Sunday, June 2, 2013

America at War: Who Pays and Who Plays?

In the wake of 9/11, America was saturated in flags and patriotism.  They came again after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  But after each outpouring, it seemed, the flag-waving fever died down, and the nation went back to its usual priorities of Twitter, TMZ, and Target's weekly specials.

Of course, not all of the nation did -- the families of those serving in the Armed Forces remained acutely aware of the fighting overseas.  But the rest of the nation seemed to hardly notice at all, in large part because it was making no sacrifices -- outside of placing "Support Our Troops" magnets on the vehicles.

Despite the hagiography of The Greatest Generation, the soldiers and civilians who made success in World War II possible, the nation seemed unprepared for its own current role; the Greatest Generation may be our saints, but they are not our role models.

We laud the bravery of those soldiers, sailors, pilots, and nurses from the 1940s.  We praise the sacrifices of the civilians who lived through rationing of gasoline, rubber, and other consumer items needed to fuel the war effort.  Flash forward 60 years and witness the hysteria that followed any rapid increase in gas prices.  Witness tax cuts when the nation was at war.  Witness the total absence of daily sacrifice -- or even inconvenience -- by civilian America.

Witness the disconnect between the sacrifices asked of one group (soldiers) on behalf of another group (civilians) asked to make none.

Ben Fountain
That disconnect is a dominant theme of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a novel by Ben Fountain that was a finalist for the  National Book Award in 2012.  I have just finished reading it as I prepare to teach a course in the Fall that will compare the literature of America's war in Vietnam with the literature of its war in Iraq.
was a finalist for the

The novel takes place over the course of a few hours, when a squad of U.S. soldiers attend a Dallas Cowboys football game to be honored for their bravery.  They participate in a halftime performance by Destiny's Child (including Beyonce), and in the process they are overwhelmed by the bloated corporate enterprise of the NFL, Hollywood, and the music industry -- and by the simultaneous patriotism and cluelessness of the spectators and executives that surround them.  Fountain shows the soldiers as the symbols of American pride, as decorations for a hypersexual media circus, and as commodities to be bought and sold.  By the end of the novel, they are almost happy to be going back to Iraq, as they have been assaulted emotionally and physically by Hollywood's greed for their story, by stage managers who view them as props, by civilians who won't stop asking stupid questions, and by a gang of roadies from the halftime show.

And here is the passage that I want to emphasize, when Fountain powerfully captures Billy's awareness of the disconnect I note above.  As Billy escapes the corporate spectacle of Texas Stadium, he realizes the balance of power.  He realizes that the stark reality of war, the death and the pain, are overpowered by the spectacular unreality of America:

For the past two weeks he's been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force.  His reality is their reality's bitch; what they don't know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he's lived what he's lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects.  To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?

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