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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Kill Team weeps for a jailed soldier, but are its cries of injustice justified?

Illustration for article titled  The Kill Team weeps for a jailed soldier, but are its cries of injustice justified?

The Kill Team, a documentary account of the Maywand District murders that took place in Afghanistan four years ago, opens with a close-up of handcuffs encircling the wrists of Adam Winfield, one of the accused American soldiers. Throughout the film, it’s strongly implied that these handcuffs are an injustice. Although Winfield does take responsibility for the death in which he was directly involved, he maintains that he tried to blow the whistle on his fellow soldiers, and was completely ignored. Furthermore, multiple interview subjects insist that it’s impossible to toss a bunch of bored kids with weapons into a hostile environment without creating a breeding ground for atrocities. War is hell, in other words, and punishing these soldiers—and Winfield in particular—for doing what they were taught to do is wrong.

Not only is this thesis a crock, but it’s a crock that’s undermined by The Kill Team itself. According to everyone involved, the murders—three unarmed Afghan civilians were killed, over the course of five months in 2010—were instigated by Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, a stone-cold psychopath who actively sought opportunities to take innocent lives and disguise the crimes as self-defense (by planting a gun on the victim). Gibbs, who wound up convicted and sentenced to life in prison, either declined to be interviewed for the film or was never asked; either way, he becomes the scapegoat, blamed by Winfield, Pfc. Andrew Holmes (sentenced to seven years in prison), and Spc. Jeremy Morlock (sentenced to 24 years). Allegedly, Gibbs threatened to kill the others if they breathed a word of what happened to anyone else, and Winfield consequently dared only to tell his father, via Facebook chats. Winfield later took part in another murder, though he maintains that he tried to fire his rifle away from the victim (who would have been killed by a grenade in any case).

Over and over, Winfield’s distraught parents ask, rhetorically, what choice their son had. Thing is, the answer is right in the film: The “kill team” was caught because another soldier, Spc. Justin Stoner, ratted on Gibbs and Morlock for unrelated drug violations. (He was just annoyed that they were doing hash in his room.) When they subsequently beat the shit out of him for being a snitch, and threatened worse—Gibbs idiotically showed Stoner the fingers he’d cut off the hands of previous victims—Stoner informed the brass, which promptly investigated, made arrests, and filed charges. Stoner wasn’t taken out to the desert and killed, and he demonstrates more strength of character in his few minutes on-screen than do Winfield, Holmes, and Morlock in an hour-plus of combined self-justification. It’s laudable that Winfield at least told his dad what was happening, but that predictably led nowhere; putting a stop to the murders required informing his own superior officers, and Winfield failed to do so, out of sheer cowardice. The three years he wound up serving in prison seem entirely appropriate, and The Kill Team’s fretting on his behalf is wholly misplaced.