Geez Louise. It’s a film about being trapped in a killing nightmare. Adam talked about the innocent victims and his psychopathic boss. We saw the limits of the command structure in isolated areas. Are there other films to be made? Sure. But this isn’t slanted and deficient–it’s just not the film you wanted it to be.

  • Dea

    Wow. I seriously cannot disagree with this review more. It was clear to me that the film was supposed to be through the eyes of those who were the perpetrators. The horror of the sociopathy is pretty clear. It shows how trapped Adam in particular was and what clueless American kids they really were–having been molded into/for something quite nefarious. It was extremely claustrophobic and if any more had been introduced, it would’ve taken away from the intensity of the point–war is utterly evil and creates evil men. And Adam will live a tortured life, now knowing that his childhood dream was based upon a lie. I can only hope he is able to create some good to bring meaning to it all. I’m sorry this reviewer couldn’t see how poignant the film was. The clueless who have no compassion for the Afghanis might ‘get it’ through those they can identify with. I got the impression that the horrors suffered by the Afghanis was a given.

  • blowitup

    Totally agree. Winfield showed cowardice under pressure. The juxtaposition of stoner, a guy who ratted them out and took his beating is important to note. Winfield isn’t innocent and even he admits that. Even his mom admits that. But he’s also more culpable than most because he could have acted to stop the madness and chose not to.

    Sorry for him. He was in a tough spot. But that does not excuse his cowardice.

  • Ash

    I guess this is what is to be expected from a Stanford “journalist” who “enjoys snacking on pumpkin bread and reading”. This wasn’t an expose about the War in Afghanistan, or an examination of the trials and tribulations of the opium farmers that inhabit the land. Kill team seeks to understand the motivations of the soldiers, in an environment that you cannot hope to understand. While I do not feel compelled to care for any of the interviewees, the film accomplishes what it set out to. It gives its viewer a front row seat into the atrocities of war and the motivations behind those involved.

  • William Crews

    Stick with snacking on pumpkin bread honey.

  • John Maskal

    “Charging soldiers with murder in a war zone, is like giving out speeding tickets @ Indianapolis” . Cpt. Willard.