The Best Iraq War Novel Doesn’t Take Place in Iraq

Bravo Co beyonce-miami-2012

It’s Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk. I sought it out as a preparation for teaching the critically acclaimed Redeployment (2014), a short story collection by Phil Klay, in my 21st Century Fiction class. Fountain’s novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2012 and is in development as a movie project with Ang Lee directing.

It’s much too early to tell whether Fountain’s work will be compared favorable Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22 (1961). Their ambitions are similar. Neither is a claustrophobic “men-in-a-foxhole” novel, though each displays the diverse members of a not always compatible band of brothers.  More importantly, each explores the ways in which our military enterprise in both popular and unpopular wars is embedded in and a reflection of larger cultural issues. Because WWII was “the Good War,” Heller’s black humor treatment of a military support unit during the Italian campaign is as much about the incompetence of upwardly mobile, middle-management “yes men” in the emerging corporate cultures of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and the general absurdity of post-war life lived in front of the doomsday clock that measured the likelihood of nuclear annihilation.

Fountain’s novel is deflected in a different direction. One of its principal satiric targets is the world of professional sports and its practice of a self-aggrandizing faux patriotism, often cloaked in paper-thin religious piety. I hope you are not so totally fatigued by the recent exposes of the criminal behavior of NFL players and the league’s ham-fisted response to these revelations that you don’t want to plunge into the Fountain’s inventive treatment of the intersection of our two most prominent warrior cultures. The military’s resistance to NY Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s efforts to get sexual-harrassment cases out of military courts and into civilian courts and the NFL’s myopia about wife-beating stem from the same patriarchal mind-set.

The novel is a “day-in-the-life-of” Billy Lynn, a 19 year old grunt from West Texas and a dozen or so members of Bravo Company. Bravo Company has garnered celebrity status because of a 4 minute Fox News clip of a firefight in an Iraqi village that went viral. The company has been invited to be guests of honor at a 2005 Thanksgiving Day game between the host Cowboys and the visiting Bears. (Happy Spoiler: the Bears win the contest by scoring 21 unanswered fourth quarter points.) This episodic day includes a pre-game meeting with the press, an unplanned romp on the sacred turf of Valhalla, Cowboy stadium, and an over-the-top, chaotic half-time show featuring Destiny’s Child before Beyonce went solo. Beyonce twerks her way through a plaintive anthem to the company (I need a soldjah boy!), and Billy and company, not always obligingly, become part of the living patriotic tableau. The chaos of the spectacle and the brutish roadies who must clear the field, make the guys wish they were back in Anbar Province.

Along the way Billy has a “libido-at-first-sight,” behind-the-press-room-curtain dry hump with the wonderfully-named and skimpily-clad Cowboy cheerleader Faison Zorn. (Cliffhanger: will Faison be waiting for him when he returns from Bravo’s next 11 month deployment which begins in two days?) One of the late-in-the-novel climaxes taxes place in the luxury suite of Cowboy owner Norm Oglesby, a composite of all of the buffoonish “masters-of-the-universe” who own teams and meddle in all of the details. Norm and his phalanx of attorney’s and money-raisers try to steal the plans of Albert, a Hollywood agent who is trying to put together a Team Bravo movie; he’s got Hillary Swank interested if the script writers make a place for a heroic female soldier. It’s a sign of his hubris that Norm thinks he can consummate the deal during the break between the 3rd and 4th quarters. Faced with Norm’s offer of a low-ball up-front payment and the promise of possible residuals, the company, ably led by Sargent Dave Dime, face yet another crisis, this time with what Fountain thinks is an internal enemy of the nation. The film should provide Hollywood with yet another opportunity to gently skewer itself.

Fountain tells the story with real verve and a sharp satiric eye. He’s wicked in his presentation of the gross motives of human beings and the masks that hide their intentions. For instance, during the pre-game romp on the field, Billy, with Fountain pushing him, discovers that there is a great gap between the unfettered play that he is engaged in at the moment and the restrictions of organized sports that he has participated in. While he has spent his young life listening to coaches preach the virtues of teamwork and self-sacrifice, he knows that it’s all been a cover-up for another message: shut up and do as you are told.

This is a novel that may get you to think twice before you obediently stand up when the White Sox trot out the latest returning hero and ask us to express our gratitude that he is fighting to preserve our freedoms. Knowing what he knows at the end of this long halftime march, Billy Lynn would not allow himself to be used in this way.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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