It's 2010. Stuck in the middle of Afghanistan on a murky mission, US soldiers are bored, frustrated, and angry. During their patrols, they fear getting blown apart by IEDs when they're not digging wells and talking to poppy farmers. When are they going to get some action?
"I expected firefights every day," complains Specialist Adam Winfield, a member the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, and protagonist of the documentary "The Kill Team."
Then, as another squadmate named Stoner recalls, "Things happened." The soldiers take matters into their own hands. They toss grenades at Afghan civilians. They plant weapons on the dead civilians' bodies. They get their "kills," just like the Army promised. It's an iPhone world, so they pose and take photos with the mangled corpses. Their sergeant collects the fingers of his victims as trophies.
The murders cause a moral crisis for soft-spoken Winfield, who joined the Army at 17 and was 20 at the time of the crimes. "Why am I the only one not OK with this?" he texts his father, a former Marine. But to rat out his buddies means to endanger his safety and risk incrimination. Winfield is confronted with the classic whistleblower's quandary: do the right thing, or keep his mouth shut.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, director Dan Krauss's documentary laser-beams on the well-publicized case of the so-called Kill Team, whose members were arrested, court-martialed, and punished to varying degrees. Krauss ("The Death of Kevin Carter") moves in time between Winfield's legal proceedings in 2011 and the back story of the soldiers' atrocities. Footage of the deliberations among Winfield, his lawyer, and his parents is intercut with talking heads interviews of Kill Team members (who are surprisingly reflective and honest about their motivations) and sequences of the anxious parents at home. Thrown into the editing mix are the military's own interrogation videos and "home movie" footage the soldiers shot in Afghanistan. The only false notes come when Krauss amps up the dramatic, shadowy lighting during interviews, or seemingly stages scenes, such as Winfield's mother wistfully driving in her car.
Quibbles aside, Krauss's documentary is both solid and scathing, raising more questions that it answers. "The Kill Team" unveils not simply these soldiers' deplorable actions, but the troubled ethics of a US government that prepares gung-ho and impressionable young men to be heroes and killers, to be all that they can be, then drops them into a moral vacuum.
"War is dirty," Winfield says. "It's not how they portray it in the movies, where there's a bunch of honorable men with unshakable patriotism. It's just a bunch of guys with guns."
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.