Three years ago, the U.S. was stunned by a horrific story that emerged from the front lines of the war in Afghanistan: Several members of an Army platoon had killed at least three unarmed Afghan civilians, apparently for sport. The soldiers referred to themselves as ‘the Kill Team”—a nickname that seemed tailor-made for television news, which devoted hours of coverage to the case.
Dan Krauss, a San Francisco-based filmmaker who was nominated for an Academy Award for his debut documentary, “The Death of Kevin Carter,” was captivated by the case and, in particular, one of the soldiers under arrest: Adam Winfield, who was described by the Army as both a whistle-blower and a murderer.
“I wondered how he could be both of those things,” Krauss recalled in an interview with Yahoo News. His quest to answer that question is the basis of his latest film, “The Kill Team,” which is playing at Tribeca Film Festival in New York this week and premieres at the San Francisco Film Festival on Friday.
Winfield, an Army specialist who was just 20 at the time of the crimes, had tried to warn the military about the killing spree by telling his father, Chris, a retired Marine, who then tried to alert authorities. But Army officials told Chris Winfield they could do something only if Adam were to report the crimes to a superior in the field.
The only problem: Winfield’s squad leader was the ringleader of the murders. When fellow soldiers in the platoon began to sense that Winfield was about to rat them out, they threatened to kill him, too.
Scared, Winfield was pressured to run with the crowd, and in May 2010, he was implicated in the murder of an unarmed Afghan man. The killings were discovered after another soldier complained about drug use in the unit, and in June 2010, Winfield and four other soldiers were back at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash.—imprisoned and charged with heinous war crimes.
Krauss wanted to get access to Winfield and the other accused soldiers, but since they were in confinement, he knew he was unlikely to get to them “through conventional media channels” with the military, he said. So he approached Eric Montalvo, Winfield’s attorney, who told Krauss he needed someone to help film a 10-minute video of Winfield and his family for the military court.
Krauss volunteered—with the condition that he would have editorial control over the footage and, if the family agreed, he could continue filming for an eventual movie.
The result is an unprecedented inside look at the military justice system and the soldiers caught up in the case—many of whom speak about the killings for the first time on camera.
Much of the film takes place inside a tiny conference room at Fort Lewis where Winfield worked with his parents on his defense—and where Montalvo, at one point in the film, warns them against speaking outside of “this zone” about the case because they are potential enemies to Winfield's quest to be cleared.
“You don’t talk to anybody,” the attorney warns.
But Krauss is right there, filming Winfield and his parents in their most vulnerable moments—from the soldier’s psychiatric evaluation to the family’s debates over whether he should take a plea deal in the case, even though they believe, in their words, that he’s being used as “a pawn” by Army officials who want to resolve the case quickly.
“I would have never in a million years imagined that I’d be going to jail,” Winfield says in the opening moments of the film. His parents openly worry their son will commit suicide.
Krauss also interviews some of the other soldiers involved, who not only corroborate Winfield’s claim that they threatened to kill him but openly discuss the murders they committed, speaking about them in such a casual way that it’s likely to be disturbing and depressing to some viewers.
Discussing how he and another officer killed an unarmed 15-year-old Afghan boy, Andrew Holmes, a private first class who was 19 at the time of the killings, says, “Man, we straight up murdered that dude.”
Another soldier, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, who was 21 at the time, matter-of-factly admits why he and others decided to “get some kills,” as he puts it: They were bored.
After months of training for heavy combat, platoon members were dropped into an area of rural Afghanistan where they saw little fighting and instead were instructed to help local Afghans drill wells, construct schools and perform other nation-building efforts that many had not been trained to do. War, Morlock says at one point in the film, “was nothing like people hyped it to be.”
Krauss told Yahoo News that many of the soldiers expressed a sense of betrayal.
"They had been promised an experience, they had been trained in the application of force, and the training, the culture, did not match with the experience. ... It was about hearts and minds, and they were there to kick ass and defend America and defeat terrorism. And that's what they had grown up thinking the military was about, and that was the culture they had trained for and wanted."
The turning point for the platoon came when the sergeant in charge was severely wounded in a roadside bomb attack—only worsening the low morale, especially among the younger soldiers.
His replacement was Calvin Gibbs, a 25-year-old staff sergeant, who allegedly began bragging about murders he had gotten away during an earlier stint in Iraq. According to Winfield and others, Gibbs said he shot people and then planted weapons like grenades that he had obtained “off the books” on his victims.
Gibbs then took fingers as trophies—with the ultimate goal of making a “bone necklace.” (Gibbs, who declined Krauss’s interview requests, has maintained his innocence, insisting he shot only when he was fired upon. He is serving a life sentence for his role in the murders.)
Eventually, Morlock and others joined Gibbs on a killing spree. In the film, Morlock says he felt little guilt, telling the camera that he “buried it, just ... powered through it" before killing again.
Now in prison, he explains how he views his role in the killings: "It’s not that you’re a murderer. It’s that you were convicted of murder."
But Winfield was horrified by what he was seeing, telling his father at the time that he was mystified at why no one else thought this was wrong. Krauss’s film centers around that moral dilemma Winfield faced—especially in May 2010, when the soldiers decided to kill an Afghan man in Winfield’s presence.
As Winfield says in the film, his choice was, “Should I do the right thing and put myself in danger, or should I just shut up and deal with it?”
He chose the latter—which ultimately earned him a sentence of three years in prison and a bad conduct discharge. He was released from prison in August 2012.
In an interview, Krauss says the film is meant to cast a light on how young people are sent into war with little preparation for the emotional choices they will have to make.
“Some of these kids were literally teenagers,” Krauss said. “I wanted to examine the idea that we are sending very young people into situations where they have to make decisions, sometimes instantly, about incredibly complex situations where you face moral questions that would be difficult for anyone, much less for someone who is 18, 19 or 20."
In spite of the subject matter, Krauss’s film does not have an explicit anti-war sentiment—and in fact, he says, he left footage on the cutting room floor in order to keep the movie from coming across as overtly political. But he acknowledged it will be hard for some to watch without coming away with a sense of alarm about the horrors of war, especially as one soldier says that killings like this happen all the time, “We’re just the ones that got caught.”
“You’re training us from the day we join to the day you’re out to kill. Your job is to kill. … Your job is to kill everything that’s in your way,” Justin Stoner, the soldier whose initial complaint about drug use within the platoon exposed the murders, says in the film. “Well, then why the hell are you pissed off when we do it?”
In the film, Stoner, who was not charged with any crimes, says he never wants to be referred to as a “whistle-blower” in the case.
“It’s worse than what they are being accused of,” says Stoner, who is now a member of the Army Reserve. “If I could go back, I wouldn’t have said anything.”
Krauss’s film doesn’t cast Winfield as a hero or a saint, but does convey his anguish over doing nothing to protect the Afghan man he saw murdered, or the other victims of "the Kill Team."
Krauss said his goal was to give the soldiers involved a chance to tell their side of the story "without political or moral judgment."
"This is a film about morality in the context of war," Krauss said. "I am hoping that people who watch the film come away with a deeper understanding of what the young men and women we send to war are confronted with."