To learn the value of peace, talk to a combat soldier.?One of the themes of this Iraq War novel, set in the mid-2000s, is encoded in the very real list of senior Bush administration Iraq War architects who deliberately avoided active military combat service when they were eligible, including the commander in chief, noted by 19-year-old Army private Billy Lynn and the seven other surviving members of Bravo Company, on a Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, where they are guests of honor at the nationally televised game between the Cowboys and the Chicago Bears.
The Bravos are reluctant stars as a result of a brutal firefight captured by an embedded Fox reporting team on video that went viral and made the squad heroes for "getting some," for "payback," at a time when the conflict seems confusing and devastatingly problematic in costs and outcomes.
The Bravos are cheered and thanked everywhere they go, but they have a secret. In spite of what they've endured – including a beloved sergeant killed and a squad member who lost both legs – and the general expectation in the adoring masses that the Bravos' stateside presence means they're home for good — they're not. They leave after the game for 11 more months of combat. Odds are, at least some of them will not survive.
This is not a fact the Army wants advertised, and, good soldiers that they are, only immediate family members such as Billy's sisters and mother and disabled, wheelchair-bound-sociopath-of-a-father, know the truth. It is the women, Billy notes, who react most sanely - with outrage, and heartbreaking sadness and worry.
Billy was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor, and is a native Texan, so he in particular gets love-bombed once the squad's multicity (all in election swing states) "Victory Tour" arrives at its climactic stage: the Thanksgiving halftime show, in which the Bravos are to appear but haven't been told what it is they'll be expected to do.
No surprise – in their posse is the Oscar-winning producer who optioned the rights to their story: Albert is trying to put together "their" movie during the course of the tour, overall an experience more unreal than Iraq for these grunts - from struggling families, mostly from the Sunbelt; black, Latino, and white, with limited options, or none.
Billy's choices were Army or jail. He trashed the Porsche of his sister's ex-boyfriend after the guy dumped her following a disfiguring car accident. After $425,000 in medical bills, Kathryn is on the road to recovery and even clearly looks "hot," according to Billy (that is, according to Fountain). Billy's future is less clear, but certainly "hot" once he's back in-country.
Where there are heroes, there are also villains, both metaphorical and collective and individual, including the one casting the largest shadow in which "bidness," politics and Hollywood converge: Norm Oglesby, the Cowboys owner – any resemblance to actual owner Jerry Jones is certainly coincidental (snicker) – a Machiavellian big dog with friends in very high places, including "W," many of whom surround the Bravos in the private luxury suite that is the symbolic staging area for the novel's climactic scenes and plotting.
While this novel energetically limns the American combination of mindless patriotism, rapacious capitalism and soft-core porn that flowers in pop-culture apotheoses such as a prime-time pro football holiday halftime extravaganza, it is also about war and about power. In spite of Billy being some kind of hyper-celebrity, a potent hybridization of movie action hero and star athlete and historical "reality," one of Billy's epiphanies is where he and those like him really rank in terms of power in the worlds within which they find themselves on their whirlwind barnstorm across Murca, hearing about "nina leven," "currj," "terrRist," Bush, God, freedom, evil, and sacrifice from strangers for whom the war is just words and the occasional entertaining video clip – or, for the group of thuglike Cowboy players who wonder if they can "ride" with the soldiers "for a week, couple weeks," it's a chance to "cap some Muslim freaks."
Throughout the tour, super-patriots want to "get involved" and are diplomatically told by various Bravos "join the Army." And of course the inevitable response is some variation of, how stupid do you think I am?
The novel's a meditation on both the 99 percent and on the 1 percent – specifically those in either population so hawkish on "the war on terror" who've never fought in a war on anything, and who fell so obediently in line behind the cynical, dishonest administration figures who were responsible for the Iraq War. The war becomes a game, something framed in the reductive ethos of sports - what's the score? Are we winning?
The flashy, climactic center of the book is a chapter titled "Raped by Angels," a hallucinogenic, ground-level view of the madness and chaos and paradox that is Thanksgiving halftime with America's Team in freezing rain, featuring Destiny's Child and generic contemporary country musicians and armies of high school and college bands, ROTC kids and a military bayonet drill team, baton twirlers and orgiastic professional dancers, ear-drum shattering sound, fireworks, blinding megawatts of lightshow, giant video screens, a stage like a movie set: and the Bravos, who, it turns out, are expected to be props for Destiny's Child singing "Soldier."
Fountain takes a slick, unflinching look at American public culture and at a war that represents what many here and around the world would call one of the low moments in U.S. foreign policy. The eyes through which we see are those of Billy and the Bravos, who perform the speak-truth-to-power function of the jesters and "fools" in Shakespeare.
Here, the "power" is the reader, and the joke really is, as Billy might say, a killer.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer ?and critic.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain
307 pages, $25.99