I finished two books over the past week: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The first is a classic that I just never got around to reading until now and the second is what I hope might become a new classic.
The Things They Carried, like many good war stories, blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction, and in doing so comes closer to telling the truth of “what it’s like” than any straight telling of the facts ever could. Some of the stories are so fantastical that they seemingly cannot be true, yet they tell something deeper about war and soldiering in combat that just could not be told any other way (the improbable story of Mary Anne Bell, for example – the peppy girlfriend of a soldier who flies to Vietnam to be with her boyfriend and instead becomes consumed by the war, teaming up with a team of hardened Green Berets and going on ambushes).
Weaving between time in Vietnam, time before the war, and time after the war, O’Brien tells the story from his omniscient position as a “43 year old writer, twenty years after leaving Vietnam.” O’Brien served in Vietnam as an infantryman which helps legitimize the detailed descriptions of life in Vietnam. One of the strongest parts of the book is dedicated to O’brien’s personal struggle before the war deciding whether to attempt to dodge the draft.
While most of the book discusses O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam, I would classify this as a post-war book. This isn’t a historical recounting of battles or a chronological record of a deployment experience. It’s a looking back at the totality of a war experience and a retelling of that experience after years of thought and analysis. And that retelling has been embellished and filtered to get to a more accurate “truth” even if some of the individual stories are blatant lies.
Unlike Tim O’Brien, Ben Fountain did not serve in the military, which made me skeptical about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The author’s lack of military service or experience left me wondering how the story would unfold and I was immediately looking for the author to simply use the story of soldiers to tell some other, “greater” lesson. While it might be argued that this book uses the ‘coming home’ story of a squad of soldiers to paint a picture of modern day America, Fountain gets so much right that to me, it’s a legit post-war story, even though entire thing is a work of fiction.
The gist of the story is this: a squad of infantrymen gets into an intense firefight early in the Iraq War and that firefight is caught on camera by a Fox News crew. The video shows the squad taking it to the enemy and it becomes a feel-good morale booster for a home-front completely cutoff from the reality of the war and starved of any good news stories in the first couple of years after the September 11th attacks. The squad is then sent home from Iraq on a two-week “victory tour” which culminates in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day where the squad will participate in the Halftime Show of a Cowboys/Bears game.
I don’t know how, but Fountain manages to capture both the zeitgeist of what it was like to come home in those early days of the Iraq War and the complete feeling of emptiness that going to war and coming back can have for soldiers. The book will resonate with any veteran that has been to a bar and showered with awkward “thank you’s” as patrons glanced over briefly before turning back to their beers or who were forced to stand up to be recognized at some event, where the act of thanking seemed more a cathartic exercise for the thanker than the thanked.
Billy Lynn’s squad (known as “Bravo Squad” because the media mangled the unit designation – they were part of a Bravo Company) is constantly peppered with questions about what it was like to shoot the enemy in such a non-chalant manner because their exploits became a media sensation. With the exception of a few cutback scenes, the entire story takes place in the less than 24 period that the squad spends in their last day at Texas Stadium for the Bears/Cowboys game. They are shuffled around, moving from their sideline seats, to the owners’ box, to the locker room for an awkward meeting between the soldiers and some of the Cowboys, who begrudgingly sign autographs for the soldiers and some young children with cancer while they get ready for the game. All the while, the squad is followed by a Hollywood agent who is trying to spin their story into a movie. The soldiers, who are being hailed as heroes everywhere they go and who have become celebrities of the week are told they can expect a huge pay-day for the exclusive rights to their story. The rub comes when that “support our troops” attitude meets the reality of people having to lay down real money – a sentiment that has been felt by many veterans who have heard in the same sentence “I support the troops and thank you for your service, but there is nothing I can do.”
Like The Things They Carried, one of the key issues comes when Billy’s sister tries to connect him with an anti-war group that specializes in getting soldiers out of the military. Billy flirts with the idea of deserting, in the same way O’Brien flirted with the idea of fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.
The central question that hung in my mind as I read both books was “what is the deeper meaning of all this?” It seems that in post-war stories, the author is trying to tease out what the purpose of the war was, not on a strategic level, but on a personal level. What does my service mean for me? Both books left me wondering what it all means. Neither book provided an answer, and I’m not sure there is one or that one will ever exist.