Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The war comes home in body and mind

Want to feel the disconnect between the tiny subset of US citizens who have been fighting our far-flung wars and the rest of us? Access to some of these emotions is a subject of Ben Fountains's novel Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk. (I think I owe the tip to read it to Thomas Ricks' blog, Best Defense.)

Billy is a young, white, rural Texan soldier who found himself in a deadly firefight in Iraq. He numbly and heroically tried and failed to rescue a friend and mentor -- this was caught on video and broadcast all over the States. The War (Defense) Department and the U.S. Army thought it would make for good publicity to take his squad on tour, including a White House visit and concluding with an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The experience is mind-bending, barely understandable, and disturbing for these grunts who are haunted by what they've lived and what they know they are going back to as soon as stateside promoters are done with them.

No commentary of mine is going to catch the richness of this story, but I can share some of what I thought were high points.

At the stadium, the squad is feted in the owner's box by "Norm," clearly inspired by the Cowboy's owner Jerry Jones. Dallas haters will love that characterization. Our hero Billy just aims to imbibe as much free booze as he can and avoid offending the exotic humans who want to lionize him.

He nods and sips his drink and makes agreeable-sounding noises as people express their thoughts and feelings about the war. 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 other.

Billy's squad leader tries to ensure he doesn't get confused about who matters.

“You know that old man you were talking to?”
“Well, yeah.”
“March Hawey.”
“I know who he is.”
“Mr. Swift Boat himself. Dude’s famous.”
Billy stares straight ahead. He won’t give Dime the satisfaction of knowing he didn’t know. “Richer than God, and talk about tied in. So watch yourself around him.”
“Why should I watch myself?”
“Because in case you haven’t noticed this is a highly partisan country we live in, Billy. Those guys are smart, they know who the enemy is. They aren’t fooled by a couple of bullshit war medals.”
Billy glances at his chest, considering his medals in this possibly sinister light.
“I’m not the enemy.”
“Oh hooooo, you don’t think? They decide, not you. They’re the deciders when it comes to who’s a real American, dude.”

Finally the squad escapes their captivity as Norm's latest exhibits and the football begins. They are not drawn into the game, in any case a snoozer in which Dallas is stomped.

For several minutes he tries to concentrate on the game, but it’s too slow, like riding an elevator that stops on every floor. It’s not like you’re supposed to watch the actual game anyway, no, you watch the Jumbotron, which displays not just the game in real and replay time but a nonstop filler of commercials, a barrage of sensory overload that accounts for far more content than the game itself. Could it be that advertising is the main thing? And maybe the game is just an ad for the ads.

I have never seen a pro game in a stadium, but I've been inside our local gridiron palace, Levi's Stadium, the future home of Super Bowl 50. I can well imagine that the experience is mostly discomfort, beer lines, noise, and the big screens.

This book might (should?) make women uncomfortable. It recounts a confused adolescent male's unconsidered and unreconstructed hormonal responses to some crazy scenes. His energy is raw. But it is worth noting that women are some of the saner civilians Billy meets.

As Billy reports to the squad vans, about to be shipped back to combat, he summarizes for himself what he has learned from the squad's home front odyssey:

... oh shit, they’re on him, a group of seven or eight fans who want him to sign their game programs. So grateful, they say. So proud. Awesome. Amazing. This only takes a couple of moments, but while he’s scribbling his name it dawns on Billy that these smiling, clueless citizens are the ones who came correct. For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force.

His reality is their reality’s bitch; what they don’t know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he’s lived what he’s lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects.

To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war? Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets. He wonders if there’s a saturation point, a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens. How much reality can unreality take?

The National Book Award selection panel and the National Book Critics Circle thought this novel worthy of acclaim. I do too. We innocents who are in charge need as visceral an experience as we can find of what we are doing to soldiers in our obsessive quest for illusory security.

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