I came at Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk from a different perspective than most, if not all other members of the club. I am a retired Army officer, but let me say up front that I was a Military Police Corps officer, not a member of he combat arms, and that I was never in a combat situation, though I served a year in a combat zone, Vietnam in 1970-71.
From my perspective this book points out the huge disconnect between soldiers and the country they serve – the absurdity of people being killed and maimed, killing and maiming others, while their countrymen, oblivious to that reality, participate in the frivolous world of entertainment – Super Bowl or other such back home. It highlights the feel-good “patriotism” of the good ol’ boys who’ll buy a GI a drink but won’t enlist or encourage their children to enlist. And it, somehow comically, paints a bit of a portrait of the dawning realization on the part of the soldiers of just how wide is the gulf between their reality and the reality that exists back home.
The young soldiers depicted in this book ring true to me. These young fellows get pretty cynical pretty fast and with, in my view, good reason.
Allow me to share one of my experiences that in a way illustrates the same kind of absurdity that Ben Fountain illustrates in his book. Toward the end of my tour in Vietnam (I served the entire year in Saigon), my replacement arrived early, leaving me with little to do. General Creighton Abrams was the U.S. commanding general at the time. Military in Vietnam were given one week of R&R, or rest & recuperation, during their one year tour of duty, and this authorized them to travel out of Vietnam to designated sites with transportation provided. One of these designated sites was Hawaii, and from Hawaii came complaints of soldiers arriving in muddy fatigue uniforms. A decision was made, whether by Gen. Abrams or a member of his staff, that soldiers would not be permitted on flights to Hawaii in fatigue uniforms. My interim assignment was to enforce this policy at Tam Son Nhut Air Base, the principal point of departure for flights to Hawaii. No thought had been given to providing an issue facility for uniforms at Tan Son Nhut.
So imagine this: a young GI is on his belly in a muddy rice paddy doing his best from getting shot, when his First Sergeant arrives in a helicopter and tells him to jump aboard if he wants his R&R. The young troop boards the helicopter, next stop Tan Son Nhut. I am supposed to tell this young man he isn’t allowed to leave without a fresh uniform, haircut and shave because someone in Hawaii might be offended at his appearance? And the command has provided no facilities for him to acquire a clean uniform, a shave and a haircut? You see what I mean?
Long story made short, I reported the shortcomings to appropriate staff, finished my tour and returned home. I have no idea whether or how long it took to get facilities into place for the troops.
Troops are aware of this absurdity and one way they deal with it is through generous helpings of gallows humor. That is what I think Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk provides.