There was something eerily apt about sitting down to watch The Kill Team, a documentary from Dan Krauss, in wake of a week’s worth of coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt to bring suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into custody.
Tsarnaev became an odd kind of ghost in the days leading up to his capture, simultaneously utterly unfathomable and strangely specific. This is the internet age, after all, and Tsarnaev was 19, so it was not surprising to discover he had a Twitter account; perhaps more unexpected was how depressing reading the highlights was. Some of them are chilling in light of the bombings; others are just mundane. He tweeted about breakfast, about Game of Thrones, about beer pong; like everybody else online, he tweeted pictures of his cat. In other words, here we have evidence that, in addition to being a person who would one day make a couple of sadistic bombs designed to deprive runners of their legs, a person who would one day commit murder, he was also just a kid.
Thinking about this is not a pleasant exercise. It is much easier for us to imagine the person behind the bombings as a faceless incarnation of evil, but Tsarnaev wasn’t and isn’t that, because nobody is. The subjects at the center of The Kill Team — American soldiers in their late teens and early twenties — weren’t, either, and Krauss’ documentary doesn’t let us forget it.
In early 2010, a group of American soldiers in Afghanistan conspired to murder a number of innocent Afghan civilians. They planted weapons on them, killed them, posed for photos with their corpses. The ringleader of this little operation, a Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who declined to be interviewed for the film, cut off his victims’ fingers with the intention of making the bones into a necklace. Everybody in the unit knew what was going on, whether or not they were participating in it; nobody said anything until a private, Justin Stoner, told senior officers during an assault investigation — Gibbs had beaten him up — about the fingers, at which point the entire operation collapsed in on itself.
Krauss focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield, a young man who joined the army when he was 17, inspired by his own father’s service in peacetime. He was tormented by what Gibbs and his cohort were doing, and discussed with his parents at length what he should do about it. He was afraid of retribution if he said anything to anybody; once, on the way to discuss what was going on with the chaplain, Gibbs cornered him and threatened to kill him. He decided to say nothing and was ultimately taken on one of these little missions; when he did nothing to stop Gibbs and the other soldiers involved, they killed an Afghani man (he also fired his weapon, trying to aim away from the target). He then posed for a photo with Gibbs and his sidekick, Corporal Jeremy Morlock. In the photo, he is not smiling.
Winfield is a soft-spoken and utterly unthreatening; it is sort of difficult to imagine him in combat, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense: it just doesn’t seem like the occupation he would choose for himself. His incredible guilt at what he did — or, rather, did not do — is apparent not only in his filmed psychiatric evaluation but in everything he says and does. It is in his eyes all the time. He talks about being depressed in prison, about his anxiety attacks, about not ever getting a good night’s sleep. At one point he says, frankly and unpretentiously, that he believes deserves jail time, because he knows what he did was wrong.
Krauss never tries to excuse or exonerate Winfield or the other soldiers he interviews; what he does, quite masterfully, is use their testimony to make us think about what makes a person good or bad, and to illustrate a systemic problem in the military. His access — Gibbs’ absence notwithstanding — is remarkable, and it is to his subjects’ credit that they are as frank and forthright as they are, since they do not always come across favorably — and that is putting it mildly.
Though Winfield is clearly the sympathetic heart of the movie, the sort of tortured bystander whom we know should be punished for failing to act but with whom we can’t help but sympathize, Morlock is perhaps the most interesting of the young men interviewed. He seems to be teetering on a knife’s edge between genuine moments of self-awareness and remorse and the kind of cruel, casual machismo that led him to kill a number of innocent people in cold blood. Like all the angry young men in the history of warfare, he talks about how disappointed he was when his action-packed visions of combat translated in reality to a lot of sitting around doing nothing, or — even more galling — building schools and digging wells for the very people he felt were his enemies. As he says, he thought he was going to get a chance to kill people.
And yet this is the same person who says, later in the film, that returning home on leave was excruciating, because nobody at home understood what had happened to him and what he had done; the same person who explains, somewhat sheepishly, that he’s never been good at processing emotion, that he didn’t know what to do about what he was feeling, and so pushed it down, in that typical “macho” way that he seems to understand is no good for anybody. He has these glimmers of connection to reality that are startling, moving, and undeniably uncomfortable: it would be easier, wouldn’t it, if we could think of him as simply evil? I certainly didn’t walk away from the movie thinking much of his moral compass, but I also didn’t think he was a monster. There are no monsters, after all, only people.
But people can do monstrous things, and often do — particularly, alas, in certain circumstances. War is one of those circumstances. We know this; we have known this forever. Our problem seems to stem from the comforting and wrongheaded notion that most of the violence that makes up a war is justifiable. Even if we disregard the complex question of what, precisely, constitutes “justifiable” violence, this seems undeniably false. Stoner – probably the most magnetic of the subjects, despite being a more peripheral figure – scoffs at this. He is sarcastic, cynical, and undeniably very intelligent, and despite not participating in Gibbs’ operations doesn’t seem particularly horrified by them. This, he says, is just what happens. This is what soldiers do.
I was reminded strongly of The Invisible War, last year’s much-discussed documentary on rape in the military, while watching The Kill Team. Though the military’s sexual assault policy is improving (at, it must be said, a glacial pace), the fundamental problem facing assaulted women is not so different from the problem Winfield encountered when trying to figure out how to rat out Gibbs et al, and that is this: that the military, as an organization, seems to be concerned first and foremost with protecting itself. The military does not care about its soldiers and it especially does not care about foreign nationals who happen to get in its way, particularly if they are Afghan or Iraqi nationals and regardless of whether they have guns or not, of whether they did not get in the way of American soldiers but were sought out by them. Disciplinary problems do not tend to make their way very far up the chain of command; it is preferable that issues be resolved in as confined a manner as possible. Once something like Gibbs and his gang gets blown open — that is, once it goes public — then the military is happy to come down hard on the guilty parties. At that point in the process, being aggressive about human rights violations is in the military’s best interest. And the military does whatever is best for the military.
I do not doubt that there are many, many individual soldiers and commanders in the U.S. military who are exemplary people. But even exemplary people can crumble in a war zone, particularly when they observe horrible things and then face massive institutional disinterest embodied by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. Winfield talks at length about why he was so determined to join the army at such a young age: he wanted to be like his father; he wanted to serve his country; he wanted to do something good and meaningful with his life.
But, he tells us, war isn’t like that. It ruins everyone, just as it always has, for centuries, for thousands upon thousands of years. This is inevitable. The least we can expect for our soldiers, though, is that the organization sending them to hell had the decency to care about them, to look out for them, to hold them accountable when they do horrible things, to try to keep them from being eaten alive by the horrors of what they’re experiencing. Based on the evidence presented in this film, and in The Invisible War, that doesn’t seem to be happening, and they are suffering for it.