Study Guide

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Patriotism

By Ben Fountain

Patriotism

This is the undeniable big-time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it. In two days they will redeploy for Iraq and the remaining eleven months of their extended tour, but for now they are deep within the sheltering womb of all things American—football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus three hundred million well-wishing fellow citizens. Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, "Yew ARE America." (Cures.5)

We love it when Ben Fountain writes the dialogue phonetically, because it just makes these particular patriots seem so real in their absurdity.

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 $14,800 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. (Human Response.35)

Unlike wars in the past, some of which invaded our backyards and left visible reminders of the terrors implicit in conflict, Americans are scarily removed from the War on Terror. It's true: the vast majority of people have only seen what the media wants them to see about the war (if that, even), and this leaves people with a false sense of security that threatens to shatter when they encounter people like Billy.

"Okay look, how about this for politics. My guys are heroes, right? Americans, right? They're unequivocally on the right side and they also unequivocally kicked ass, now when was the last time that happened for this country? There's your politics, Lar, it's all about feeling good about America again. Think Rocky meets Platoon and you're on the right track." (Virtue.39)

Why do we need to feel always good about America? Would it hurt us to have a healthy dose of skepticism about our nation and what we do in its name? Why do certain forms of patriotism tell us that any kind of questioning or independent thought is bad?

A few of the neighbors got word of Billy's visit and dropped by with cakes and casseroles, as if there'd been a death in the family. […] We are so proud. We always knew. So brave, so blessed, so honored. Edwin! I yelled, come quick! Billy Lynn's on TV and he's taking out a whole mess of al-Qaedas! Nice people but they did go on, and so fierce about the war! They were transformed at such moments, talking about war—their eyes bugged out, their necks bulged, their voices grew husky with bloodlust. Billy wondered about them, then, the piratical appetites in these good Christian folk, or maybe this was just their way of being polite, of showing how much they appreciated him. (Bully.83)

Do you think these people would react the same way to Billy if they had their own experiences of violence? Maybe they have this insane bloodlust because they don't have the faintest idea of what it feels like to kill someone.

"To all those who argue this war is a mistake, I'd like to point out that we've removed from power one of history's most ruthless and belligerent tyrants. A man who cold-bloodedly murdered thousands of his own people. Who built palaces for his personal pleasure while schools decayed and his country's health care system collapsed. Who maintained one of the world's most expensive armies while he allowed his nation's infrastructure to crumble. Who channeled resources to his cronies and political allies, allowing them to siphon off much of the country's wealth for their own personal gain. So I would ask all those who oppose the war, would the world be a better place today with Saddam Hussein in power? Because what is America for, if not to fight this kind of tyranny, to promote freedom and democracy and give the peoples of the world a chance to determine their own fate? This has always been America's mission, and it's what makes us the greatest nation on earth." (All American.177)

Cue the flag backdrop and a softly swelling national anthem to really set the scene. Norm might as well run for president—he certainly knows how to schmooze like the best of them.

"I've got serious problems with Hollywood anyway," says the Cowboys owner as everyone footsies around their marks. "I think they're way out of step with the rest of the country, the concerns and value systems of mainstream Americans. Someone needs to get out there and start making films that reflect what America's really all about." (S***ty Movie.70)

Who gets to decide what American's really about, though? People like Norm? Just because he has money? Norm has basically no idea what's going on in the world outside of his financial mini-empire. He might have a lot of money, but that's basically all he's got. So why do people like Norm have so much power?

How does it all come to be, that's what he wants to know, not just the how but the why of all this stuff. Only in America, apparently. Only America could take such a product-intensive sport and grow it into the civic necessity it is today.

He's not sure what he's just seen in here, but it seems to have made him sick. (XXL.102)

Billy's commenting on the fact that American marketers have a way of making you feel like it's your patriotic duty to buy their products. Why is football seen as a kind of civic duty? Because it's been marketed that way. Why has it been marketed that way? Because it's effective. And that means more profits.

"Why should I watch myself?"

"Because in case you haven't noticed this is a highly partisan country we live in, Billy. Those guys are smart, they know who the enemy is. They aren't fooled by a couple of bulls*** war medals."

Billy glances at his chest, considering his medals in this possibly sinister light.

"I'm not the enemy."

"Oh hooooo, you don't think? They decide, not you. They're the deciders when it comes to who's a real American, dude." (Everything.106-110)

Um, are there "fake" Americans? Ponder that one for a moment, folks.

"This is everything there is, you know what I'm sayin'? I'm not like that guy who goes around saying greed is good, but it can sure as heck be a force for good. Self-interest is a powerful motivator in human affairs, and to me that's the beauty of the capitalist system, it makes a virtue out of an innate human flaw. It's why you're gonna live better than your parents, and your kids are gonna live better than you, and their kids better than them and so on, because thanks to our system we're going to keep on finding more ways, easier and better ways, to solve the problems of living and accomplish so many things we never even dreamed of."

Billy nods. America has never made so much sense to him as at this moment. (Everything.235)

Is Billy nodding because he agrees with Hawey, or is he nodding because it's like someone just finally put his finger on the thing that's made Billy feel so uncomfortable lately? Do you think this analysis is right? Do you think capitalism always makes a virtue out of self-interest? Or are there times when it turns that self-interest into something even worse? Like a war?

"I believe in your story," Norm tells the Bravos, with only the briefest glance at the field, "and I believe in the good it can do for our country. It's a story of courage, hope, optimism, love of freedom, all the convictions that motivated you young men to do what you did, and I think this film will go a long way toward reinvigorating our commitment to the war. Let's face it, a lot of people are discouraged. The insurgency gets some traction, casualties mount, the price tag keeps going up, it's only natural some people are going to lose their nerve. They forget why we went there in the first place—why are we fighting? They forget some things are actually worth fighting for, and that's where your story comes in, the Bravo story. And if the Hollywood crowd won't step up to the plate, well, I'm happy to pinch-hit, more than happy. This is an obligation I willingly assume." (Money.106)

Just doing his part for the greatest country in the world, eh? Okay, Norm.