The Relevance of Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk

By Michael Overa, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Americans love the art of the spectacle. And if you’re talking business, there’s nothing like a giant American flag and patriotic music to sell whatever it is you want to sell. It becomes a dangerous cocktail, this concoction of flag-waving jingoism, capitalism, and pageantry.

Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain may look, at first blush, like a novel about U.S. military involvement in the Middle East; however, it’s more about what the conflict says about the current state of America’s moral and ethical fiber. By all rights, protagonist Billy Lynn is an all-American hero: combat veteran, recipient of a Silver Star, and Texan. The story itself, in case you’ve yet to read it, follows Specialist Billy and his fellow members of Bravo Squad on a whirlwind two-week “Victory Tour” that has all the hallmarks of a PR stunt.

The eight surviving Bravos are shuttled from city to city during their tour, eventually ending up at the pièce de résistance: the Thanksgiving Day halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. The Bravos are marched out on stage while Destiny’s Child croons, fireworks explode, and cheerleaders prance. What is at the most optimistic a chance to honor the soldiers, seems a whole lot like using the soldiers as a prop.

We learn that the footage of the battle, captured by an embedded Fox News team, has become its own spectacle. The life-and-death reality of daily life for the Bravos is little more than a nifty action sequence to bolster feel-good patriotism. What was all-too real to the Bravos is surreal to the patriotic well-wishers: “Everyone always says how much like a movie the footage is.” It’s evident that it’s not the battle or what they did that’s important to the squad’s “fans”; it is the spectacle now that matters: a fantasy played out on the evening news. Their momentary celebrity has nothing to do with the reality of their actions. Rather, their actions have become part of a new narrative—one that no longer belongs to them.  Against their will, the story has been co-opted and repurposed.

A novel like Billy Lynn could scarcely be more timely. The 2016 election cycle was dominated by the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism. It was also an election cycle dominated by spectacle, or, what Ben Fountain calls the Fantasy Industrial Complex. It’s exactly this complex that elevated the election to a fevered pitch across the nation. The actual issues are brushed aside and replaced with sheer spectacle; Billy Lynn would recognize this as the same attitude that leads to the awkward hypocrisy of citizens who pat themselves on the back for having thanked a soldier for his service. Read more…