In 2009, when Army PFC Andrew Holmes saw his first combat action in Afghanistan, his immediate thought was of the over-the-top, gung-ho heroics of Top Gun, capped with the strains of “Danger Zone” ricocheting in his head.
Dizzying jump cut to six years later: Holmes has no medals, no trophies and not even a kiss from Kelly McGillis. Found guilty in a military court, along with other members of his notorious “Kill Team” platoon in the murders of unarmed Afghan civilians, Holmes is currently serving a seven-year sentence in Leavenworth prison.
How Holmes, Adam Winfield and Jeremy Morlock spiraled down from front-line U.S. warriors to disgraced war criminals is the main mission behind The Kill Team, a brief, choppy but incendiary documentary that registers yet another tragic beat in the American heart of darkness during the post-9/11 era.
With director Dan Krauss doing triple duty as producer and cinematographer (as well as editor and co-writer), The Kill Team is nearly a one-man operation, and the stitches in this postmortem sometimes show. Krauss trains his sights primarily on Specialist Adam Winfield, once a proud member of the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Bravo Company, stationed in Kandahar province from 2009 to 2010. You won’t get the big picture of the decade-long U.S. counter-terrorism war in Afghanistan; rather, Krauss’ closeup cinema-verité campaign is to embed himself into the lives of Winfield and his distraught parents, Chris and Emma, as the military begins its murder trial against their son in Fort Lewis, WA. For background ammunition, Krauss drops in footage captured from the soldiers’ camcorders while on patrol as well as from Winfield’s actual 2010 Army interrogation.
Baby-faced, soft-spoken and slight of frame, Winfield hardly fits the profile of a macho, battle-tested veteran. A patriotic idealist when he joined the Army at age 17 (“I loved being in the military”), while echoing his father’s Marine footsteps he soon discovered that the Army wasn’t at all like those glorified Be All You Can Be commercial come-ons. Winfield and his fellow soldiers experienced firsthand the damning disconnect between the military’s historic search-and-destroy raison d’être and the ambitious, yet perhaps impossible mission of nation-building— this in a desolate tribal country mired in the Middle Ages. Faced with the collateral foes of boredom and frustration, Bravo Company went medieval itself in short order. “This sucks... a lot,” we hear a disgusted Winfield say on patrol.
In a déjà vu flashback to the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam, Bravo Company had to contend with elusive Taliban guerrillas nearly impossible to pin down, nerve-racking daily threats from roadside bombs, as well as indifferent and suspicious, if not outright hostile, villagers. But what really lit the fuse in the squad was the entrance of Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a burly Iraq veteran who was, by most accounts, a Rambo-esque psycho. In only one of Gibbs’ kick-ass pathologies, his idea of R&R was fashioning a ghastly bone necklace made from the fingers of enemy dead.
You don’t need to be a military (or movie) historian to flashback to Oliver Stone’s 1986 Oscar-winning Vietnam War film Platoon, in which young Army recruit Charlie Sheen is divided in his loyalties to his two sergeants—a ruthless Tom Berenger and the altruistic, Christ-like Willem Dafoe. But in Krauss’ grimly un-Hollywood war story, there was no casting call for Gibbs’ counterpart. Bravo Company’s soul was lost to the sergeant’s savage scheme and conspiracy to rack up kills, even if it meant planting evidence (using “drop weapons”) on innocent civilians, and then claiming self-defense.
A classic sociopathic bully, Gibbs uniformly cowed his squad into going along and falling in place with his savage schemes. Most got a rush out of the blood lust, especially back at the base, where they were greeted as “heroes” and "made men." But at least one soldier initially disobeyed orders and couldn’t stomach the Kool-Aid. That was SPC Winfield, who in early 2010 began e-mailing his father in distress, pleading, “I want to do something about it.”
In the interminable war on terrorism filled with such blowback disasters as Abu Ghraib, “enhanced interrogation,” and the Iraq invasion in toto, how can the U.S. government even think about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people when it can’t even win those of its own soldiers?