Winfield is simultaneously the protagonist of the documentary, and he’s testifying against them at the same time you’re interviewing them. They were more forthcoming than I expected.
I was very clear, coming to them, that the film wasn’t intended to assign blame, or pass judgment. That was never my intention, and I think I made good on that. I told them from the beginning, this is about, in my view, something bigger than them as individual soldiers. And I wanted to try to get at whatever that bigger thing was, and they were amenable to that concept, I think, because they felt the same. They felt like they were being held to task for something that was more institutional, more engrained culturally; that they were simply representatives of it. We could connect on that level, trying to get to that bigger thing that precipitated these events.
I tried to speak to them less as an interviewer than as an interested human being. But I’d also like to give credit to them: I mean, these guys were not dumb grunts. They’re smart young guys, actually, which was what was so surprising meeting them: how bright they were, how reflective they were in some instances. I think in some cases, you could argue that they themselves are trying to understand what happened. Parallel to that, they felt a certain sense of betrayal on the part of the government, because they felt the blame had been assigned to them without any real effort on the part of the military to look up the chain [of command].
Whenever there was a question or a doubt, that’s what they were supposed to do?
Yeah. I think they felt scapegoated, I think they felt also that, and this is depicted in the film, they were trained to do combat missions, as infantry soldiers. And then they were sent to Afghanistan with a very different task, and they were being asked to be nation-builders, asked to show tremendous restraint in the use of their training, which ran completely counter to how they had been indoctrinated. And they felt that the restrictions placed on them were such that the people trying to kill them were being protected to a greater degree than the soldiers themselves, and that was a sense of great frustration. It led to an increasing sense of betrayal, as I said, and one that persisted all the way through their arrest and their trial. In a strange way they felt like they were victims in this as well.
The film explicates this dilemma: somebody joins the military for honorable, valuable reasons and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are kinda coming back and expressing some skepticism about the overall mission… to say the least, in some cases.
Oh, yeah. These guys were profoundly disappointed, to put it mildly, at what they encountered when they arrived there, as opposed to what they were expecting. Part of that is their naivete. These are 19, 20 year-old guys who have a certain vision of what war is going to be; of course that vision will never match up to the experience, by definition. The reality is always different from the fantasy. But in this case, it was an even starker difference, because the reality was worlds away from what they had been hearing. By the time they arrived in late 2009, and were operating in that area, as I said, the civilian casualties had prompted restrictions to be placed on the soldiers that really made them powerless. They felt like they were kind of operating with one hand tied behind their back; for instance, they weren’t able to wear shaded eyeglasses because it intimidated local people. They couldn’t use a shotgun to blow the lock off a door; they had to go get a sledgehammer.
They felt they weren’t being allowed to take necessary precautions that they felt would protect their safety. Instead, they were being left out to be targets for bombs, and for what? The mission wasn’t clear, they weren’t sure what they were doing on a day-to-day basis. They were bored out of their minds, which is always this issue with sending young guys into a war…. it’s this alternating universe where you’re either terrified or bored,. I’m not trying to be an apologist, I don’t want to justify their actions, I just want to transmit their explanation, the broader context of what they said led to these tragic events.
When they talk about (Team Leader) Gibbs, you can hear this kind of fear in their voice. it’s as if they would do anything to avoid becoming like him.
Well, it’s very hard… in a forward operating base, in a very remote place, in southern Afghanistan, it’s a very foreign, desolate environment for these guys, very far from the civilization that they know; some of them have never left their hometowns before, so to be in a place like Afghanistan, they might as well be on Mars. It was that strange, that foreign, to them. So to be in that situation and have your life in danger on a daily basis as part of your work routine, you’re predisposed to a certain kind of uniformity of thought, and you find yourself not wanting to alienate anyone in your cohort. Because if you do, you run the risk of not being a part of the group, and if you’re not part of the group, your life is in danger. The only way to survive is to be in lockstep with the brothers on your left and on your right, and that’s how you make it through this. So to speak up and say you object to somebody’s moral reasoning, or the direction the group is taking, it’s very very difficult in that circumstance. You’re depending on the group to make it home in one piece.
Let’s not forget, Sergeant Gibbs was their squad leader, and a combat veteran! He has three tours under his belt already, and these guys, it’s their first deployment. So who are they to stand up to Gibbs? Who’s gonna tell him, “No, this is wrong, I can’t condone this.” Very difficult thing to say to a combat veteran, and I think a lot of them just assumed that this was war: the kind of war people don’t talk about, but this is the reality.
The conclusion of the film would suggest that’s accurate. One of them says, essentially, the only noteworthy thing about it is, they got caught.
There’s no hard evidence to suggest this is happening on a routine basis; I would caution against any presumption that this is widespread. But, there certainly is some indication that it happens more than we know, and I don’t think that should not be necessarily surprising, although shocking: it’s not surprising to the general public that these sorts of things happen. What makes this situation particularly troubling is that [the crimes] were so premeditated. They were planned days, weeks in advance. These murders didn’t happen in the heat of battle, after someone had been blown up, it wasn’t a My Lai or a Haditha situation where something happened, and it immediately precipitated an atrocity. It’s something that was carefully thought out. But the question of how widespread that sort of thing is, it remains open.
Would you have interviewed Gibbs if you had the chance?
As someone with a background and training in journalism, it was incumbent on me to attempt to speak with Gibbs and I tried many different times and different methods. In the end I failed, and as we were going through the process of making the film, I’d think at various points that the film was doomed because we didn’t have Gibbs. We needed Gibbs; without Gibbs, we couldn’t make the film. No Gibbs, no movie. Et cetera. That was my initial thinking. As we started to assemble the film with the material we had, an interesting thing started to happen: Gibbs, in his absence, became of mythic proportion. It was a powerful, unexpected thing to witness, and in a way, sort of a gift for the film: he became larger than an individual soldier; he became representative of this culture, this institution, this kind of psyche.
And that became more influential for the storytelling than having him sit down in front of me. My expectation is, had I interviewed him, he would have accused the others of lying, he would insist that these were legitimate combat engagements, and the film would become more about who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. And to me that’s not nearly as interesting as what we ended up making; this one rises above the he-said/he-said level, And I’m happy with that; I was afraid, as we made some headway, that Gibbs would come out of the woodwork and offer to sit down and talk with me, because it was sort of a careful, nuanced tone we were creating with the film. Of course, as someone who’s interested in these issues and this story in particular, I would still jump at the chance. But, I’m not as certain that it would benefit the film.