Monday, May 27, 2013

More On Our Hero Worship of the Military

"They mash in close, push and shove, grab at his arms and talk too loud, and sometimes they break wind, so propulsive is their stress.  After two solid weeks of public events Billy continues to be amazed at the public response, the raw wavering voices and frenzied speech patterns, the gibberish spilled from the mouths of seemingly well-adjusted citizens.  We appreciate, they say, their voices throbbing like a lovers." (p. 37)

Billy, the title character of the novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is with the rest of  Bravo squad
("though technically, there's no such thing as  Bravo squad.  They are Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad, said squad being comprised of teams alpha and bravo, but the Fox embed christened them Bravo squad and thus they were presented to the world." (p. 4))
at a Dallas Cowboys pregame.  Not too far into the book, I know there was some brave rescue the squad made and now they are on a two week victory lap around the US getting maximum publicity for themselves, the war, and President Bush.  There's even a movie deal being worked during this chilly afternoon in Dallas.

In the opening quote, they are sitting in their seats when their names are flashed on the Jumbotron.  People come up to them to connect with the soldiers before they go back to complete the last 11 months of their deployment in Iraq.
"No one spits, no one calls him baby-killer.  On the contrary, people could not be more supportive or kindlier disposed, yet Billy finds these encounters weird and frightening all the same.  There's something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid , ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need.  That's his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they're all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,000 a year.  For these adult, affluent people he is mere petty cash in their personal accounting, yet they lose it when they enter his personal space.  They tremble.  They breathe in fitful stinky huffs.  Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.  It's been hard times in America - how did we get this way?"  (p. 38)

It seemed like an appropriate quote for Memorial Day, the day we honor the war dead, the idea of war and of sending soldiers around the world to protect democracy at home.

Ben Fountain's novel, which looks like it's all going to take place at the football game, is starting to paint a different picture of that adoration.  As the afternoon  progresses, we get flashbacks to Iraq and the incident that made them heroes and gave them this two week reprieve from living on the edge of death.  (Two of their squad didn't make it home alive already.)

So far this book explores Americans' need to see these soldiers as heroes, their own need to fill some void in their own lives.  And to fill that need, they see the soldiers into their own narrative of American greatness protected from the evil outside world by these brave soldiers. A narrative that is clearly different from the one playing in Billy's head. 

Here's a New York Times review - which I haven't read because I want to finish the book first - to get another take on this book.

[UPDATE:  I've put up a second post on the book here.]


  1. I wasn't planning to write this morning, then you posted a note about the American love of things military. May I, only one day after Memorial Day, question the ancient practice of naming those who kill in war, our heroes?

    I sit in London rather than a Portland, Boston, or Seattle, a Duluth or Burlington. I do so in part as I no longer see America as I once did -- as a land of progress-building, an epic in progress – with America the latest and greatest story of all.

    Only this morning, I was asking why I mightn’t live in one of the American cities I mentioned. I know why. It's the near-idolatry of things military, the things we Americans are taught to believe about the world and our right to project far-flung posts, to protect our shores.

    Yet I live in London. I see why. Britain was once a world superpower in an age of God and Empire. Just as America today, Britons once held its military so honoured, it nearly became an article of faith to support it.

    The ever-present irony is just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter, faith in military might doesn’t make a soldier’s action right. So I speak an American heresy today. I do not sing of arms and the man as in Virgil’s epic.

    I sing of that day, some day that must come, when all nations will beat their swords into ploughshares – and on that glorious day, we shall hail heroes who kill no more.

    America, that day, will be beautiful.

  2. This sounds like a great book. The adulation of these poor boys we turn into killers is sick. A couple used our empty parsonage for several years. The man was an Army chaplain. I could never understand, being a part of a peace church, how he could offer solace to men who kill other human beings. How a so-called man of God could even put himself in the position to support everything Jesus was against. I still can't.
    How does a country that portrays itself as "christian" (I know, we are not and never have been, but that preudo-belief wins the GOP lots of votes) be in constant conflict with the rest of the world? Where did God say, "Go out and kill anyone you think doesn't agree with you?" Where did Jesus say ignoring the Thou Shalt Not Kill commandment was hunky-dory? And we wonder why so many servicemen come back with mental issues. I have never wondered. I know that bringing up boys NOT to fight, and to solve their problems without guns and fists is good for a society. Sending them to war hurts us all, and once you turn someone into a killer, how do you expect him to be a loving husband and father ever again? America is wrong.

  3. Thanks Jacob and Anonymous. I find this all very troubling.
    This is probably worth a few posts all on their own. Here are some of the questions I think Americans (and people of other nations) ought to be exploring:

    1. The idea of a just war - to defend oneself or to help innocents being slaughtered
    2. The idea that war is promoted by those who profit from war - by selling arms and other supplies needed by the military, by protecting old or gaining new benefits (ie access to resources, etc.)
    3. The selling of war and war culture to be able to recruit soldiers and divert resources to war and people's ability to learn what is really true - ie WMD's
    4. The models of masculinity we have that make war appealing to young men (and what about women?)
    5. The military as an escape from one's problems - economic, social, legal, etc.
    6. The mixing of military and patriotism and loyalty to one's country
    7. The damage war causes after the fighting is over
    8. The gap between people's voiced support for war and soldiers and the level of support they give them during and after their service
    9. The Halo affect which gives military the benefit of the doubt - even though we get story after story of military abuses such as Abu Ghraib and sexual assault.

    To what extent should young men be informed enough about war, injuries, death, politics, and economics before they sign up? How might that be done? What prevents it? Is there something genetic in young men that would still cause many to sign up? Do women sign up for different reasons? To what extent is it reasonable to say: Look, you volunteered for this, now you have the consequences; you should have known better; now take responsibility for your own action? Probably as reasonable as saying that to teenaged mothers and mentally or physically disabled homeless folks (many of whom are vets.)

    The point is that "the military" is just a giant category that is made up of many different people. Each person in the military should be dealt with as an individual and evaluated (for a job, in a courtroom, as a candidate, etc) on his or her individual merits.

    Let's see where this book is headed.

  4. Not a book I'll be picking up any time soon, as I'm slogging through the western cannon I never read as a young man -- my own private university outside my formal education. Saying that, I'm taking up a book club this week employing my first e-reader (Kobo Glo) to buy and read-discuss contemporary LGBT authors. That's my lighter reading now.

    Otherwise, it's philosophy, theology, sciences, history, politics and political economy.

    I see you've done the quite intellectual side-step to the dilemma posed by this writer on the lure of war. Questions. Lots of questions. Picking the bones with a thousand queries.

    It's all good, although I can admit my frustration with using reason when we're talking 'noble puppies' and the just causes of war. As more science is exploring and illuminating this field of inquiry, I must admit we are animals wired to emotional instinct, socialised for group bonding always asserting self-interest. It's quite a balancing act and the military is a place (particularly for young men) where we can experience cohesion of these conflicts under the exhilaration of fire.

    How we consciously choose to confront our genetic and cultural codes is challenging work, especially as we duck and cover from the ongoing compulsion to violence, warranting, so often, the use of violence to respond to it.

    I will wish you good journey for the many plausible replies.


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