“They’re So Impossibly Young”: ‘The Kill Team’ Director Dan Krauss on American Soldiers, Murder, and Morality

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Dan Krauss’ documentary The Kill Team, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, is a compelling and horrifying examination of one soldier’s moral morass in the face of war crimes in Afghanistan. “The Kill Team” was the nickname given to a rogue squadron of soldiers in the US Military who murdered Afghan civilians. Led by Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, a man who collected the fingers of the victims as trophies, the team planted weapons on the dead so that the murders looked like justifiable incidents. The film profiles one soldier, 100-pound weakling Specialist Adam Winfeld, who was on trial for one count of premeditated murder.

Krauss (who was Oscar-nominated for his debut, the documentary short The Death of Kevin Carter) focuses the camera throughout on the pimply, childish face of Winfield. A teenager when he enlisted, Winfield was soon questioning the brazen, remorseless actions of his peers in Afghanistan. He told his father about the murders through Facebook chat — but as soon as his whistleblowing had the chance to make a difference, he was pulled back into the group, and ultimately put in a position where he was culpable for one of the murders.

The director lets the young, young soldiers talk, from Winfeld to other members of the “Kill Team,” and the result is a complicated, essential, and important portrayal of the people behind a war-is-hell story and an American tragedy that stirs up a host of emotions — from horror to indignation — about what war is doing to our humanity. I had the chance to talk to Krauss at the Oscilloscope offices in New York.

Flavorwire: How did you decide to make this movie?

Dan Krauss: The original impetus for the film came from reading a New York Times Magazine article from April 2011 about the “Kill Team” trials [“A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man“]. In the article there was a description of Adam as a whistleblower and a murder suspect. How could he be accused of acting in the moral wrong and the moral right? I was very interested in the idea of a young guy mired in this moral haze.

The striking thing about watching all the faces in this movie, of the young 20-something soldiers who are all on trial, is that they look like children. They have pimples and oily skin. And yet, simultaneously, they look so old, steely, and haunted as well.

They’re so impossibly young. One really interesting thing I learned while I was making the film, from the psychiatrist [that treated Winfeld]: He told me that human beings who are 18, 19 years old — they haven’t centered their moral direction yet. They’re open to influence. Particularly when you’re young, in a foreign, alien world. Add to that the people are you are keeping you safe, and to survive, you need to be part of the group.

And their leader, Sgt. Gibbs, he hangs over the story like a monster. Did you try to talk to him? Where is he?

Serving a life sentence in prison. I tried. Early in the post production there was this feeling that if we can’t get Gibbs, we can’t make the film. In his absence he became almost mythological, greater than the individual soldier. In some ways I became grateful — later in the process — that we couldn’t get him. He cast a shadow on the film.

It’s a really destabilizing experience watching the film. You emerge feeling like you know more about the war, and also feeling sick at what Americans have done and frustrated that you, the viewer, can’t do anything about it.

There’s something called “moral injury.” It shares some of the symptoms of PTSD. It’s the guilt that is caused by failing on an action or preventing someone from taking a moral action. The consequences are profound. Adam is a casebook study. First, in not preventing it, and then by going along with it. It will be something that will never be treated. There’s no pill you can take for it, it’s a shadow in your soul. How can you live with it?

There’s a culture in the military, and [Specialist] Murlock [a member of the “Kill Team”] says it in the movie better than I can — you keep it in you. Part of the reason they join is to prove themselves as men. In addition to institutional and political pressure, there’s also cultural pressure to make them not reveal that suffering and trauma.

This is not a film that has a clear call to action. We’re talking human morality here, there’s no legislature that can regulate it. It’s worth it for the American public to be aware of the sacrifice the we make with very young women and men in war. What are the moral consequences for them when they return home?