‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ by Ben Fountain: The War Novel of Our Time
For Memorial Day why not turn to a biting, thoughtful, and absolutely spot-on new novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about American Iraq War vets back home on a publicity tour, writes Matt Gallagher.
Memorial Day means two unlike and perhaps contradictory things in our time. One—remember the war dead. Two—it’s summertime, chumps! After ten years of war, it’s become an annual event for those that observe more of the former than the latter to get sanctimonious about this contrast, which can sometimes be a bit grating. Then again, they’re not wrong. There is something quite cheapening about marking such a hallowed day with mattress sales and s’mores.
But what’s the right answer? What’s the acceptable balance between remembrance and moving forward? How and when is memorializing the fallen, and those that came home, enough? Is such even possible? In a nation with an all-volunteer force that fights its wars, a force largely separate and distinct from the greater society from which it comes, these questions have become larger and more confounding since 9/11.
This postmodern swirl of inner substance, yellow ribbons, and good(ish) intentions is at the core of Ben Fountain’s brilliant Bush-era novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Set over the course of Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium during a Dallas Cowboys football game, Fountain’s book follows the eight surviving soldiers of “Bravo Squad,” infantrymen who became instant celebrities the month previous for bravery under fire in Iraq—bravery caught on film by an embedded Fox News crew and insatiably digested by an American populace desperate for good news from that war.
There’s Bravo’s cerebral and Tillman-esque squad leader, Staff Sgt. David Dime, “a former twenty-four-year-old college dropout from North Carolina who subscribes to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Maxim, Wired, Harper’s, Fortune, and DicE Magazine.” There’s Major Mac, Bravo’s stoic public-affairs escort with a dark war history of his own. There’s Mango, a rough-and-tumble specialist from Tucson who “can rattle off the names of not just the U.S. presidents but the vice presidents as well, which tends to put a quick stop to any illegal-alien talk.” And then there’s the eponymous Specialist William Lynn, the virginal, Silver Star–earning eddy of a literary hero, a local boy willing to both dry-hump a Cowboys cheerleader and philosophize about the military-civilian divide in the same hour, if not the exact same moment.
The term “Bravo Squad” itself is a symbol of that divide. There is no such thing as Bravo Squad—“They are Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad, said squad being comprised of teams alpha and bravo, but the Fox embed christened them Bravo Squad and thus they were presented to the world.” This divide becomes a chasm over the course of the novel, from the shallow pomp and ceremony surrounding Bravo’s arrival to the hundreds of ‘Atta Boys and back slaps to a locker-room encounter with outsized Cowboys players who want to “Cap some Muslim freaks” for a couple weeks, but not for the years of service the military requires—they have football careers to consider, after all.
The front cover of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk sports a blurb comparing it to Catch-22, and accordingly, it’s being marketed as a satire. This is not an entirely accurate description of the novel. Catch-22 sought and found truth through absurdity. Fountain’s book shares with Joseph Heller’s an overt intent of social criticism, true, and an obsession over who—or what—the enemy is. But unlike Catch-22, none of its literary devices function in the surreal. For more than a decade, service members have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan to find themselves strangers in strange lands, from Disney World to the Mall of America to Texas Stadium. No, Billy Lynn isn’t satire topped with sprinkles of realism. It’s the exact opposite, and Fountain does an estimable job of channeling that experience and psychology. And he does so not with the wit and winking of the jester, but with the blunt ferocity of the herald.
Getting back to the question of who or what the enemy is, Fountain makes it clear whom he believes serves that role, even if the members of Bravo are still sorting through it. “Here in the chicken-hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of blood up its sleeve,” he writes about the sword of authentic experience they carry on them, a sword that remains sheathed, for the most part. And later: “Never do Americans sound so much like a bunch of drunks as when celebrating the end of their national anthem.” The national anthem marks the beginning of the football game; it gets no better for the boys of Bravo later, when they’re forced to participate in an orgy of fireworks and razzle-dazzle better known as a halftime show, a “prime time trigger for PTSD” for soldiers who were in Iraq only weeks earlier.
Clarity is what young Specialist Lynn seeks for most of the novel, be it clarity through escape or through duty. His encounters with the Cowboys cheerleader notwithstanding, it comes when he observes that his society’s “homeland dream is the dominant force…to learn what you have to learn at war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?” Lynn suspects that this clarity isn’t his alone, and is in fact shared by Staff Sergeant Dime, but it is the younger, greener soldier who articulates it. Though one gathers that Dime wouldn’t have ended such a musing with a question mark.
Dog-and-pony shows are nothing new to America or American war efforts. One needs look no further than Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone’s war-bonds tour during World War II. And there can be some fine reasons for these events. But how do they affect the actual dogs and ponies, especially in this era when the military fights for a nation rather than with it? If nothing else, the fictional experiences of Bravo forced me to appreciate the postwar duties of the very real Sal Giuntas and Dakota Meyers of the world. At the end of Billy Lynn, Bravo returns to Iraq, where life makes some sense because it directly confronts death, as twisted and paradoxical as that may be. Giunta and Meyer had to remain stateside after receiving their Medals of Honor, touring the country going from parade to parade and from ceremony to ceremony. It’s evident that both the warfront and the homefront have their hazards.
All societies need heroes, especially when they are the types of young people like Giunta and Meyer and Lynn who don’t consider themselves heroes at all. But how these men and women are honored, and how their fallen comrades are memorialized, reveals much more about us at home and how we remember than it does about those being honored and memorialized. Who knows what the right answer is. But as a gruff Army NCO imparted upon me some years ago as a ROTC cadet, “One doesn’t have to know exactly what right is to know what wrong looks like.” Fountain’s novel makes it clear that excess and indulgence isn’t it.