Kill Team is not just a video game anymore, not just the inevitable pairing of two of the most popular words in American English. “Kill Team” is now a movie, and against the odds it’s not a celebration of killing, but a particular take on an actual series of events made widely known by Rolling Stone.
US soldiers in Afghanistan developed the practice of killing civilians for sport, placing weapons beside the bodies or otherwise pretending to have been attacked, keeping body parts as trophies, and celebrating their “kills” in photographs with the corpses.
For months, according to Rolling Stone, the whole platoon knew what was going on. Officers dismissed complaints from the relatives of victims, accepted completely implausible accounts, and failed to help victims who might still be alive (instead ordering a soldier to “Make sure he’s dead.”)
A key instigator, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, arrived in Afghanistan recounting a successful murder of a family in Iraq and bearing tattoos recording his kills. “Get me a kill” soldiers asked who wanted to participate in the kill team. Killers were treated as heroes, and the widespread understanding that they were killing civilians who’d never threatened them didn’t seem to damage that treatment.
“Drop-weapon” has been a common term among vets returning to the United States from Afghanistan and Iraq for over a decade, referring to a weapon used to frame a victim. “We’re just the ones who got caught,” says Pfc. Justin Stoner in the film. He also raises an important question that the film does not seriously pursue, remarking: “We’re training you from the day you join to the day you’re out to kill. Your job is to kill. You’re infantry. Your job is to kill everything that gets in your way. Well, then why the hell are you pissed off when we do it?”
Eleven soldiers have been convicted of crimes as part of the kill team, including Gibbs who has been sentenced to life in prison. Why were these kills crimes and others not, wonders Stoner. It’s a question worthy of consideration. The cover stories for the kills, including claims that people made some threatening movement, don’t seem enough to justify these murders even if they had been true. What were the soldiers doing in these people’s villages to begin with?
That’s the question the movie opens with the soldiers asking themselves. They’d been trained for exciting combat and then sent to Afghanistan to be bored, hungry for action, eager to test out their training. This is a point often missed by those who advocate turning the US military into a force for good, an emergency rescue squad for natural disasters, or a humanitarian aid operation. You would have to train and equip people for those jobs first. These young men were trained to kill, armed to kill, prepped to kill, and left to kick sand around.
They began premeditating the worst sort of premeditated murder. They openly recount their conversations in the film. They had weapons to drop, grenades that weren’t “tracked,” they’d pretend someone had a grenade and kill him. Who? Anyone. They saw everyone as fair game.
And they did as planned. And they were welcomed back to the “FOB” as heroes. And they did it again. And again.
The film does not tell the whole story. It focuses on Spc. Adam Winfield, his parents, and his court proceedings back in the United States. Winfield told his father on a Facebook chat, early on, what was happening. Winfield was afraid to talk to anyone in his chain of command, and in fact the mere possibility that he might resulted in death threats to him. His father, however, tried every way he could to get anyone in the US Army to listen. No one would.
And then Winfield was present for another set-up and murder. He says he fired his gun away from the victim. He says that if he had shot the two US soldiers, Gibbs and Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, the Army would have shown him “no mercy.”
Then Stoner (was it his name that tipped the balance?) turned in Gibbs and others for smoking hash in his room. So they beat him and threatened to kill him. Then he told about the body parts being passed around. The Army locked up Gibbs and Morlock. Stoner was labeled a whistleblower, which he says is worse than a murderer. If he had the chance again, he says, he would say nothing.
Winfield found he could breathe, after months of fearing murder from his own “side.”
And then Winfield was, himself, charged with first-degree murder. We see his horror. We see his parents’ heartbreak. We go back to see his childhood. He read history books about American war heroes, his dad says. The possibility of changing those books is not explicitly raised. He ends up with a plea bargain and a sentence of three years in prison, for supposedly having done nothing to stop a murder. At one point he’s offered the option of pleading guilty to “cowardice,” despite every other member of his unit and chain of command right up to the President having outdone him in that regard.
“War is dirty,” says Winfield. “It’s not how they portray it in movies.” It is, however, more or less, from a certain angle, how they’ve portrayed it in this movie, which ought to be shown in US schools as a warning.
But not by itself. This movie does not give us the stories of the murder victims and their families. Imagine the power of a movie that included what this one does plus that! The opportunity is repeatedly and intentionally lost by Western film makers over and over again. Nor does the film give us the stories of the victims and families of supposedly legitimate murders. Imagine the drama of trying to distinguish the suffering of those killed fighting a foreign occupation from the suffering of those killed not fighting a foreign occupation, and the power of the inevitable failure of that effort! Imagine a movie that accurately conveyed the immense scale of the killing in these one-sided slaughters of the poor by the most technologically advanced killing machine ever devised!
From the angle that this film takes, however, critical questions are thrust upon us, including: Why imprison the killers? Will it deter others? Will atrocity-free-war finally be created before we’ve destroyed the earth as a habitable place? Would it not be easier to shut down the military and end the wars? The deterrence I’m most interested in is that of people like Winfield’s parents who allowed him to join the military before he was 18, to demonstrate their confidence in him. I think this movie might deter some parents from making that same choice.