Sunday, May 08, 2016

Book 34: "There is a rank due to the United States among nations which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war." -- George Washington

Great war stories give a person the feeling for what war must be like, a hard thing to do if the person being told the story has never even been in anything remotely resembling war. Movies can teach war through the visceral impact of film: the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, or the torture scene in Three Kings, or the city streets of Black Hawk Down.

Books have a harder time with this: as good as our imaginations are, they have difficulty synthesizing something that not only have they never experienced, but which is so far beyond the realm of our experience that it is, really, unimaginable.  The best war books do not try to make a war in your mind, but instead pick out some feature of war and communicate that.  Typically, what the best of these books show is how absurdly futile it is not just to fight a war, but to try to understand it. In Catch-22, this lesson is driven home by Yossarian's careful patching of the wrong wound on Snowden, and then being able to think of nothing more than there, there to say to the boy.  In Slaughterhouse-5, the entire story shows the futility of trying to change anything: when Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time, he reveals that his entire string of experiences is not 'cause-and-effect' but simply random chance. His life didn't happen in any particular order because order doesn't matter.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a great war book. It is all the greater for not actually ever having any war in it, really.

Billy Lynn is part of  "Bravo Squad," and the first thing to know about "Bravo Squad" is it doesn't exist. "Bravo Squad" isn't a military unit; it's real designation is more technical, but "Bravo Squad" is what the public calls the Bravo unit whose firefight in the Iraq war was caught by Fox news cameras; the resultant airing of that tape makes Billy and the rest of the Bravos instant heroes, and they're flown home for a two-week victory tour to shore up support for the war. (The book is set in 2007, a year that already feels like history.)

The book takes place on the day before Thanksgiving, when Billy is given 24 hours to spend with his family, and on Thanksgiving, when the Bravos are the guests of  the (in this case fictional) owner of the Dallas Cowboys, set to appear at halftime with Destiny's Child, and we see all this through Billy's eyes as we get his thoughts on the subject -- not that his thoughts are very deep. Billy's barely out of high school and joined the Army to avoid jail after he was arrested for destroying his sister's ex-boyfriend's car, and despite from time-to-time more grown-up people leaning on him, Billy really is a kid and really is innocent: he's gone to war a virgin and had his first sexual experience on this tour.

There's very little plot to the book. What stories there are unfold slowly before exploding at the end: Albert, a producer traveling with the men, is trying to arrange a movie deal for them, having promised each Bravo $100,000 for the rights to their story.  Billy's sister Katherine wants him to quit the Army and be helped by a group of lawyers who are fighting the war by trying to help men go AWOL.

The bigger story is Billy searching for meaning. Billy hooks on to anyone and everyone who seems able to provide him some deeper understanding of the world.  He idolized "Shroom," a now-dead Bravo soldier whose stoner philosophizing got Billy hooked on Hunter S. Thompson books and thoughts of reincarnation.  He throughout the book gets text messages from a TV preacher who he met at one stop and spoke to afterwards looking for guidance.  He hangs on every word of his Sergeant, David Dime. But even his search for meaning is confused: he manages to get a chance to make out with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader when, after some flirting, she tells him she is a Christian. She asks him if he is, too, and to keep the conversation going, Billy says he's searching -- a word he uses because he's heard it from other Christians growing up in Texas, not because he believes he really is.

Hidden from the loving American public is the fact that the Bravos are only home for two weeks, and that at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving they will report back to post, and 36 hours later will be back in Iraq. So these soldiers wander around Texas Stadium, alternating between getting in fights with roadies, having brunch with millionaires, and standing at attention on a stage while Beyonce sings "Soldier" in front of a parade of cadets spinning rifles with fixed bayonets into the air and catching them. The negotiations over the movie swirl around them (at one point Billy learns that Hillary Swank is interested and wants to play him) and they sneak drinks of Jack-and-Coke or head out back to get high with a busboy from the buffet.

Back home, Billy's sister Katherine needs two more plastic surgeries to repair her face: she was nearly killed in a car accident and had hundreds of stitches in her face, causing her rich boyfriend to dump her (and leading to Billy's BMW-bashing.) Billy's mom is planning to take out a loan to pay Katherine's medical bills and those of Billy's dad, a right-wing radio host who had a stroke and is now wheelchair bound, mute (although it's not clear if he can talk but chooses not to).  It's clear that Billy's dad hates Billy, for whatever reason, but the rest love him, while remaining true to their lower-middle-class roots: Billy gets a call from his family just after halftime, and what they want to know most of all is whether he met Beyonce.

The real point of the story is that none of this really matters.  It's halftime for Billy, too: he and his friends are parading around in between the battles, having fun before going back to Viper FOB (Forward Operations Base) and a war that they don't really care about, but there's nothing better going on in their lives, either.  Billy meets rich people and, trying to glean something from this experience, asks questions about how the Cowboys' owner got his money, how he bought the team -- only to goggle at the explanation. The world the rich move in isn't just economically out of the stratosphere for Billy; it's mentally and physically that way, as well: he spends the first quarter in the luxury box of the owner, looking down on the stadium before being kicked out for some dignitary or other.  It'll get too crowded with the guy's security detail, the team owner says, and one Bravo says well we could protect him you know, and everyone laughs before packing the Bravos off to their seats near the sideline, in the sleet.

Everywhere Billy goes seems surreal, even though it's all depicted in the most basic terms. Shown into the locker room to get some pre-game autographs, Billy fields questions from the wide receivers about what it's like to kill a man, and the players later ask if they could come on tour with Billy for a week or two and shoot some Iraqis. When Billy says they'd have to join up and why don't they do that, the players laugh: We've got jobs, they say.  We can't break our contracts.  They go through the equipment room, with staggering numbers of shoes (3,000 pairs of sneakers a year, the trainer says the team goes through.) They get to do photo-ops with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders (but when one Bravo asks whether they will meet Destiny's Child, they're told they're not a big enough deal to meet Beyonce.)

One of the most absurd, ridiculous, perfect moments comes near the end, when the Hollywood studios have gotten cold feet about the movie. (Ron Howard's company wants it, but demands it be set in World War II).  Albert talks the Cowboys' owner into financing it, but the owner wants to drop the Bravos' advance to $5500 each, and then give them a share of the profits. Sgt. Dime gets angry and says no deal, and they're about to make a counteroffer when they're called back into the room, and Norm (the owner) says there's someone on the phone for Dime.  It turns out Norm's connections have gotten him through to a General and Norm is going to have the General order Dime's men to make the deal. Dime gets on the phone, and Billy sees and hears Dime nodding, saying Yes sir and No sir and I didn't know that sir, before hanging up the phone, handing it back to Norm, and saying Come on Billy let's go.  They leave, and when Billy asks whether the General ordered them to take the deal, Dime says no.

Turns out the General's a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and hates the Cowboys.

That moment sums up just how ridiculous war is: matters of life and death, rich and poor, winners and losers, get decided based on where someone lives and which team that man roots for.  There's no grand scheme, no rhyme or reason to it, no purpose. Everything is the way it is because that's the way it is, and trying to change it is almost, if not completely, impossible. That's the lesson Billy learns on his long halftime walk before he reports back to the base and another 11 months of war.

But all is not lost.  Billy is, after all, a war hero.  So after meeting the President, being on TV, being told that an Academy Award winning actress wants to play him in a movie, and being featured on the TV in a close-up at halftime, Billy's greatest victory of the day ends up being when he finally gets some Advil for his headache.

Every gun that is made,
every warship launched,
every rocket fired signifies,
in the final sense,
a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,
those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers,
the genius of its scientists,
the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this:
a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.

We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . .

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.

Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

-- Dwight Eisenhower.

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