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Tribeca Review: Silence On The Front Lines Of War, In 'The Kill Team'

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by Gabe Toro
April 21, 2013 10:03 AM
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There's a stomach-turning sadness at the heart of "The Kill Team," Dan Krauss' austere documentary about a soldier trapped in the cycle of violence perpetrated by a group of soldiers indicted on charges of violence against innocents in 2010. While the media was more than ready to discuss a culture of violence, utilizing "Kill Team" as a fashionable headline-filler, Krauss' film places the spotlight on Pvt. Adam Winfield. Like the upcoming "We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks," which places a strong focus on walking security breach Bradley Manning as a square peg, "The Kill Team" paints a portrait of Winfield as an overly earnest young fellow far out of his league when paired with soldiers that, when armed, simply became Boys With Guns.

"The Kill Team" doesn't saint Winfield at all, instead, smartly casting responsible, impartial questions as to what his options could have been. Winfield was assigned to the Middle East with a number of restless gunmen in the military, and while he had distinct American ideals, his compatriots had learned to fetishize death. Eventually, they realized any accidental deaths could be chalked up to a possible threat when one was not apparent: a favorite tactic was to imagine unarmed assailants holding items that could be construed as grenades by soldiers from a far off distance, the bullets retaliation for their "failure to cooperate." Instead, they were simply acts of malice from dangerous thugs who sought to amp up the amount of kills on their ledger. The "hadji" were considered less than human to these soldiers, target practice to test their own worth. 

Once Winfield showed reservations about running with this crew, he was threatened with death, in increasingly elaborate ways. These soldiers had been trained not just to murder, but to make people disappear, and a snitch would be easily eliminated. The policy suggested that someone else would have to speak up, meaning it was the word of a barely 100-pound private against his armed and dangerous superiors. Winfield is thus pressured to run with the crowd: like teenage girls, these killers (one of whom still claims to have been acting in self-defense in regards to the murder of several civilians) demand allegiance and cooperation, teaming up to invent elaborate ways to explain a few dead corpses, followed by photos and videos taken of their prey. Winfield's biggest mistake, in being bullied into these activities with fellow soldiers, is most likely appearing in one of these photos, standing above a bullet-ridden corpse.

"The Kill Team" is spartan in detailing the struggles of Winfield to exonerate himself, showing a military that seeks to lump Winfield in with the rest of them. One of the offers is Involuntary Manslaughter, a charge that involves eight years behind bars. Winfield's fight comes from the fact that no one acknowledged his desperation, which was probably quieter than one would expect given the threats of death made to his face. It's a soldier's complaint about marijuana use that triggers an investigation, one that reveals the limbs and bones kept by soldiers as "war trophies." Within the same minute of screen time, these trophies are brought up with the use of the word "savages." Somehow, the "savages" are how these same soldiers referred to their innocent targets.

Parallels and sociological discussions could be prompted by "The Kill Team," which is both thorough and more of a conversation starter than capper. Today's generation of citizens and soldiers live in a world that seems bigger than ever before with the advance of the information age and the population growth worldwide. Death becomes something of an abstract concept: the weight and meaning is lost by those at a young age with no guidance, given a gun and just a little bit of adrenaline from being surrounded by peers. "The Kill Team" underlines how necessary and, sadly, insubstantial that it really is, when one soldier remarks that there was nothing "special" about the Kill Team themselves: they were just the ones that got caught. [A] 

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