Before leaving for a tour in Iraq, 21-year old Private John Bartle makes a promise that he’ll keep his new friend, an idealistic 18-year-old soldier named Murph, safe. He does his best to keep his word as the two navigate the terrifying and bloody battlegrounds of the Iraq War, as they both struggle to maintain their sanity and, ultimately, survive.
This novel made a lot of 2012 “best reads” lists, which is the reason I picked it up, and it did not disappoint. Fountain delivers an incisive look at American attitudes toward the war in Iraq, paralleled to a Dallas Cowboys football game on Thanksgiving Day. The topic is serious but the writing can be comic and cutting, within the same sentence.
Told from the point of view of 19-year-old Army specialist Billy Lynn, the novel covers the last day of Bravo company’s “Victory Tour” of the US. Bravo engaged in a fierce battle along the Al-Ansakar Canal, caught on tape by a Fox TV crew. The men are brought back to the US for two weeks, during which time they are feted as heroes, shuttled from event to event, and in negotiation for a movie deal with a Hollywood producer. Billy’s heroism garners adulation and admiration from the public, but his sister is trying to keep him from returning to Iraq and his father could care less for Billy or the rest of the family. The climax of the novel is the halftime show at the football game featuring the Bravos, who have been kept in the dark about their role in it. Up to that point, they spend time with Dallas high rollers who seem to know “George and Laura” (Bush) personally, get the star treatment from Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (a fictionalized Jimmy Jones), meet the cheerleaders, and drink too much.
With Billy as guide, the reader learns more about what really happens in war, how it feels to survive it, and the struggle of dealing with a public that talks about the war in the same terms it uses to discuss football. “Are we winning?” is the question asked over and over. The action at the canal is viewed almost as a play in the war, with points tallied up for “our side.” And the Bravos are treated sort of like players who can be bought and sold (or undersold) to the right bidder. As much as they are schmoozed and fawned over, the Bravos can’t get the things they really want, whether it’s as complicated as not returning to the war or as simple as a couple of aspirin.
An overriding theme in the novel is the childishness of the American public, their constant need for indulgence and reassurance. “No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines.” As the eminent and powerful Mr. Hawey says to Billy, “I guess the war’d been depressing me all this time and I didn’t even know it, till yall came along. Just a huge morale boost for everybody.” The sacrifices of Bravo, the true meaning of which is unknown and unknowable to the public at home, makes everyone feel better. Never mind what it did to these men, what led to it or what its consequences might be. Billy observes after making the rounds of meet and greets, “…they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.”
One passage that stood out for me involves the pre-game meeting between Bravos and Cowboys. Billy marvels at the size of them but really isn’t interested in getting autographs and interfering in their game day preparations. The players, initially aloof, begin warm up to Billy when one starts up a conversation on guns, ammo and the experience of killing that the Bravos have had. “‘We, like, we wanna do somethin’ like you. Extreme, you know, cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that? Like, ride wit yall for a week, couple of weeks, help out. Help yalls bust some raghead ass, we up for that.'” The idea that they make a commitment to the Army causes offense then laughter at the thought that they would walk away from their contracts when all they want is to do is “help” for a few weeks.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a well deserved skewering of American stupidity and ignorance regarding the war and veterans. It’s also very engaging and entertaining while pointing out our vacuity. Two thumbs up.