Study Guide

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Warfare

By Ben Fountain

Warfare

His chief fear up to the moment the shooting started being that of f***ing up. Life in the Army is miserable that way. You f*** up, they scream at you, you f*** up some more and they scream some more, but overlying all the small, petty, stupid, basically foreordained f***ups looms the ever-present prospect of the life-f***ing f***up, a f***up so profound and all-encompassing as to crush all hope of redemption. (Thing Begins.13)

That would be one heck of a mistake to make, right? There are no "whoopsies" when live ammunition is in play.

They take the steps two at a time. A few people call out greetings from the stands, and Billy waves but won't look up. He's working hard. He's climbing for his life, in fact, fighting the pull of all that huge hollow empty stadium space, which is trying to suck him backward like an undertow. In the past two weeks he's found himself unnerved by immensities—water towers, skyscrapers, suspension bridges and the like. Just driving by the Washington Monument made him weak in the knees, the way that structure drew a high-pitched keening from all the soulless sky around it. (Cures.8)

Billy, along with most of the men of Bravo, is definitely suffering from PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, at least to some extent. We're not trying to play armchair psychiatrist (okay, maybe we are, just a little bit), but it's not usual to just develop sudden agoraphobia. Or to weep from the stress of fireworks. Or to want to kill someone just because that person has the audacity to pack heat at a football game.

It seems to Billy a flat-out miracle that any of them are still alive. So they've lost Shroom and Lake, only two a numbers man might say, but given that each Bravo has missed death by a margin of inches, the casualty rate could just as easily be 100 percent. The freaking randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death, and horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third s***ter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of the right. Random. How that s*** does twist your mind. Billy sensed the true mindf***ing potential of it on their first trip outside the wire, when Shroom advised him to place his feet one in front of the other instead of side by side, that way if an IED blew low through the Humvee Billy might lose only one foot instead of two. (Cures.44)

That's some intense stuff right there. We all know war isn't easy, but it's one thing to know it and another to experience it. Can you imagine having those thoughts going through your head all the time? That where you decide to pee and how you place your feet when you get in the car could mean life or death? That must be exhausting.

It's the randomness that makes your head this way, living the Russian-roulette lifestyle every minute of the day. Mortars falling out of the sky, random. Rockets, lob bombs, IEDs, all random. Once on OP Billy was pulling night watch and felt a sick little pop just off the bridge of his nose, which was, he realized as he tumbled backward, the snap of a bullet breaking the sound barrier as it passed. Inches. Not even that. Fractions, atoms, and it was all this random, whether you stopped at the piss tube this minute or the next, or skipped seconds at chow, or were curled to the left in your bunk instead of the right, or where you lined up in column, that was a big one. At first they were hitting the lead Humvee, then they switched to number two, then it was a toss-up between two, three, and four, then they went back to one, and don't even talk about the never-ending mindf*** debate as to your odds in any particular seat inside the vehicle, on any given day it could be anything, anywhere. "You can dodge an RPG," he said to a reporter a couple of days ago. He hadn't meant to reveal such a fraught and intimate fact, and felt cheap, as if he'd divulged a shameful family secret, but there it was, you can dodge an RPG, that damn crazy thing lamely fluttering at you, spitting and smoking like a cheap Mexican firework, tttttthhhhhhhpppppfffffftttt-FOOOM! What he'd meant to say, been trying to say, is that it's not a lie, sometimes it really happens in slow-motion time, his ultimate point being just how strange and surreal your own life can be. Lately he thinks he could have tapped it as it flew by, sent it spinning off to nowhere like thumping a balloon instead of merely dodging as it sputtered past on its way to making such a christf*** mess back there. What's happening now isn't nearly as real as that, eating this meal, holding this fork, lifting this glass, the realest things in the world these days are the things in his head. (Virtue.10)

There it is, again: the randomness of warfare. It seems like, to Billy, that's the worst part of war, hands down. Not the fighting, not the weather, not the job…but the not knowing. Everything is ultimately out of his control.

Everything is so clean. Iraq is trash, dust, rubble, rot and bubbling open sewers, plus these maddening microscopic grains of sand that razor their way into every orifice of the human body. Lately he's noticed the crud is even in his lungs. It whines when he takes a deep breath, a faint screeching down there like bagpipes playing deep in the valley, and he wonders if it's a permanent thing or just a temporary backup in the filtration system. (Virtue.99)

How much of this is because Iraq is at war, and how much is because it's the freakin' desert? Would Iraq be so miserable if it weren't for the war?

The war is out there somewhere but Billy can't feel it, like his sole experience with morphine when he could not feel pain. At one point he even tried as an experiment, stared at his cut-up arms and legs thinking hurt, but the notion simply gassed into thin air. That's how the war feels now, it is at most a presence or pressure on his mind, awareness without content, an experiential doughnut hole. (Virtue.129)

This is kind of like how you can't remember pain. You can remember that something hurt, and that you were in pain, but it's not like you can recall the pain itself. Thankfully, for Billy, the war is the same way: he can remember it, but he can't exactly feel it. His brain is apparently self-medicating.

So is this what they meant by the sanctity of life? A soft groan escaped Billy when he thought about that, the war revealed in this fresh and gruesome light. Oh. Ugh. Divine spark, image of God, suffer the little children and all that—there's real power when words attach to actual things. (Bully.38)

Billy is playing with his nephew and thoroughly enjoying himself—to his surprise—when this thought strikes him. He suddenly realizes that the war is supposed to be about fighting for kids like Brian, and trying desperately to preserve their precious innocence…and that blows his mind a little bit.

All your soldier life you dream of such a moment and every Joe with a weapon got a piece of it, a perfect storm of massing fire and how those beebs blew apart, hair, teeth, eyes, hands, tender melon heads, exploding soup-stews of shattered chests, sights not to be believed and never forgotten and your mind simply will not leave it alone. Oh my people. Mercy was not a selection, period. Only later did the concept of mercy even occur to Billy, and then only in the context of its absence in that place, a foreclosing of options that reached so far back in history that quite possibly mercy had not been an option there since before all those on the battlefield were born. (All American.137)

We feel like this quote would be best discussed with the "shocked into silence" emoji. So here you go.

"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)

This is terrible. Billy thinks he's home from the war, safe in the welcoming embrace of his fellow patriots, but Dime blows that all apart when he tells him that the enemy is the guys who sent him to war in the first place. Billy learns that he's just been a pawn, really, and nothing he ever does will quite change that. Nobody really cares about him.

By such measures, the United States military is the most beautiful fighting force in the history of the world. The first time he saw this demonstrated up close and personal sent him into a kind of shock, or maybe what they mean by awe. They were taking small-arms fire from somewhere above, sloppy, sporadic, deadly nonetheless. Finally it's sourced to a four-story apartment building down the street. There are flower pots in the windows, laundry strung from the sills. "Call it in," Captain Tripp radioed to Lt., so Lt. calls in the strike, two 155 mm HE rounds engage and the whole building, no, half the block goes down, boom, problem solved in a cloud of flame and smoke. So screw all the high-tech, precision-guided, media-whore stuff, the only way to really successfully invade a country is by blasting it to hell. (Walk.18)

Yup. That's modern warfare. It's pretty self-explanatory. Scary, isn't it?