How to Talk to Soldiers is a book to be written. It doesn’t have to be long, just a cursory handbook, a little guide on how to let them know that you appreciate what they do but don’t want to dwell on it, or act like you have any idea what they’ve seen or experienced, or want to participate in the mass token activities of the population: thanking them for their service on Facebook, adorning yellow magnetic ribbons on CRVs, talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan like they surpass the Civil War on the American Existential Conflict Scale.
This generation—or at least the generation Ben Fountain presents in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—needs a manual. Needs it bad.
Amidst the ethical morass Fountain offers in Billy Lynn, that’s what sticks me in the muck most of all: the civilian-soldier divide, and how impotent we—we being civilians—are in expressing our gratitude to a group whose lives are—and will forever be—totally and completely unrecognizable to us. So what’s there to say to them, really? Thank you? A surely gratuitous acknowledgment of this divide?
Billy Lynn tells the story of the “Bravo squad,” a group of soldiers on a whirlwind American tour, commemorating their remarkable heroism in conflict—specifically, a firefight with Iraqi insurgents caught on video by a Fox News embed.
The novel focuses on the last big stop on the tour—Texas Stadium, Thanksgiving Day, 2004. The Cowboys are hosting the Bears. And the Bravo men are the home team’s—and their loudmouth owner Norman Oglesby’s—honored guests.
(A few things here I feel like I should mention: most reviewers I’ve read are unclear on the year—as it’s never mentioned in the text—but a little Pro-Football Reference research reveals that the Cowboys played the Bears on Thanksgiving Day of 2004,and Drew Henson, often mentioned in the book, was under center that day. Also: Oglesby is clearly an arch-conservative stand-in for the real-life good ol’ boy owner of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones. Jones, of course, is not above suing anyone, so it’s understandable why Fountain and the good folks over at Echo Press would fictionalize him.)
Their day includes very little football, however. They sit in passable-but-not-awesome seats by the field. They drink beer and joke around to pass the time between media events with the Cowboys, where they pose for pictures with the Dallas cheerleaders (one of whom Billy hits it off with), answer easy questions from the local press, yuk it up with Oglesby and his people—all of whom are hellbent on telling the Bravo men how proud they are, how that video from the Fox News embed just really filled them up with something special, how they’re just the greatest—and eventually participate in the halftime show with Destiny’s Child (see, I told you it was 2004).
There are a few facts ever-present on this Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium for the Bravo men: (a) They will soon be returning to Iraq, something almost no one outside of Bravo seems to realize, a dirty, little secret that shocks those who hear and (b) they are traveling with a Hollywood producer who has his sights set on a Bravo movie (the Bravo men, in turn, have their $ight$ $et on $omething $else, UNDERSTANDABLY) starring Hilary Swank as Billy (who, of the Bravo men, is the anointed hero, having been filmed engaging insurgents in conflict to rescue his now-dead friend, Shroom).
Billy’s conflict, of course, is at the heart of the book. He loves his Bravo men. Theirs is a summer-camp kind of bond—dudes shitting the shit, arguing if Beyonce would be down to sit on one of their faces, sneaking beers and joints in front of authority. But Billy didn’t sign up for the army; he was forced to join as the result of some minor destruction of property issues that stemmed from his sister’s messy breakup. It’s a volunteer army—but he’s no volunteer. And his sister—the same one he stood up for—is encouraging him to evaluate his options: Why not just, like, not go back? There are lawyers, Billy, people willing to help you out. You’re a hero.
So I don’t want to go into the action too much here, or give away too much of the plot. But I want to show the motif that Fountain very deftly—if heavy-handedly at times, in retrospect—deploys: That the Bravo men have no control at any moment in their lives. They are headed to the owners’ box and away from the owners’ box at the discretion of the owner/other Cowboys brass. They are doing this thing at this X on the ground on this stage at this halftime with this best-selling pop group. Their movie will be made if such and so person says yes or maybe or let’s think about it, and they will get this percentage of money or nothing at all.
And they are headed back to Iraq. Even Billy.
There’s a feeling felt in reading Billy Lynn that’s not hard to describe but perhaps to admit: A feeling of kinship with the WASP assholes talking to the Bravo men. We’re proud of you. We’re proud of you. We’re proud of you. Oh, you’re going back? Oh. As a civilian, I’m on that side—the side that doesn’t know what the fuck it means to be in combat, the side that will just let shit spew forth that sounds honorable because, again, what else is there to say?
But Fountain does not succeed with Billy Lynn just because he makes me wince while reading. He succeeds because it’s a goddamn great story, executed almost perfectly, with wonderful characters—and this isn’t limited to the guys in Bravo squad, all of whom are developed in some way and OMG, talk just like a college sports team with all their jocularity, but Norm and his guys and the Hollywood producer and just about everyone else. It succeeds because it’s not obnoxious. It’s political without having to talk about politics.
Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk succeeds because it’s a book about America, a book that takes one single day in American life and fills it with so much twenty-first century American shit it’ll make you cringe for a week, a book that makes you feel ashamed for not being proud of the people who answer to those whose actions make you feel that very shame.
It’s a book I could say a lot about. And I’ve probably already said too much. Just go read it.