A work of acute psychological journalism, Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team outlines an event that caused a dishearteningly brief furor in the domestic media: the supposedly isolated story of a rogue platoon of American infantrymen who repeatedly killed Afghan civilians for sport. The documentary opts to sideline the broader consequences of these incidents—most obviously, another set of reasons for the people of Afghanistan to distrust the presence and intentions of American troops; more quietly, an American public whose sense of outrage has been exhausted by other, similar revelations—in order to draw a largely focused portrait of war’s power to dissolve a soldier’s sense of moral absolutism.
We meet Specialist Adam Winfield in handcuffs, held in a military complex in Washington State. He’s been charged with one count of premeditated murder after his reluctant, implicitly coerced participation in his platoon’s final crime. While the film, through discussions with family and meetings with an army lawyer, explains the minor but crucial semantic decisions that will determine Winfield’s sentence (is he guilty of murder, manslaughter, or merely “cowardly conduct”?), it also discusses, in parallel, how Winfield arrived at this impasse. While plea deals are volleyed back and forth, we hear of Calvin Gibbs, a brash, charismatic new staff sergeant who teaches his platoon how to execute a “drop-weapon” (planting an untracked weapon on a civilian target in order to argue that they initiated fire). Some of the platoon, including a couple of the film’s interview subjects, eagerly participate. Winfield is disillusioned and tells his parents, who can’t make their voices heard in any channel of the military’s bureaucracy. Viewed as a potential snitch, he’s threatened with physical harm, and half-heartedly participates in a kill in order to avoid punishment. His fate—some measure of time served in a military jail—is sealed by a photograph in which he poses behind one of the platoon’s innocent victims. Winfield and other platoon members who participate in the film are invariably situated on one side of the screen; rather than defending their side of the story, though, the infantrymen offer a series of complementary explanations of how they became killers.
That said, the film offers a rather perfunctory view of life on active duty. Soldier-shot combat footage emphasizes the dull grind of daily operations (speaking with mullahs, winning over citizens) and an ongoing thirst for action. These rhythms are redundantly favored over a more detailed examination of how Gibbs, the new staff sergeant with a mythic air, comes to gain the trust and admiration of his squad. Instead, Gibbs becomes a cardboard villain, only viewed in still photographs and clad with skull tattoos commemorating previous combat kills. Winfield’s isolation from his peers and their deteriorating values are conveyed in devastating, well-rendered chat exchanges with his father, but other aspects of the platoon’s interpersonal dynamics remain foggy. (A late mention of casual drug use within the group comes as an unnecessary shock.)
Krauss’s film earns its stripes in its post facto interviews with Winfield and other members of the platoon. Winfield’s struggle to simultaneously accept wrongdoing and abide the outrage of his parents, who seek to castigate the military for refusing their son a safe outlet to report these crimes, is palpable in his shaking hands and measured diction. One of his fellow infantrymen attests to an almost imperceptible sense of moral slippage that takes place on the ground; another comes off as a chillingly nihilistic adrenaline junkie, but even his account comes with a detailed rationale. These individual stories, told gradually and in concert, establish The Kill Team as a rare War on Terror military exposé, one almost exclusively interested in the hearts and minds of low-ranking soldiers. Krauss makes a few gestures up the military food chain, but wisely underplays both this impulse and the fleeting notoriety of the platoon’s actions. The doc’s focus on individual soldiers at war with their own senses of right and wrong yields a more enduring document.