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'The Kill Team': Reflecting on 'moral injury' in war

Let's face it, much of the world is a mess. Conflicts are raging all around. Technology is making it easier to kill. Globalization is fostering a deep interconnectedness among nations, meaning there is more friction, and increasingly we are finding ourselves involved in far-reaching foreign wars, working with and against cultures where it seems we have nothing in common.

And yet, as it has been since the beginning of civilization, such complex wars are still largely fought by very young, emotionally inexperienced men, and civilians are often caught in the cross fire.

Oakland filmmaker Dan Krauss' documentary "The Kill Team" brings that home. It is about the aftermath of a terrible series of events in which a U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan intentionally killed civilians -- even posing with their dead bodies for pictures. It centers on the plight of one of the soldiers, Spc. Adam Winfield, who attempted to alert the military to what was going on, but, fearing for his own life, made a decision that has him charged with premeditated murder. He's at the center of one of the largest war-crimes investigations in U.S. history.

"Adam Winfield was both a whistle-blower and a murder suspect," said Krauss over coffee at an Oakland cafe. "How could he occupy both moral poles? How could he be accused of an immoral wrong and yet be credited with a moral right?"

We've heard of post-traumatic stress disorder. Krauss' film deals with a much-less reported, PTSD-like condition: that of "moral injury."

"It's about the science of young minds. Eighteen-, 19-, 20-year-old human beings are still developing their sense of morality," said Krauss, whose short documentary "The Death of Kevin Carter" was nominated for an Academy Award.

"You're very much malleable, in terms of your moral direction. To ask people in that stage of their life to face the most intricate set of moral decisions I think is something I hadn't fully recognized before starting on this film.

"There's a lot of discussion of these moral injuries in psychiatric circles in a more concrete way. These sorts of things date back to Homer, the Greek wars. We're not that much further in our attempts to fight a 'clean' war than we were thousands of years ago. Adam is a case study of moral injury."

The concept was introduced to Krauss by an Army psychiatrist, who appears in the film.

"It's a psychological injury that comes from either taking an action or not preventing an action that violates your moral code. ... In (Adam's) case, it is the result of not having stopped the other guys from committing murder."

"The Kill Team" is remarkable in that several other members of Winfield's unit, who had already been convicted, talk honestly about the kills they made -- and their mind-set that led them there.

One man, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, was convicted of the premeditated murders of three noncombatants and sentenced to 24 years in prison. He talks openly of killing civilians and how good it made him feel at the time.

"He didn't register as a person," Morlock says of one victim. "He was just there. I was excited. It plays that whole, you know, ideology of the infantry world. It was like f-, right on, man. We got a kill!"

One might say when you ask soldiers to do terrible things, they will do terrible things. This is the year of the draw-down in Afghanistan, when the bulk of the U.S. troops leave and hand over security to Afghan soldiers. We'll see how that works out.

"This is the time for Americans to reflect on the longest war in U.S. history," Krauss said.

ajohnson@sfchronicle.com

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