Big Screen Berkeley: The Kill Team

The Kill Team, a grim new documentary, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday.
The Kill Team, a grim new documentary, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday.

We all knew it wouldn’t last. My dalliance with popular comedy was truly an aberration — and as the song goes, after laughter comes tears. This week, we return to our regularly scheduled programming with The Kill Team, a grim new documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Aug. 1.

Directed by Dan Krauss (who previously shot the Paul Krugman-focused doc Inequality for All), The Kill Team examines the moral rot affecting a platoon of American infantrymen engaged in combat in Afghanistan. Uncomfortable playing the role of school builders and well diggers, the platoon lost its collective moral compass and began indulging in a deadly sport involving the murder of innocent Afghanis.

Specialist Adam Winfield joined the Army for all the usual reasons: a diminutive youngster, he was eager to prove himself an adult, experience some adventure, and make his Marine Corps dad proud. Shipped to Afghanistan in 2009, Winfield’s first year in the field was relatively uneventful – at least as far as any posting to a remote war zone can be uneventful – but things changed when his unit’s commander was wounded and evacuated from the field.

In his place came a new non-commissioned officer, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. A veteran of the war in Iraq, Gibbs (who described Afghanistan as ‘a warrior’s paradise’) brought hyper-masculine swagger to the platoon. Uninterested in going by the book, he was more than willing to bend rules and shed blood if it provided him and his men some entertainment and excitement. Quickly winning over his new comrades, Gibbs made sure everyone in the platoon was implicated in his favorite game: murdering local farmers and dropping AK-47s and unexploded grenades by their side in an attempt to make them appear to be deceased ‘enemy combatants’.


Specialist Winfield objected to the game and tried not to play, but in May 2010 – only a few months before his tour of duty was up – found himself backed into a corner. Already the target of disdain due to his lack of enthusiasm for the murder game, Winfield was ordered by Gibbs to shoot an Afghan farmer. Despite aiming away from his victim, Specialist Winfield still doesn’t know if he hit the target; incontrovertibly, however, he did pose with the corpse for celebratory photos.

Whether or not Winfield was a willing participant (The Kill Team’s premise, of course, is that he wasn’t) the Army eagerly prosecuted him for murder after he alerted his superiors to the practice. In common with Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, Winfield discovered that the U.S. Government looks disapprovingly on whistleblowers, and was rewarded with a term in prison and a bad conduct discharge.

Featuring interviews with many of the soldiers involved – though Gibbs is notably absent – The Kill Team suggests such abuses are endemic in the Army and not limited to ‘a few bad apples’. As one of Winfield’s platoon mates notes acerbically, it’s ridiculous to train young men to kill and then be surprised when they go out and do it. Truer words were rarely spoken.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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