Monday Q&A: Filmmaker makes nuanced account of JBLM “Kill Team”

An award-winning documentary focusing on one of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s darkest chapters in the Afghanistan War is coming to the Puget Sound this week when “The Kill Team” opens in Seattle.

The film follows Adam Winfield, the slight soldier who tried to blow the whistle on rogue troops in his JBLM Stryker platoon when they killed an Afghan boy on a January 2010 patrol.

Winfield told his father about the murder, but his dad’s call to JBLM did not lead to any action from the Army.

Five months later, Winfield himself became one of the “kill team” participants when he joined ringleader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and Spc. Jeremy Morlock in another unjustified shooting.

All told, four Stryker soldiers were convicted or pleaded guilty to three Afghan civilian killings they carried out by manufacturing combatlike scenarios to cover up their crimes. Seven others were convicted of lesser misdeeds.

California filmmaker Dan Krauss was drawn to Winfield’s story as the whistleblower-turned-killer when he read about the soldier in a 2012 magazine story.

He got exclusive access to the Winfield family as they prepared for court hearings and interviewed two other “kill team” soldiers on camera to produce a striking 80-minute film that raises questions about the moral weight of America’s longest war.

Krauss spoke with The News Tribune about the movie.

Q: What attracted you to this story?

The thing that was alarming about the Winfield story was that at some point he had the impulse to act in the moral right but was ultimately accused and convicted of acting in the moral wrong. In between those two way points, there was not much detail. I just had to ask myself, “What happened to this kid?”

Q: How is Adam Winfield now?

He’s struggling today. Obviously he is suffering tremendously from a feeling of guilt for not doing more to prevent the murders.

He also has a federal involuntary murder charge on his record, and every time he applies for a job or a school, there will be questions.

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. He is moving forward. He is taking college courses. He’s a smart guy. He’s ambitious. He has a great family.

Q: Do you think he had another choice?

There were options he could have availed himself of — riskier options — but he chose not to because he was afraid. Who wouldn’t be afraid in that situation? Part of his accepting responsibility of this is realizing that he had options.

His parents suffer from a similar guilt. They could have made more calls, raised their voices louder. Just as Adam is feeling he could have done more, they also feel they could have done more.

Q: “Kill team” ringleader Gibbs is never on camera. He insisted at his court-martial that the engagements were legitimate. What would you have asked him if you could have?

How are you different today than before you were first deployed? How do you think the war changed you?

This was a guy who deployed several times. We’ve heard about a similar situation. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales deployed four times. You can sense that these deployments have enormous psychological influences.

Q: No one above Gibbs’ rank was reprimanded in public for allowing this conspiracy to occur. What do you think of the Army’s decision not to prosecute this group’s officers?

I can appreciate on some level that the nature of these crimes in some ways is larger than the institution of the Army. War crimes go back to ancient times. In “The Iliad” or even in the Bible, there are instances of war crimes. The question of accountability becomes interesting because in every armed conflict we see evidence of war crimes. There is no such thing as a clean war.

Q: What is your impression of how our society talks about these crimes?

A: War fatigue has set in in many ways. I was surprised and disappointed that the “kill team” didn’t register on the national radar in the way that Abu Ghraib did. We’re talking about premeditated murder. These in some ways exceeded the horror of Abu Ghraib and yet barely a blip on the national radar

I would tell people about the film and the majority would say “How come I never heard about this?” This is the longest war in American history. It’s really hard to sustain an interest in the events happening overseas, particularly when the results are so destructive and counterproductive to our purpose.

People are just legitimately tired of hearing about this. I hope this film will have some effect on refocusing the public on what we sacrificed for this war, on what everyone sacrificed, and was it worth it?

Q: Did anything surprise you in making this film?

We hear a lot about the trauma that soldiers endure by seeing combat overseas. There’s not as much discussion about the guilt, the tremendous guilt, that soldiers feel when they feel compelled to take an action, or fail to take an action, that offends their moral sensibilities.

It’s not something that can be treated with a medical prescription. It requires almost a spiritual cleansing. How can these soldiers live for the rest of their lives with decisions they have to make in a split second?

Q: How is the military responding to the film?

The film is not intended to cast stones at the U.S. military. The film is not intended to be political. It is intended to be an exploration of the human psyche, an exploration of these young soldiers. I really hope the audiences give these soldiers a chance.