‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the Catch-22 of the Iraq War.’ That’s what they said, in a few reviews and right on the dust jacket.
It was one reason I picked up Ben Fountain’s new novel. I fell in love with Catch-22 sometime in the late 1960s when I was in my last year of college and the Tet Offensive was about a year away and you could still read books about war without too much self-consciousness. The first time I read Catch-22, I thought it hilarious, a staggering satire on the military and the military mind. The second time I read it, after my time and life as a draftee in Mr. Nixon’s army, and I’d had my own opportunity to meet Lt. Scheisskopf and Maj. Major Major, I found Heller’s book to be painful journalism.
Which brings us back to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It’s no Catch-22. There’s none of the feverish madness of Heller’s world at war. It should be there. The idea of sending the remnants of an Army squad back to the states for a heroes’ tour is ripe with possibilities. And making their last stop a Dallas Cowboys’ game on Thanksgiving Day, and the soldiers are special guests of a rapacious Jerry Jones-style owner is ready-made for satire. And Fountain gives it a go, but it’s flat and hesitant. For Fountain runs into the stone wall of reality: It’s very hard to satirize the excess of America’s obsession with war and football, the consumerist hustle of the Cowboys or the Satanic majesty of Jerry Jones. You can’t bullshit the bullshitters.
One thing Fountain does beautifully is show the tight connection between the soldiers, their profane and insane bond. And Fountain is brilliant in underscoring the shameless truth of America’s ambivalence with its military. We slap yellow magnetic ribbons on our cars and wear flag pins and proclaim our ‘Support for the Troops’ incessantly. We’ll clap as they pass us in the airport. We’ll even shed a tear, or at least a sad face, should we read a KIA list. And immediately forget them after they come home, maimed and dazed.
Billy Lynn and his soldiers understand this ambivalence. They aren’t surprised by either the protestations of support and patriotism in their ‘war on terra.’ They also understand most of America is quite content to let them take the risks and face the IEDs and car bombs alone.
I remember talking to some young National Guardsmen from Arkansas who had just finished their year-long tour in Iraq, mostly spent patrolling Sadr City and trying to train the new Iraqi army. They were keenly aware that their school friends and family back in Little Rock or DeQueen supported them. They’d seen the car decals. But while they had been trundled off to Baghdad to fight a nasty little war no one had the slightest clue why,
These kids were going home and they were delirious with joy at the prospect, but there was also a look in their eyes, a subtle tone of voice that reminded the observer they knew they had paid a much higher price for not much in return and that the folks at home were perfectly OK with the arrangement.
I recall another soldier, an older non-com at Ft. Hood. He recounted, with an alarming lack of bitterness that seeing a GI in uniform at the mall or a soldier shopping at the grocery with a prosthetic arm or leg was common currency around Killeen – and increasingly rare the farther you traveled from an army post. By the time you got to Houston, the non-com said, you really stood out in a crowd.
“This country is content to let 1 percent of the population wear the uniform and go into harm’s way,” the non-com said. “We went to war and the rest of America went shopping.”
This is where Fountain gets it exactly right. At the end of their long day at Cowboy Stadium, as they prepare to ship back to the war, Billy Lynn has an epiphany. It dawns on him that “these smiling, clueless citizens” are the ones who have it right.
“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 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 enemy of all that sent you to war?”
Billy understands. Just as those young Guardsmen from Arkansas did. They know something deeper, scarier and more evil than those who sent them will ever know. That’s something Joseph Heller didn’t quite connect to the surreal madness of war. It’s what Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk got better than Catch-22.