Our latest Notable Narrative, “The Kill Team,” recounts a series of killings in Afghanistan by American soldiers, one of whom recently pleaded guilty to three counts of murder.
Rolling Stone has made an extensive commitment to investigating the conflict in Afghanistan, and Mark Boal upholds that commitment with riveting storytelling. Many of the facts of this story have been reported before, but Boal brings those facts together by vividly recreating the setting in which they occurred. He marches through a staccato series of scenes, and presents convincing evidence that what the “Kill Team” was doing was not secret at all – suggesting that many in the platoon knew what was going on, but no one cared enough to stop the killing. The story reveals the trust and compliance of those killed, the rage of their communities in the wake of the deaths, and the disturbing lack of response from people who might have intervened.
Early on, one soldier describes Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs cutting a pinky finger from a dead 15-year-old boy, whom another soldier claimed was randomly chosen for execution. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” a friend says. Boal returns again and again to Gibbs’ collection of severed fingers, casting the stolen body parts as trophies to be shown to other servicemen or kept as a mementos. The fingers eventually provide the evidence that triggers a full investigation and charges against five soldiers.They work to unify the story, serving as a symbol of the soldiers’ arrogance – and also the mechanism of the Kill Team’s undoing. (Gibbs, whose trial will start next week, has maintained that the killings were all “legitimate combat engagements.”)
The events Boal reconstructs are agonizing to read about, their descriptions clinical yet somehow intimate:
To identify the body, the soldiers fetched the village elder who had been speaking to the officers that morning. But by tragic coincidence, the elder turned out to be the father of the slain boy. His moment of grief-stricken recognition, when he saw his son lying in a pool of blood, was later recounted in the flat prose of an official Army report. “The father was very upset,” the report noted.
A surprisingly large cast of characters – nearly a dozen – enter the story. And if readers do not come to understand each soldier in depth, they nonetheless get a clear impression that knowledge of the killings was widespread. In some ways, the platoon itself becomes the central character of Boal’s tale.
Good narrative moves in close while offering subtext that speaks to something beyond the bounds of the story. Those who lost their lives to the “Kill Team,” of course, are beyond the consolations of justice. But for Afghan civilians, and for Americans back home, Rolling Stone has once again asked what price is being paid for the war, and what exactly is being accomplished.