Friday, November 21, 2014

Living Metaphor as Bravado vs. Conscientiousness

"Billy, all those mofos ever do is lie. You think if they halfway told the truth we'd even be in a fucking war? You know what I think, I think we don't deserve to have you guys die for us. No country that lets its leaders lie like that deserves a single soldier to die for it."

The relative value of a good war in American life has declined markedly over the past several generations. Almost nobody uninvolved cared much about the stalemate in Korea and Vietnam was very bad. In our time, Iraq and Afghanistan have been pretty disgraceful, nothing like the (ahem) "good" wars from which we build our myths and fine tune our legends. With such villainous opponents like slaveowners and Nazis, it's possible to romanticize the trenches of Gettysburg and the carnage of Normandy, especially against the patina of bygone decades. Perhaps one hundred years now some fabulist will find something noble in our most contemporary self-made disasters, but for now, the stories depicting the bungling of Baghdad are of a more critical nature.

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is one of the best war novels I've ever read, with the interesting distinction of being entirely set in Dallas, Texas, on Thanksgiving Day. It's about the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad being feted by the media after FOX News broadcasts a tape of them in a death-defying firefight known as "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal," turning them into nationwide heroes. Their goodwill tour culminates in Dallas for the Turkey bowl, the traditional Thanksgiving football match featuring the Dallas Cowboys.

The story takes place over a single day, but as days go it is more eventful than any you've probably ever had in your entire life. We follow closely Billy Lynn, a good kid from a normal family, who through some bad shit butterfly effect winds up in some trouble, enlisting in the military in order to avoid penitentiary time. Billy is a calm presence in Bravo Squad, a rowdy bunch, hard-drinking, hard talking, who have survived some intense battlefield moments. Everywhere they go, average, inarticulate, overweight, generally ignorant citizens approach them with trite mumbo jumbo: "terrRist... freedom...evil... nina leven...nina leven... nina leven...troops... sacrifice... Bush...values... God." Meanwhile, the boys just want to bang some Cowboys cheerleaders and be left in some degree of peace. Albert, a charismatic blackberry-wielding Hollywood producer with big-league cred tags along, trying to secure a moneyed investor to make a movie about Bravo Company.

The soldiers, hungover from a strip club outing the night before, are passed along to numerous factotums before the halftime show. Pregame, they meet the Cowboys in the locker room, hulking, buff superhuman freaks, and there is a mutual respect regarding ferociousness and the kill instinct. They watch the first quarter from the luxury box with Dallas's blue blood. The grunts are mostly impressed with such ostentatious success, but for all their moneyed opulence, the jetsetters don't have combat experience and are thus too are somewhat taken by Billy and the others' survivor cachet. In a conversation with one millionaire, Billy is reminded that people "can take pleasure in the achievement, even feel some measure of participatory pride, all the while understanding that the mission has absolutely nothing to do with him." But getting down to brass tacks, the public's feel-good patriotism ("wore on terrRr... we pray and hope and bless and praise...proud, so proud) is artifice, a mendacious concept of success and bravery, only tangentially connected to them by way of being American too. It is in this spirit that Bravo Company is marched out on national TV for the halftime show with Bush-era pop superstars Destiny's Child performing. Such a show based on flimsy associations then becomes a hideous farce and a surreal nightmare.

After two weeks of numerous TV interviews and a visit to his Texas family, Billy will be redeployed to Iraq following the game. His sister, Kathryn, who is indirectly responsible for his enlistment status, has found him a lawyer who will put him into hiding if he goes AWOL. She and this antiwar group she's in contact with are looking to utilize Billy's heroism to condemn involvement in Iraq and American militarism in general. Here could be the brave face of a movement that might sway public opinion decidedly against our military misadventures. Besides the movie deal and a love interest of Billy's (he has a hot hookup with a Cowboys cheerleader named Faison), Billy's move on whether or not to leave his friends at Bravo becomes the climax of the story. Billy is reluctant, which frustrates Kathryn: "Only a nut would want to go back to the war. We'll have the lawyers plead temporary sanity for you, how about that? You're too sane to go back to the war, Billy Lynn has come to his senses. It's the rest of the country that's nuts for wanting to send him back." But it's not quite simple: besides the obvious betrayal of his Bravo companions, there is the element of evolving into yet another pawn, at once transitioning from a symbol of American gung ho pluck to conscientious objector "coward." Being a symbol to the American public would wear anyone out, but to go from one kind of face to another might be too much.

(c) Spencer Platt

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a great war novel, in that war is hardly confined to the battlefield. The soldiers lucky enough to survive become veterans and the experience manifests itself in their civilian lives. It reminds me then of a great movie from 1978, Coming Home, none of which takes place in Vietnam's jungles or Saigon's boulevards, but which is a great war film nonetheless, because when we talk about war, we have to consider the totality of it. At the moment, Fountain's novel is in the process of being developed into a film to be directed by Ang Lee. I won't spoil your reading experience telling whether Albert lands Bravo Company their movie deal-- but I will say that I'm sad to see Billy and the other grunts getting the big screen treatment in our world. I can get the allure-- likable characters, cracking dialogue, the psychedelic hyper-reality of football halftime shows, and a moral crisis-- but film adaptations tend to spoil the best books, divulging everything while revealing nothing. Read this now.

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