Killer Dilemmas

Our conversation with Dan Krauss, director of the Kill Team, on the stark choices that confront soldiers in war.
By: /
April 25, 2013
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When the news broke that a platoon of American soldiers calling themselves the "Kill Team" had murdered Afghan civilians for no purpose but to liven up a boring deployment, it made headlines around the world. But there was more to this scandal than one rotten platoon. The suspects were not all charged or found guilty of the same crimes. Dan Krauss, director of  The Kill Team, set out to find out why one man resisted involvement but ultimately chose not to speak out in time to prevent the crimes from happening. We talked to Mr Krauss about the insights he gained into the psychological drivers of war crimes by following the case of Private Adam Winfield, the soldier who tried to blow the whistle and ended up charged with murder.

What assumptions did you have about the workings of the U.S. court martial system before making this film and were they confirmed or undermined by the time the project was completed?

I don’t think I had strong assumptions about the system, but I was surprised to see that the degree to which it is dissimilar to the civilian court system, most notably, the significant overlap between the people laying the charges and the people judging the case and deciding the sentence. It is a very closed system, which raises challenges in terms of ensuring fairness. The culture of the military as a whole is not one that encourages speaking out, and the court martial system reflects that. Private Winfield's case illustrates a court martial system that operates according to distinct and potentially problematic legal and behavioural norms.

Do you you think scandals like the Kill Team put pressure on the military to hold soldiers accountable for their actions?

I think the military is very concerned every time these kinds of crimes are committed, and that it tries to put mechanisms in place to prevent them. They've certainly investigate the Kill Team case, although I think that there is more that could be done. At the same time, I think the military recognizes that rule and law-breaking are inevitable to some degree – you will always get some soldiers who do not comply with the law. War crimes are an age-old problem going back to the ancient Greeks, something I read about while making the film, so I think there is some degree of thinking that this is a terrible reality that everyone has to reconcile themselves to.

In terms of creating better supports for soldiers so that fewer of these crimes take place, I think it is important to be conscious of the fact that the military today is not a resource-rich institution. In fact, many areas are cash-strapped as a result of recent budget cuts. This makes providing support services that can help lessen the chances of a Kill Team-type situation a challenge. And of course, a culture that discourages whistle-blowing is another big obstacle to improving accountability.

We've seen growingpublic disillusionment in the idea of a military filled with America's "best and brightest" as scandals in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to light. What about disillusionment on the part of members of the military?

I think there is significant disillusionment within the military, which you see in the film, but that it stems more from what soldiers are confronted with upon deployment, rather than the media's coverage. Each of the soldiers interviewed talks about the differences between the reality he experienced on the ground in Afghanistan, and what he was trained to expect. The missions they were sent rarely matched up with how they'd be trained to operate.

This comes across most clearly in the way they talk about the emphasis that was placed on protecting civilians, and how that made them feel - basically that it was insisted upon to the point that they felt that their lives were secondary.  They had not been trained to expect that their safety would be put at risk so often and to such an extreme degree in order to help local communities. What they found in Afghanistan was far more of a nation-building type exercise than the combat operations they'd gotten psyched up for.

What they were asked to do in Afghanistan was part of the shift to a counter-insurgency doctrine, which is really fundamentally different from war fighting strategy. Counter-insurgency requires very different tactics, and a very different mindset. The shift in doctrine was dramatic and implemented relatively quick, and I think the soldiers found it extremely difficult to catch up.

Compounding this confusion was the serious disconnect that many soldiers felt, particularly Private Winfield, between the more noble, heroic conception of war they'd grown up with, and grim, draining, day-to-day reality. Private Winfield had a very clear ideas of what he thought he'd be doing "over there" – fighting the enemy in order to help people. But, of course, it wasn't that simple. They were not confronting the enemy head on like the wars in history books, but being sent on missions where they exposed to enemies impossible to distinguish from friendly civilian with any certainty. The cognitive dissonance they experienced as a result of this was hugely stressful.

On the point of public disillusionment, I think that this reflects the need for a better understanding of the fact the U.S. military is made up of individual men and women. The perception one gets from watching the massive, coordinated military exercises and operations conducted by the U.S. military is of a uniformed mass, both in what they wear and how they feel. But uniformity in motion does not equal uniformity in emotion – each individual soldier is going to react differently under pressure.

Whatever your immediate reaction to the story as it described in the headlines, it gets infinitely more complicated the deeper you go. The good and the bad are never a clear cut as they first appear.

What kind of procedures, if any, do you think could be implemented to prevent the emergence of another Kill Team?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about specific procedure. I would say that more needs to be done in light of the reality that whistle-blowing is still really hard to do, and the fact that for as long as we keeping going to war, these kinds of crimes, sadly, are going to keep happening.

What's critical to understand, I think, is that story of the Kill Team is about a lot more than just one unit. It's about the cognitive and emotional states behind war crimes. It's about the mental environment that soldiers operate within. I wanted people to get a sense of just how confusing and frightening it is – that the wartime environment can be an impossible one in which to make the "right" decision, particularly if you're a young guy in your late teens or early twenties, this is probably the most complex environment you've ever been exposed to. Preparing soldiers for  how truly destructive war is, both physically and emotionally – that's no easy task.

The film seems committed to avoiding casting judgment on the individual soldiers, or drawing a firm conclusion on whether the military system worked to ensure justice was done.

The film reflects a conscious effort on my part not to tap into the major narratives around this kind of scandal. I didn't want to make a film that sensationalized one scandal, simplifying deeply complex questions of responsibility and guilt in the process. I wanted to let the soldiers speak for themselves, to let them explain in their own words how they view their decisions now. I wanted to give them the chance to describe what was going through their heads in those intense moments when they chose to act or stay silent, and the moral injuries they've suffered that may haunt them forever.

Check out The Kill Team at Hot Docs:
April 30 at 8:15pm - Toronto Bell Lightbox
May 2 at 2:00pm - Hart House
May 3 at 4:30pm - Toronto Bell Lightbox

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