On November 4, 2012, The New York Times ran an article, “The Permanent Militarization of America.” The article points out that when Dwight D. Eisenhower left the Oval Office, he voiced concern about the American military-industrial complex. Most pointedly, “He cautioned that war and warmaking took up too large a proportion of national life, with grave ramifications for spiritual health.”
The article continues several paragraphs later:
Like all institutions, the military works to enhance its public image, but this is just one element of militarization. Most of the political discourse on military matters comes from civilians, who are more vocal about “supporting our troops” than the troops themselves. It doesn’t help that there are fewer veterans in Congress today than at any previous point since World War II. Those who have served are less likely to offer unvarnished praise for the military, for it, like all institutions, has its own frustrations and failings. But for non-veterans —including about four-fifths of all members of Congress — there is only unequivocal, unhesitating adulation. The political costs of anything else are just too high.
I immediately bookmarked the article, highlighting that paragraph in particular because it seems a precise description of the idea behind Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Billy Lynn is a soldier in the United States Army and a member of Bravo Squad, which is being commended for bravery during battle at the Al Ansakar Canal in the Iraq War. They are on a two-week “victory” tour which includes a meeting with President Bush and being awarded with medals for bravery. The book covers the final day of the tour, where the Bravos have been invited to attend and participate in the half-time show at the Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day. The squad also has a Hollywood movie producer, Albert, embedded with them on the tour. Albert has been trying to sell the Bravos’ story to a major movie studio, but interest is dwindling quickly as memories of the squad’s valorous acts fade from American consciousness.
Billy Lynn is 19 years old. He joined the Army voluntarily, if not willingly, after a run-in with his sister’s ex-boyfriend. He barely remembers the events that have brought him to this moment in Texas Stadium. He remembers being attacked, he remembers trying to help Shroom, his sergeant, who died during the attack. In the footage of the battle he sees replayed on television over and over again on Bravo’s “victory” tour, he sees himself shooting with one hand and trying to administer aid with the other. He is bewildered at the idea of being a hero. He is bewildered by the attention he receives from people, at their desire to talk to him and touch him. He was, in a manner of speaking, just doing his job.
What Billy wants is some Advil for his hangover. He wants a girlfriend to love. He wants to read more of the books that Shroom told him about. He wants to stay home, and he wants to go back to Iraq to be with his squad. He is unsure of his future in the Army. He is unsure of his future if he makes it home alive. He is mostly unsure that he will come home at all.
Fountain writes with real immediacy, and also with intelligence and humor. His style reminds me of Tom Wolfe at his best—Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full—although the difference is that Fountain never holds the reader at a distance from Billy. Billy understands that everything is ironic, but that at the same time everything is also authentic (perhaps with the exception of some shenanigans surrounding the Cowboys’ owner and a movie deal). The warlike atmosphere of the football game, the ridiculous pomp and circumstance of the halftime show (where the soldiers march on a field with college and high school marching bands, drill teams, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, and Destiny’s Child), the constant handshaking and photos and media soundbites–all of these things are highly serious and important matters for the people involved.
Whenever someone approaches Billy Lynn to shake his hand, to thank and congratulate him, he hears the same words repeated over and over again, until they float, meaningless, around in his head:
And while Billy understands what these words mean to people, in the end, they mean very little to him. He has been at war. The world is not the same for him as it is for these people, and it never will be again. He understands the uncertainly of everything in a way he realizes the civilians who surround him cannot. The civilians he meets know something is at stake, but they can never understand that what is at stake for Billy is entirely different. They are worried about concepts. He is worried about his life.
Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes, views that seem quite reasonable in the context. A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, and the trick, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one to the the other.
In a recent interview with The New York Times*, Fountain said, “I think that as much as Billy wants and needs to understand his combat experience, he also wants and needs his fellow Americans — the civilians — to have some understanding, to the extent that’s feasible, of what he’s done and experienced.” I think what Fountain achieves with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is helping us to see that gap between stateside patriotism and duty in the theater of war, and how the two are so very far apart from each other. Our country’s romantic feelings about war, about defending freedom and democracy, are as sincere and delusional–as real, heartfelt and misguided–as a teenage girl’s celebrity crush. They have nothing to do with the real thing, with the object of our affection.
*The interview also features Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds, another 2012 National Book Award finalist.