When news broke in 2010 about a group of U.S. soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport, it was tempting to assume that they were a bunch of psychopathic creeps—a few bad seeds in an otherwise noble batch.
But according to the remarkable new documentary The Kill Team, that assumption isn’t just false. It may be dangerous as well.
The “what” part of the story should be familiar by now. Between January and May 2010, at least a dozen members of an Army battalion from Forward Operating Base Ramrod in the southern Kandahar province of Afghanistan participated in the premeditated murders of three local men. The first was, in fact, a boy: 15-year-old Gul Mudin, who was helping his father with the farm work when he was shot by Spc. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes. The second was Marach Agha, 22; according to the Army, Agha may have been deaf or intellectually disabled. And the third was Mullah Adahdad, 45, an unarmed cleric who was attacked with a grenade and gunned down by several soldiers. Some of the soldiers posed for smiling photos with the corpses. Some kept human trophies: severed fingers, shards of skull.
But The Kill Team ultimately isn’t about what happened. It’s about why it happened. The answers are disturbing. Early on, Academy-Award-nominated director Dan Krauss decided to focus his film on Spc. Adam Winfield, the 21-year-old infantryman who attempted, with the help of his father, Chris, to alert the authorities to the heinous war crimes his platoon was committing—but who eventually got caught up, against his will, in the bloodshed. Winfield was by far the most conflicted member of the “kill team,” and by telling his tale Krauss is able touch upon a larger truth about the U.S. military: that it may not be properly preparing its men for 21st-century warfare.
For as long as anyone could remember, Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Florida, wanted to join the U.S. military. As a boy, he would sneak into his dad’s closet to dress up in his old Marine uniform; he read the book Essentials of a Marine “probably 50 times,” according to his parents. On his 18th birthday, Winfield weighed only 100 pounds—too light for the Army. So he simply swallowed a few gallons of water before he stepped on the official military scale. “Don’t be a hero,” Chris Winfield said as his son shipped out to Afghanistan.
Everything was OK at first—boring, even. Then Winfield’s squad leader was hit by an IED and Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs took over. Gibbs, an Iraq veteran, never appears in Krauss’s documentary; he’s serving a life sentence in a prison. But he hovers over the proceedings like some sort of malevolent specter—a figure so wholly emblematic of the horrors to come that he might as well have been invented by Francis Ford Coppola.
Square-jawed and muscular—in snapshots he looks like Channing Tatum in camo—Gibbs seemed to fit the mold of the ideal soldier. There was only one problem: “Other squad leaders followed the rules to a T,” one soldier tells Krauss. “Gibbs was a much different story.” Shortly after Gibbs arrived at FOB Ramrod, Jeremy Morlock (whom Krauss interviews extensively) noticed a row of skulls tattooed on his superior’s leg. Gibbs didn’t answer when Morlock asked what they represented; he never really “talked about what he did in Iraq.” But soon enough, word started to spread. Each skull, Morlock was told, stood for one of the “dudes Gibbs has killed.”
Getting more kills—for himself and his men—turned out to be Gibbs’ primary mission. The logic was simple: In a place like Afghanistan, anyone could conceivably be the enemy. “In our minds, we’ve been there for months,” Morlock explains in film. “Nobody’s innocent. We’re getting blown up every time we go out there to talk to them or build a well. So fuck ‘em.”
Gibbs knew how to do just that. He claimed to have fired on a car in Iraq, killing an entire family—something he had been “looking for a reason to do… for awhile.” He was never caught. “Yeah dude,” Gibbs allegedly told Morlock. “I just said this”—that the car was “charging” him—“and no one questioned it. It was that easy.” In Afghanistan, Gibbs started to teach his soldiers how to “drop weapon” on unsuspecting civilians. Usually, this meant covering your ass: If you “find a weapon, you hold onto it in case a civilian gets hit—you so can drop it on them and they don’t look innocent,” as Winfield puts it.
But Gibbs had a more nefarious plan. “Hey dude,” he allegedly told Morlock. “I’ve got a couple extra grenades that aren’t being tracked. We could say we were approached by a local bad guy with a grenade in his hand. Who in their right mind is going to question us?”
And so it began.
One day, “myself and Holmes found ourselves kind of secluded from the majority of the platoon,” Morlock tells Krauss. He goes on:
“And I was like, ‘Hey man, let’s see if we can get one of those guys over there. There’s a guy farming the field.’ So we talked about specifics, what was going to happen: ‘Hey, this guy was coming toward us, we told him to stop, he didn’t listen to our commands. Holmes identified something in his hand. He thought it was a grenade. Threw something at us and so we engaged him and took cover behind the wall.’ That’s what we talked about.”
Holmes: “As I’m setting back up, getting ready to look back over, I have Morlock screaming in my ear, ‘Grenade! Holmes, shoot him!’”
Morlock: “Pulled the grenade, dropped it, got down, yelled at Holmes, ‘Fire!’ Which seemed liked, you know, a fucking eternity.”
Holmes: “I had five seconds from the time the pin falls off from that grenade until it will explode.”
Morlock: “[Holmes] let off a burst from the saw, I pulled his ass down, the grenade goes off.”
Holmes: “Lot of confusion, lot of dust comes up. When I looked over at Morlock, he had his back against the wall with his radio and he’s telling everyone ‘Contact contact contact!’ I look over and ask him, ‘Do we re-engage? Do we get back up and shoot the guy or whatnot?’ Morlock didn’t answer me. He just stood up, looked over at the guy who was on the ground, pulled out his M4 and just pop pop. Two more shots.”
Morlock: “He didn’t register as a person. He was just there.”
Krauss pairs those chilling words with a photo of a grinning, mustachioed Morlock crouching by Gul Mudin’s bloody body, holding the boy’s lifeless head up by his hair.
Winfield was appalled. “As soon as I heard the description it all clicked,” he tells Krauss. But no one else seemed to care. Back at FOB Ramrod, Holmes and Morlock were “getting all the applause. Everyone was giving them high fives.”
Gibbs, meanwhile, had his own way of celebrating. “Gibbs pulls out a finger and says, ‘This is from your guy,” Morlock recalls in the film. “He wants to take the fingers, let them decompose, then take the bones and make a finger bone necklace out of it.”
Winfield had a difficult decision to make. “If I told someone it would come right back,” he tells Krauss. “We tend to handle things in-house. I felt like I had nowhere to go in the platoon. Everyone was on Gibbs’s side. He had their loyalty. It was my word against 30 other guys.”
What’s more, Gibbs had gotten word of Winfield’s misgivings—and he was beginning to threaten him. “We could take him to the gym and drop a weight on his head,” Gibbs allegedly told Morlock.
Shortly after the first murder, Winfield contacted his father through Facebook. Gibbs was not only “talking shit to me, calling me a pussy, and saying I should be down to kill” because Afghan civilians are “pieces of shit,” he was also “recruiting more people to this kill team idea” and plotting additional murders.
“I want to do something about it,” Winfield told his dad. “The only problem is I don’t feel safe here telling anyone.”
“We will do something about it,” Chris responded.
For weeks, he tried—but no one in the military would return his calls. Eventually, Chris decided that his son “only had a couple more months. He would be home and we would report it and he would be safe.”
“But it just didn’t turn out that way.”
In March, the kill team claimed its second victim, Marach Agha. They dropped an AK-47 next to his dead body to make it look like “a legit shoot.” One soldier recorded another soldier stabbing Agha’s corpse in the chest.
Winfield again contacted his father through Facebook. “The Army really let me down out here,” he said. “When I thought I would come out here to do good, maybe make some change in this country, I find out it’s all a lie. There are no good men left here.”
And then, somehow, Winfield got roped into the killing himself.
On May 2, 2010, Winfield’s platoon traveled to Qualaday to “reengage an individual who had been arrested,” he tells Krauss. But Gibbs had something else in mind. As the platoon was leaving the compound, they came across a local: Mullah Adahdad.
“Is this the guy?” Gibbs asked, according to Winfield. “You want to do him?” The plan was to set up Adahdad with a grenade.
Winfield panicked. “I knew right there I couldn’t do it,” he tells Krauss. “I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to get up and just run. My heart started going a thousand miles a minute. I started to get nervous. My muscles started to twitch. I just froze.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Morlock said, according to Winfield. “Just stick to the story and get it over it.”
Winfield considered “stand[ing] up and shoot[ing] Gibbs and Morlock,” but he couldn’t bring himself to hurt his fellow soldiers. Then the grenade detonated, and he reflexively fired off “a couple” of shots in the chaos. “I aimed away from [Adahdad],” he insists in the film.
Even so, Gibbs immediately credited Winfield with the kill. “Gibbs walked up with a smile on his face and shot the guy two more times,” Winfield recalls. “He said, ‘Come up and take a picture with me.’ He said I was a made man and I didn’t have anything to worry about from him ever again.” Now that Winfield was implicated, he was no longer a threat. Gibbs had silenced him.
When word first got out about the kill team, the military assured the Winfields that Adam wasn’t in any trouble. He’s merely a witness, the authorities insisted. But as soon as Winfield arrived back in the United States, he was arrested and charged with one count of premeditated murder.
The rest of The Kill Team is about a troubling conundrum: How can a whistleblower morally right enough to report the murder of innocents also be wrong enough to be charged with the same crimes?
Krauss brilliantly captures the heartbreaking complexities of Winfield’s situation. Winfield himself is broken man: Sallow, shackled, and trembling after being confined for more than a year, he is haunted by nightmares in which his fellow soldiers hunt him down and slaughter him. He considers suicide. He can’t forget Adahdad’s face. “His head with shrapnel, so swollen,” Winfield tells his therapist in the documentary. “I can see him staring at me when I think about it. His screams… I’d never heard anything like it.”
Winfield’s father is broken as well; he can’t bear the thought that he has failed his son. “[Adam] had guns pointed at him in both directions,” he says at one point, his eyes wet with tears. “I should have done more. I shouldn’t have accepted the answer that I got. We wouldn’t be standing here right now if I had done something more.”
Yet Adam Winfield is also, in his own words, “guilty”; he could have—should have—found some way to stop his fellow soldiers from murdering innocent civilians. And so, in the end, he accepts a plea bargain: involuntary manslaughter, three years in prison.
“I never understood it,” he says. “Even now I don’t understand it.”
But can we? As reluctant as Krauss may be to offer up easy answers, his documentary does, in fact, hint at an explanation for these crimes. While Gibbs was clearly a disturbed individual, his followers appear to have been a bunch of ordinary young soldiers. So why did these men become murderers?
Krauss seems to believe that the military—or rather, the military’s traditional view of who a soldier should aspire to be—is partially to blame. For generations, the military has molded men into warriors. “We’re training you from the day you’re in til the day you’re out,” one private says in the film. “Your job is to kill everything that gets in your way.”
And if you do kill, you’re rewarded. “My squad leader after the first incident was like, ‘Fuck, moron, welcome to the club—you’re a grown-ass man now,” Morlock recalls in The Kill Team. “[Your superiors] become the people you most want to impress—and this is how you do it.”
But what if warfare isn’t what it used to be? What if it isn’t a lot of bloody clashes between opposing forces? What if it isn’t really combat at all? What if it’s more like the slog that Winfield & Co. encountered in Afghanistan? What if, as Morlock puts it, you’re “training all this time to do one thing—to be a warrior, kicking ass—then you get there and [you’re] forced to go help them build a well or a school or whatever?”
What if we don’t need singleminded warriors anymore? What if we need men who can kill, sure, but who can also build and blend in and bridge gaps?
As much as anything else, this is the message of The Kill Team. When Winfield & Co. were sent to Afghanistan, they were told it was a “warrior’s paradise.” Yet what they found there was anything but. Their job was to kill, but they weren’t killing. So they felt like failures—until Gibbs gave them a chance to feel like the soldiers they thought they were supposed to be. “It was nothing like how everybody hyped it,” someone tells Krauss in the film. “And part of that is probably why, you know… things happened.”
The point isn’t to absolve Morlock, Holmes, and the rest of the kill team of responsibility. They shouldn’t have murdered people. Period. But it’s worth wondering whether the nature of warfare is changing faster than the people we’re training to fight it—and whether there’s anything that we can do to keep another kill team from forming in the future. “This goes on more than us,” one soldier admits on screen. “We’re just the ones who got caught.”