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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Kill Team

A look at a hidden side of war

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 14, 2014 -- This documentary film exposes another cover up of the murder of civilians during a war by the U.S. military. It isn't the first such revelation and it won't be the last, but this one is pretty well documented, thanks in part to so many soldiers capturing pictures and video with their own phones and cameras.

In other wars, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, there wasn't this kind of documentation, but there is evidence the same kinds of things happened then. Back in the Vietnam War, the most famous such incident was the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968. Lt. William Calley was convicted of killing 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Calley said he was acting under orders, but he was the only person convicted of a crime. He served three years under house arrest before being pardoned by President Nixon.

This documentary film focuses on Adam Winfield, one of the U.S. Army soldiers charged in the killings of civilians in the Maywand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2010. Winfield alerted his father Christopher Winfield to the formation of a “Kill Team” in his squad, led by Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. The team killed civilians for sport, covering up the murders by planting evidence to make it look like the civilians had attacked them. Gibbs cut fingers off the dead people and kept them as souvenirs. Christopher Winfield tried repeatedly to contact authorities about the situation, but got nowhere.

Meanwhile, Adam Winfield was being pressured by Gibbs and others not to say anything about the murders. Gibbs said he would kill Winfield if he tried to report the crimes. Winfield was pressured into participating in the killings, so that he would be implicated criminally and could therefore be trusted to keep quiet about the murders. In the end, it was another soldier, Justin Stoner, who reported the crimes. Stoner was beaten up by soldiers to keep him from talking about finding them smoking hashish. Ironically, it was the injuries Stoner sustained in the beating that led authorities to the other crimes, including murder.

This documentary film includes first person interviews with several of the defendants in these 11 courts-martial cases related to the Maywand District murders. While some of the defendants are quite frank about what they did. Winfield himself is a bit ambiguous about his own complicity. At one point he said he deliberately missed when shooting towards a civilian he was being pressured to murder, but at another point, he said one of his bullets may have killed the man.

With interviews and footage taken by the soldiers themselves, we get a pretty good picture of what the Afghanistan was was like for these men, at least as good as you can get without being there in person and walking in the shoes of those soldiers. One of the soldiers in the unit, Jeremy Morlock, a member of the kill team, said, “The constant pressure of having to kill and the risk of being killed yourself. It was impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.” There were also military incentives for killing, notoriety and recognition for having killed the enemy, that fed the egos of those on the Kill Team.

Adam Winfield summarized his military experience this way, “War is dirty. It's not how they portray it in the movies, where it's just a bunch of honorable men with unshakable patriotism. It's just a bunch of guys with guns.”

Justin Stoner, the only one of the 12 not charged, said, “I don't care what the military wants to say, but this goes on more than just us. We're just the ones that got caught. Stoner went on to say this during the film, “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 are you pissed off when we do it?”

Many years earlier, Chae Myung Shin of Korea, commander of the South Vietnam Expeditionary Forces, speaking about the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, wrote, “Calley tried to get revenge for the deaths of his troops. In a war, this is natural.” This is a reality of war you don't see on recruiting posters, or in John Wayne war movies. You don't hear about it on Veterans Day or in the thousands of cheap and hollow public exhortations to honor veterans and to thank them for their service (without increasing their pay or providing them adequate health care).

Military prosecutions of those involved in the Maywand District murders stayed very low in the chain of command. The same was true in the prosecution of Lt. Calley in the My Lai massacre and in the prosecution of those responsible for the torture and murder of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In cases like these, the prosecuted are usually scapegoats, taking the blame for those giving the orders higher in the chain of command.

Covering up the extent of war crimes is given a much higher priority by the military than trying to find justice for the victims of these crimes and their families. If a private in the army murders one person, he might serve a life sentence (Sergeant Calvin Gibbs got a life sentence for his part in the Maywand District murders). If a general orders the death of thousands of civilians (as in the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo) he's more likely to be a decorated hero.

This is one of those films about the fog of war that should be seen by anyone before they enlist in the military, along with “The Invisible War,” and another award winning documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” Being a soldier in places like Afghanistan and Iraq is not the experience most people think it is.

I'm certainly not arguing that there aren't brave and honorable men and women in the U.S. military. There are, but there are also a huge variety of people in the armed forces doing a huge variety of jobs. Most of the American public has no idea what it is like to fight in a war because only one half of one percent of Americans has had combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. This film gives you a hint of what it is like, at least, and it isn't inspiring.

It is a vast oversimplification to claim our soldiers are all protecting us from our enemies. For one thing “our enemies” are not that easy to define, or locate, these days. These new wars are not like World War II. Increasingly, we're going to other countries and fighting the enemies of countries that are not allies of the United States. In Iraq, we were fighting the enemy of Iran, not that the Iranians are grateful for our sacrifice on their behalf. Iran was the clear winner in that war.

Soldiers who commit atrocities against civilians, and drones that kill innocent civilians, are making the world a more dangerous place. These killings are recruiting terrorists. The responsibility for the recruitment of terrorists, by policies which result in civilian deaths around the world, goes all the way up to the White House.

This is a powerful and effective documentary that exposes facts about the nature of war that the military establishment would rather keep secret. It serves as a reminder about the high levels of corruption in the military. It provides valuable information to those who choose watch it. This film rates a B+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2014 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)