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'The Kill Team' review: a modern military atrocity gets put under the microscope

'The Kill Team' review: a modern military atrocity gets put under the microscope

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You may have heard about it on the news: a rogue group of US soldiers killing civilians “for sport” in Afghanistan. For weeks, it was a staple on 24-hour cable channels, inspiring long newspaper and magazine pieces and sending dozens of soldiers to jail. Debuting at Tribeca, a new documentary called The Kill Team by Dan Krauss finds a new angle on the nightmarish story, following Private Adam Winfield as he navigates the military courts and tries to salvage some sense of humanity along the way.

The killings themselves are depressingly familiar, recalling the infamous My Lai massacre. Led by the the imposing Staff Sgt. Gibbs, the group began faking firefights and planting weapons as a way to make innocent civilians look like enemy combatants. With Gibbs on their side, the team quickly learned they could kill innocent Afghans with very few questions asked. When they returned to their base, the group would be greeted as heroes, having faced the enemy and survived.

The documentary lays out the case in matter-of-fact "talking head"-style interviews, either from the soldiers involved or with Winfield’s parents, who struggle between guilt and outrage over their son’s experience. It’s not the most exciting approach to the material, but it drives home the emotional trauma inflicted on everyone involved.

The film drives home the emotional trauma inflicted on everyone involved

Winfield’s role in the "kill team" is somewhere between whistleblower and accomplice. After his first encounter with Gibbs, Winfield spent months looking for a way to report what was happening. The film recreates heartbreaking Facebook chats between Winfield and his ex-marine father, in which they struggled against military bureaucracy before ultimately deciding there was nothing they could do. By then, Gibbs had talked to the group openly about killing Winfield to cover their tracks. To keep himself safe, Winfield participated in a kill. He says he fired at the ground, but can’t say for sure if he hit anyone. Facing a military court, his actions become a difficult thing to explain, a moral gray area that defines the rest of his life.

The final break came from an unrelated report: a private named Stoner turned Gibbs in for an unrelated beating, and had the bruises to prove it. Once military police started taking in privates for sealed testimony, the story of the kill team came out. It was more bad luck than good detective work, and reinforces the sense that there are other soldiers like Gibbs still at large in the army, protected by silence. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, Stoner says that if he had it to do again, he would have kept quiet.

The bigger issue may be the frustration and paranoia of an occupying force

Staff Sgt. Gibbs emerges as the clear villain, one of the few characters in the piece who didn’t submit to an interview, but the bigger issue may be the frustration and paranoia of an occupying force. Over the course of the interview, several soldiers state matter-of-factly that the army lied to them – but their complaint has to do with the nature of modern war. The soldiers were primed to face a clear enemy, inspired by Call of Duty and Black Hawk Down, but when they arrived on deployment, they found something much more confusing. Instead of charging compounds, they were scanning for IEDs and navigating an uneasy truce with the locals. The enemy seemed to be both everywhere and nowhere. When Gibbs offered a way to “kill the enemy,” it was something many soldiers had been preparing for since boot camp.

What’s left is a lot of unease and few answers. As Winfield’s lawyer pointed out in a Q&A after the screening, it’s essentially a failure of command – no one was there to keep Gibbs in line, or check out Winfield’s reports – and not a single officer has been brought up on charges connected with the kill team. Gibbs was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life, Winfield for just three years, but until the army makes a stronger effort to police itself, Gibbs and Winfield will continue to feel like scapegoats. As Private Stoner puts it, “they were just the ones that got caught.”