This book has a unique premise that to my knowledge and experience reading books does not have a comparable. An Army unit hailed for their courageous efforts in Iraq are getting the hero treatment as they make their way on the final leg of their cross-country tour. After embarking on a two week whirlwind of limousines, hotels, television, radio, and mall appearances it seems to becoming a bit cumbersome for these small town young men. Before they go back to Iraq they spend some time with family for Thanksgiving and mellow out before they have one last "hoorah" and a final "oh yeahhhhhh!!!" They spend their final hours at the home of America's Team and enjoy the modern day America's Pastime. The majority of the story takes place on this final day before the Army's Bravo Company redeployment to Iraq and showcases the wide-range of emotions that the lead protagonist Billy Lynn goes through on his final day as a celebrated G.I. Joe.
"It's the randomness that makes your head this way, living the Russian-roulette every minute of the day. Mortars falling out of the sky, random. Rockets, lob bombs, IEDs, all random... 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."
Specialist Billy Lynn is a nineteen-year-old young man from Stovall, Texas. After displaying some "brotherly" love towards his sister's fiancé in an unlawfully way, he finds himself resigned to the reality of a four-year contract in Iraq in place of a felony crime and a stint in the big house. Like his fellow Bravo members he doesn't come from the perfect of households. Meth labs, abuse, crack houses, drug addicts, gangs are at at the centre of the others, but for Billy, his dad is wheelchair bound after suffering a massive stroke and their family is drowning in medical bills. His father pays him no attention and treats the rest of his family horribly. Expecting a potential hell in Iraq, Billy is fortunate to have found a semblance of a family in his combat unit and together they all believe it has become a blessing in disguise.
The author raises many good talking points about America's fascination with consumerism, the misinterpretation of patriotism, living joyfully in a bubble with ever-present distractions, and the ongoing mind-control of media on political matters. The author puts the reader in the shoes of the veteran as he is inundated with the presence of complete strangers, their well-wishes and their own stories of war. Reading some of Billy's thoughts at times during contact points I was reminded of something I read in a psychological text that said; if you maintain eye contact for longer than six seconds you either want to have sexual intercourse with them or kill them. Although Billy is a sexually-frustrated young man I have a feeling that he would have envisioned the later as being more of a reality.
" 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 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?
Their reality dominates, except for this: It can't save you. It won't stop any bombs or bullets. He wonders if there's a saturation point, a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens."
The author also points out some cold hard truths as Billy suggests that since being back he has wondered how and when America became one giant mall with a country attached to it. And after realizing the medical bills that are going to render his family bankrupt he has reconciled the fact that as he fights to the death for other people's freedom he will have to pay for his family's. The most poignant, yet laughable moment for Billy was when his buddy Mango and him visited the Dallas Cowboys equipment room.
"They are among the best-cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought - send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL!"
Billy seems like a good natured dude and a good soldier, but as he admits he is constantly fucking up in a fucked up world. In order to subdue this behaviour Billy spends his time drinking alcohol to make the stories and well-wishes of complete strangers more bearable. Being the appointed hero of the Bravo team after an embedded Fox News reporter made him a YouTube sensation, he is finding it difficult to distinguish himself from the rest of the team and dealing with the responsibility that comes with it. To Billy he simply acted like an Army Specialist, he was doing his job and feels like he didn't do it well enough because his best friend and "brother" Spc. "Shroom" Breem died. Billy was the first to acknowledge what was occurring and the first to react. It was difficult for him to understand how after 3 minute and 43 seconds of high-intensity warfare at the Al-Ansaker Canal he could be honoured for the worst day of his life. In the end the battle was an experience, but it truly became everything to him and would take the duration of his life to figure out.
"He's been having many such existential spasms lately, random seizures of futility and pointlessness that make him wonder why it matters how he lives his life. Why not wild out, go off on a rape-and-pillage binge as opposed to abiding by the moral code? So far he's sticking to the code but he wonders if he does just because it's easier, requires less in the way of energy and balls. As if the bravest thing he ever did - bravest plus truest to himself - was the ecstatic destruction of pussy boy's Saab? As if his deed on the banks of the Al-Ansaker Canal was a digression from the main business of his life."
This is such an interesting story that it hurts for me to acknowledge that it didn't do much for me with respect to being enthralled or captivated. It took a while for the story to gain momentum and when it did it became a reoccurrance of recent events. A lot of handshakes, stories, drinking, sneaking off, corralling, and headaches with little diversity. The moments that stood out for me were when Dime was taking umbrage with Norm Oglesby's compensation plan for the Bravo team's movie, Destiny's Child having a Pink Floyd effect during the halftime show, and when Billy would get lost in his thoughts and go in a trance-like state when handshaking and kissing babies.
"Don't talk about shit you don't know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are authentic. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slipped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths. That is their advantageous and given the masculine standard America has set for itself it is interesting how few actually qualify. Why we fight, yo, who is this we? Here in the chicken-hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of bloods up its sleeve."