This week I have chosen a documentary, The Kill Team, which examines what happens to one particular US soldier, Adam Winfield, when he decides to become a whistleblower and exposes US war crimes committed in Afghanistan by his own platoon.
What I valued about this documentary was that it took a “big issue” – the ongoing US War on Terror in Afghanistan – and looked at it through the lens of one particular US soldier’s experience of that war, and the impact it had on him and those closest to him. Effectively, it took a political hot potato and made it personal.
We begin at the beginning and see home movies of Adam Winfield as a child, growing up in a “normal” all-American family; a happy child with a rosy future ahead of him. From a very young age, Adam is keen to follow in his father’s footsteps (himself an ex-Marine) and to serve his country. When the US embarks on the War on Terror, Adam is desperate to enlist despite his very young age. His determination shines through as he meets all the tough physical challenges, carrying heavy backpacks many times his own body weight. His parents do not feel able to stop Adam as this is what he wants to do – it is his dream. They don’t want Adam to think that they do not believe in him and they want to be as supportive as possible. Adam leaves for the war, proud to be serving his country in uniform and determined to do his best.
US forces are told they are going to Afghanistan to fight for (and defend) freedom, liberty and democracy, that they will be serving their country with honour and integrity, and that they are all-American heroes. It is hardly surprising that the reality does not quite live up to the hype – far from it, in fact.
The real situation in Afghanistan does not meet many US soldiers’ expectations of combat situations. Days go by, with little happening and nothing to do, and one of the soldiers, who has come out looking for adventure, describes Afghanistan as “boring as fuck”. The soldiers are expected to carry out patrols and peacetime duties, but they often feel vulnerable and exposed, sitting ducks to the insurgents who attack them with homemade bombs known as IEDs (improvised explosive devices). In this scenario, with boredom rising and the soldiers increasingly frustrated, seeing their comrades routinely attacked and killed by IEDs, the desire for vengeance rises, causing a potentially explosive and very dangerous situation.
And into this mix steps Sergeant Gibbs, a new platoon leader with his own ideas about how to make the war more exciting and satisfying for his men. Gibbs, with the consent, support and backing of his men, starts killing innocent Afghan civilians and then by placing a “dropped weapon” nearby claims the killing was self-defence. The status of the platoon rises along with the body count, and Gibbs and his men are fêted as heroes.
Winfield feels increasingly uneasy about what his platoon are doing, and the actions he is becoming involved in, and tries to raise the alarm by contacting his parents back in the US. His father tries to alert the authorities but to no avail as his cries for help are ignored. Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, Winfield’s life is in danger as his comrades fear what will become of them if Winfield blows the whistle.
The true horror of what the platoon has been doing does later emerge, not through Winfield, but when the platoon is investigated in relation to another incident. The story of the platoon’s actions is so shocking and horrifying that it makes the national news and the platoon are dubbed “The Kill Team” for murdering innocent Afghan civilians for sport.
When the soldiers return to the US, Winfield’s parents think their son’s ordeal is over, now he is back safe and sound in the US. However their optimism is shortlived and they face a rude awakening. Alongside other members of his platoon, Winfield is arrested and put on trial for murder and his nightmare continues. The film follows Winfield as he awaits his trial and his sentencing.
The film features in-depth interviews with Winfield, his parents, and three other soldiers in Winfield’s platoon – Morlock, Holmes and Stoner. It tells the soldiers’ personal stories of what they faced in Afghanistan, their own actions, and why they behaved in the way that they did. The interviews are very revealing in terms of a soldier’s mindset and military culture. They highlight the extreme loyalty each soldier has to the other members of his platoon and what horror can unfold in a “kill or be killed” situation.
In addition to these interviews, the filmmakers are part and parcel of the defence team and they follow Winfield through the whole trial process – as he prepares his case, the trial itself and the sentencing. Along with the filmmakers you sit in on the meetings where tactics are discussed, the evidence is analysed and presented, and plea bargains are considered. It privileges the viewer with an insider’s view of the whole US military trial process. It shows how difficult it is to follow your conscience, stand up for what is right and speak the truth when you are a lone individual with the whole army machine against you.
The documentary drives home the huge personal cost paid by Winfield, a soldier with a conscience, the lone whistleblower in his platoon, who tries to do the right thing by following his conscience, speaking the truth, and standing up for what is right. His family also pays a heavy price. His father in particular feels as though he has failed his son because Adam came to him for help and yet he had not been able to do anything. His father’s feelings of guilt, and the heavy burden he carries, was something that came across very strongly.
To summarise, The Kill Team is a very powerful and moving documentary that gets you in the gut because it examines a very complex issue, the War on Terror in Afghanistan. It does so through the personal testimonies of a few soldiers caught up in the conflict and involved in the murder of innocent Afghan civilians. It shines a light on how hard it is for a soldier to act on their conscience and do what is right, when they have little support and when their comrades, the army and the Government are all lined up against them. Finally, it revealed the huge personal cost and showed just how much personal courage is required, to become a whistleblower, to tell the truth and to expose war crimes.