Our big year-in-review issue hits the street on Thursday, December 25. I know you can’t wait, and neither can I, so every weekday until then I’ll be writing about one of my favorite films to premiere in Chicago in 2014. Number eight on my list is Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team.
The deification of the American soldier says more about the secret guilt of those who send them off to war and forget about them than about the soldiers’ sacrifice—and the ugliest secret of all may be that what soldiers often sacrifice is their own humanity. The Kill Team, which screened at Gene Siskel Film Center back in May as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, tells the gripping story of the Maywand District murders, in which soldiers from a U.S. Army platoon stationed in Afghanistan murdered three civilians and passed them off as legitimate combat engagements. The ringleader, Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, hoped to collect severed fingers from the victims so he could make himself a bone necklace, but some of the other culprits were simply bored with their assignment and resentful of the locals. “Nobody’s innocent, because these guys know the Taliban, they’re working with them, and they’re not working for us,” explains Specialist Jeremy Morlock, now serving 24 years. “We’re here to help them, and they don’t give us any help. We’re just getting blown up every time we go out there just to talk with ’em or build ’em a well. So fuck ’em.”
Krauss managed to score interviews with three of the soldiers charged in the killings, and their frank testimony of what went on provides a chilling picture of how the war in Afghanistan has turned into a senseless quagmire. The central figure of The Kill Team, however, is Specialist Adam Winfield, who tried to blow the whistle on Gibbs, feared for his own life as word got around, and ultimately incriminated himself by participating in a staged killing and posing for a photograph with the body, alongside Gibbs and Morlock. Krauss re-creates onscreen the Facebook chats between Winfield and his father, Christopher, a Marine Corps veteran who says he tried to present Adam’s story to the army but was told that, unless a second witness came forward to corroborate it, nothing could be done. “There are no good men left here,” Adam writes to his father. Once Gibbs and the others learned that their cover had been blown, Gibbs allegedly began threatening Adam, promising him that he would be killed out on patrol and that, like the murders already committed, his death would be written off as a battlefield engagement.
Winfield wound up with a three-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, and The Kill Team raises the issue of whether the court martial was punishing him for the murder or getting even with him for trying to blow the whistle. His parents are outraged that he’s even being prosecuted, given that he tried to report the first two murders and was coerced into taking part in the third so that his own culpability would shut him up. To his credit, Winfield owns up to his cowardice, admitting to Krauss, “I had a responsibility to put a stop to what was going on.” He was given a dishonorable discharge, though arguably he did more to honor the uniform than the others who went to prison. The Kill Team reveals a military culture most of us would prefer not to think about, in which no medal can compare to the honor of ending someone else’s life. “This goes on more than just us,” says Specialist Jeremy Stoner, who wasn’t charged. “We’re just the ones that got caught.”