Soldier Play:  Winfield stands  trial for killing Afghan citizens.
Soldier Play: Winfield stands trial for killing Afghan citizens.

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At the heart of every war documentary is an often unspoken question: Why do we fight? Some films suggest that the answer is patriotism or courage. Others point the finger at big business. The Kill Team posits the most disturbing answer of all: Men and women go to war because they like to kill.

That’s the explanation given for why a group of rogue U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, apparently bored with their routine patrols, began roaming the countryside looking for civilians to murder. The story made headlines back in 2010 but was promptly forgotten. Dan Krauss’ vital, probing documentary revisits the incidents and their aftermath through the eyes of Spec. Adam Winfield, who, as the film starts, is awaiting military trial for his role in one of the murders. It is a strong framing device, as his dilemma will be familiar to any fan of courtroom drama: He can go to trial and face a possible life sentence, or plead guilty and accept a lesser charge of 8 years in prison for a crime he may not have committed.

Despite the charge, Winfield is a relative innocent in the affair. As his trigger-happy fellow soldiers began scheming to kill civilians and plant weapons on their corpses, he tried several times to blow the whistle on them, but was bullied into silence. Although his actual role in the killings is ambiguous, the film frames him as a victim of military culture. A naïve and skinny infantryman who had to drink excessive amounts of water just to make weight, Winfield is an effective audience surrogate, deeply patriotic but far too sensitive and kind for the evil to which he was exposed.

And the evil runs deep. The nonchalance with which his fellow troops discuss the murder is troubling enough, but their commander, the elusive Staff Sgt. Gibbs, takes on a nearly mythical pose. He declines to be interviewed for the film, and, when seen in photographs, his face is always partially obscured. The colorful descriptions offered by those who served under him—he reportedly wore a necklace of severed fingers from each of his kills—make him seem like a modern day Col. Kurtz.

The only difference is that this madness comes not from the fog of war, but the discrepancy between its realities and its cinematic portrayals. “It was nothing like it was hyped to be,” says one soldier. “And that’s probably why, you know, things happened.” Another soldier gleefully recalls how his lone firefight made him feel like a character in Top Gun.

What emerges is a searing indictment of military culture that touches on other recent scandals (the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire, Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, and Chelsea Manning’s involvement with WikiLeaks) without mentioning any of them by name. By bringing this buried story back to life, The Kill Team raises a question, offered by one solder toward the end of the film, that most mainstream media outlets are unwilling or unable to handle: “Your job is to kill. Well, then why the hell are you pissed off when we do it?

The Kill Team opens Aug. 22 at E Street Cinema.