To Billy Lynn, combat in Iraq has seemed pretty crazy. But Bravo Squad’s “Victory Tour” back in the U.S. is even more surreal.
Ben Fountain’s first novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” was on many best-of lists last year. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and recently won the best fiction prize from the National Book Critics Circle. I can see why.
The story takes place during the second Bush administration. Billy is a 19-year-old from a small town in Texas. He and other members of his squad have performed with great courage in battle, which just happened to be filmed by a Fox News team. After their heroism is seen by everyone in the U.S. who owns a TV or a computer, Bravo’s reward is a couple of weeks on display at home, where they are interviewed, shown off and generally used to boost support for the war.
Billy is a working-class kid who is in the Army as an alternative to jail time for trashing the expensive car owned by the guy who jilted Billy’s sister. The other seven surviving members of Bravo Squad are an unvarnished ethnic cross-section of today’s all-volunteer army. They have been molded into “killing machines” who like to think and talk about drinking, fighting and sex. Billy is a little more complicated.
Members of the squad spend the day before returning to combat in Iraq as guests of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the Cowboys are playing the Chicago Bears at Texas Stadium. In this bastion of middle America, Bravo Squad hangs out in a luxury suite, where their “triumph” has busted through the war’s “moral ambiguity.” One of the guests gushes, “Seeing y’all John Wayne that deal, it’s like we finally had something to cheer about.”
But the cloying patriotism of the owner’s upper-class buddies seems false to Bravo Squad. As Sgt. Dime explains, “The exchange of force with intent to kill, that is a truly mind-altering experience. … We like violence, we like going lethal. I mean, isn’t that what you’re paying us for? To take the fight to America’s enemies and send them straight to hell? If we didn’t like killing people then what’s the point?” He adds,“[J]ust for the record, this is the most murdering bunch of psychopaths you’ll ever see.” Dime is messing with them (a little), but upper-crust Dallas minds are blown.
It’s an eventful day otherwise for Bravo Squad. They sneak drinks when they’re supposed to be on their best behavior, give out autographs, meet players in the locker room and are welcomed as “America’s heroes” on the giant video screen. The men of Bravo Squad “know they’re being used. Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher? [sic]”
They participate in the half-time extravaganza, close enough to touch Beyoncé, survive a brutal encounter with the star’s pissed-off roadies and watch the prospects of a movie deal ebb and flow. To complicate Billy’s situation, he also falls completely in love with a Cowboys cheerleader, whose feelings are mutual. And he mulls over the arrangements his sister has made for him to go AWOL with the help of a group opposed to the war.
Billy has a lot to think about. “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.” Billy has “been travelling this great nation of ours in the good faith belief that sooner or later he’ll meet someone who can explain his experience, or at least break it down and properly frame the issue.” Of Billy, Fountain writes “Either America’s fucked up or he is.”
Fountain’s prose in “Billy Lynn” is particularly evocative, with an eye-catching phrase on almost every page.
Billy’s father’s motorized wheelchair is “a flanged and hump-backed ride with all the grace of a giant tar cooker or giant dung beetle.” “Every Bravo is a Ph.D. in the art and science of duress.” “Dreams came and went like fish drifting through the wheelhouse of an old shipwreck.” “[E]very combat soldier knows there are as many incarnations and species of fear as the Eskimo language has words for snow.” The stadium “is deformed. It is a deformation of the human mind.” Billy is “skitzed out” by the half-time show, which is a “rat-bite fever dream.”
“Billy Lynn” provides a thoughtful, working-class perspective on the impact that combat has on the mind of a young soldier, and the reader can’t help but root for the members of Bravo Squad.
But in the end, as the saying from the Vietnam era goes, it still seems true that “war is not healthy for children and other living things.”