‘The Kill Team’: When is War Murder?

What The Kill Team goes on to do is utterly unnerving: it draws connections between the poised interviewee and the soldier in country, between one young man's different times and places, his stories and his circumstances.

Above: Photo of Adam Winfield at Fort Lewis, August 2011 (Photographer: Dan Krauss)

“what if im not the hero

what if im the bad guy.”

— Tattoo on Justin Stoner’s back

“Somebody told me the way to look at is, you’re not a murderer, you’re a convicted murderer.” Spc. Jeremy Morlock wears his dress uniform for his interview in The Kill Team. Like the other young men who speak with filmmaker Dan Krauss, he appears thoughtful and composed, prepared for the questions about the Maywand District murders, committed by US soldiers in 2010. Morlock was sentenced to 24 years for his participation in the premeditated killings of three Afghan civilians.

Morlock looks less poised in the now notorious photos the team took in Maywand, photos that, when they were made public, helped to create a frightening portrait of the “Kill Team.” The contrast between the young man apparently recalling what happened and the disturbingly delighted killer who embodies what happened is surely unnerving. What the film goes on to do, however, is even more unnerving, as it draws connections between these two figures, between their times and places, their stories and their circumstances.

“We’ve been training to do one thing all this time, counter-guerilla stuff, being a warrior and going kicking ass,” says Morlock while you look at footage taken in country, a handheld frame showing curious villagers and endless dirt. “And we get there and we’re forced to go help them and build a well, a school, whatever. To do any offensive operation, you need a top fucking signature from whoever, a big dog general or President Karzai himself.” Such frustration pervades the team, apparently, as it’s echoed by Spc. Justin Stoner: “You can’t shoot somebody because of this reason, you can’t do that because of that reason. They blow you up and you see them driving away.” His interview takes another form, as he wears a striped shirt, framed carefully by shadows. “It was nothing like what everybody hyped it to be, and probably that’s why, you know, things happened.”

You know. Stoner’s address to his interviewer reminds you, if you need reminding, that he’s performing for someone else, that his memories have a context. Stoner, as it happens, is one of a couple of whistleblowers in the case that led to Morlock’s court martial (and sentence to 24 years in prison); Stoner reported that his fellows were smoking hash in his bunk, worried, he says here, for his own career. “Who they gonna blame?” he asks by way of explanation. “The private.”

Such a sense of powerlessness structures all the testimony here. (Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, identified by all as the “ringleader” and sentenced to life in prison, appears only in photos that obscure his face or focus on the line of skulls tattooed on his calf). Stoner, in fact, didn’t notify superiors about the murders, but Spc. Adam Winfield did. It’s his account, along with those of his parents Emma and Chris, that drives Krauss’ film, that complicates its narrative and casts doubt on pretty much everything anyone says.

At first, Winfield articulates a particular dilemma that he knew when he was in Afghanistan: he knew what they were doing was wrong—he even wrote home about it in Facebook messages—but that he was afraid, owing to the army’s tendency “to handle things in house, it would have been my word against 30 other guys.” He tells a psych evaluator of his nightmares, his suicidal thoughts, his remorse (these sessions are filmed in especially discomforting close-ups, over shoulders, as if both men are on a movie set.) When Winfield describes how he came to go along, even if out of fear, the film turns to another form of representation. Gibbs spoke to him after a killing in which he participated, Winfield remembers. “He said, ‘Hey, come take a picture with me.’ He told me I was a made man, that I didn’t have anything to worry about him from now on.” And then you see that photo of Gibbs, Morlock, and Winfield with a body. The question can’t be answered: is this evidence of complicity or coercion, culpability or victimization?

Eric Montalvo, Winfield’s defense attorney back at Joint Base Lewis in Washington State, spells out that dilemma as Winfield faces his own court martial. What will an outsider see, he asks. How can what’s in Winfield’s “brain” at any given moment matter for a jury of accusers (as he terms the court martial). How might that information be turned into story, and whom does it serve, when? “There’s an unarmed civilian and he’s dead. Why is that?” asks Montalvo. “We’ve got to walk a fairly close line on the moral piece on this because he’s not totally clean-gloved.”

Even as Montalvo aptly draws attention to the people who are dead, to the consequences of the soldiers’ decisions, the film also points to a wider framework. Morlock and Stoner speak a recognizable truth, that they are young men trained to kill people. (“Your job is to kill everything that gets in your way. Well then, why the hell are you pissed off when we do it?”) His blunt self-identification, however much it may be a rationalization after the fact, rhymes with the gruesome photos the team took, posing with corpses, GI-Joe goofy in their sunglasses and helmets. The Kill Team—however it might be reframed after its exposure, however atypical it may be—is a product, not only of military training and a lifetime of violent media images, encouraging boys to become particular kinds of men, men who kill people. “I was pissed of at everything,” says Winfield. “I was pissed at the whole situation. What’s the point of all this?” By the end of The Kill Team, you might be thinking this is only the first question to ask.

RATING 8 / 10