Last week Mitt Romney reached deep into the Republican bag of stock postures to attack President Obama as weak in matters of defense and foreign policy. The macho posturing by chickenhawk Republicans (Romney, Rove, Cheney, Bush, Kristol, Gingrich and many others avoided Vietnam if not military service altogether) is an all-too-familiar and, unfortunately, effective right-wing tactic. For sheer gall the 2004 Presidential campaign will not likely be outdone: John Kerry (Silver and Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts) was slandered and ridiculed as a coward in the service of electing a man who used family influence to secure a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard and who then shirked even that safe and comfortable duty. Remember those jovial Republican convention delegates sporting purple Band-Aids? I watched them with a mixture of disbelief, rage, and, grudgingly, admiration for their absolutist fervor.
That kind of certainty can only thrive in an intellectual, experiential vacuum. The same kind of willful ignorance permits chickenhawks to believe in fantasies like “surgical strikes,” or being “welcomed as liberators.” Of course, the “deciders” who launched America’s sole preemptive war in Iraq needn’t have been tested on the field of battle to acquire a few useful truths about just how messy, unpredictable, and long lasting are the consequences of combat—they simply could have done some reading.
Firsthand reports such as We Were Soldiers Once… and Young by Harold Moore, E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, or novels like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried were available. And a much longer list comes readily to mind — not tales that are “anti-war,” but rather books that complicate received notions of heroism and victory.
Published just a few months after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Paul Fussell’s The Boys’ Crusade completed what might be thought of as a trilogy on the subject of war following, as it did, The Great War and Modern Memory and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. A literary historian and World War II veteran, Fussell focuses on the human scale of conflict — the experiences of the young (very young) men who fought in the two world wars. In Boys’ Crusade he details the high rates of desertion, surrender, and self-inflicted wounds; the way replacements were routinely pushed into dangerous duty by veteran squad-mates, and the numerous casualties resulting from friendly-fire.
Little of what Fussell reports would be surprising to anyone who has served in the military; after all, the acronyms FUBAR and SNAFU (fucked up beyond all reason; situation normal: all fucked up) originated among the ranks. But even a literary immersion in such non-glorious history might have dampened, say, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s militant enthusiasm (reportedly he was the first to bring up invading Iraq just days after 9/11). What if this chickenhawk had been acquainted with the material in the Boys’ chapter “Treatment of Damaged Bodies, Alive and Dead”? In it, the author quotes a medic’s memoir; although these are German corpses, the nineteen-year-old soldier was no less stunned:
We saw them coifed in crab-shaped helmets, dressed in gray uniforms, mouth agape, gray teeth, gray hands, worn boots, no identities, indistinguishable one from the other, dead meat, nothing to grieve.
We were stupefied by the death we’d breathed, and stumbled toward combat clutched by the fear that we, too, could be made simple.
Equipped with the certainties about international conflict acquired at Cornell, the University of Chicago and Yale, Wolfowitz didn’t stumble — he rushed headlong; after all, only other men’s lives were at stake.
Many books have already appeared by Iraq vets and others have been penned by civilians about the home front. Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk published this past spring is my candidate for the best piece of writing about the war as experienced by those of us not numbered among the 1.5 million Americans who served in Iraq.
Fountain recounts the heady days spent touring the US by Bravo Squad, a group of soldiers whose heroic acts were recorded and broadcast on TV and the internet. As guests of the Dallas Cowboys, the squad is set to appear in a halftime show with Destiny’s Child, but first must run a gauntlet of media shills, Texas millionaires, and personal friends of the Bushes, all of whom make profligate, unthinking use of words like “bravery” and “sacrifice.” Fountain’s doesn’t dwell on the traumatic consequences of combat. Battlefield gore isn’t in evidence and no one experiences flashbacks. Instead, the novelist probes the canyon-size gap between the entertainment nation and its warriors. The loss of Shroom, a friend and mentor, is never far from Billy’s mind; not far either is the prospect of returning to the war right after the game. The patriots who grow teary-eyed as they congratulate him for his brave deeds (they saw it all on TV!) appear as fools to Billy. He’s no longer quite one of us; no longer a fan of the ongoing American show.
In the days and weeks after 9/11, Bush set the tone for our post-attack climate as well as our military response: Expressing concern over the health of the airline industry, he said, “It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Soldiers would soon be sent to Afghanistan and Iraq for multiple tours of duty, yet the rest of us else should take the proceeds from our tax cuts and visit the Typhon Lagoon. Recognizing that this self-involved inanity constitutes its own satire, Fountain exhibits marked restraint. We see things through his protagonist’s eyes and, as a small-town Texan and high-school ne’er-do-well, Billy is hardly a Nation reader. Fountain keeps the focus on this young man’s inner life as he tries to reconcile his corrosive dread with the applause and backslapping of a grateful nation.
Still, Fountain remains alert to the larger political narrative and tailors pointed analogies to the events at the stadium. The owner of the football team is an archetypal self-made millionaire whose patriotism doesn’t get in the way of his low-balling the Bravos for film rights to their story, even as he speechifies about their role in “giving America back its pride.” (“Really?” Billy wonders. “The whole damn place?) In the same way, of course, Bush served turkey on Thanksgiving in Baghdad while his administration cut veterans’ medical benefits. Hung over and headachy, Billy repeatedly pleads with the military PR person all day to find some Advil but to no avail. When the Bravos tour the players’ lavish equipment facility, its manager apologizes for being unable to spare a pill — liability issues, you know. Again, a striking parallel to political machinations at the time: recall the ill-preparedness (no body armor, insufficiently armored vehicles) of the first wave of troops and Rumsfeld’s shrugged defense, “You go to war with the army you have.” In the land of plenty, no Advil for Billy. Not even in an airplane hangar’s worth of supplies and “body armor” for the Sunday gladiators.
In the climatic scene, the Bravos mount the halftime stage while Beyoncé and her backups offer the lyrics “Need me a soldjah, soldjah boy”:
The entire stage has become a blowup of foreplay aerobics, rocket thrusting, shadow humping, knurling hips and ass, here on the second tier the dancers are twurking Bravo and not a damn thing you can do except stand at attention and get pole-danced in front of forty million people. It’s not right. Nobody said anything about this. What might be merely embarrassing in real life is made hostile by TV. Billy hates to think of his mother and sisters watching this, then one of the guys starts dancing a little too close, punking Billy with glide-by swivels and squats. Like I really want to see your junk, fool! Billy gives him a look; the guy smirks and spins away. Then he comes back around, and Billy speaks with all the feeling he can jam through his teeth:
The scene crystallizes that mid-aughts moment when the chasm between here (the stock market’s booming! Brangelina! John Kerry windsurfs!) and Fallujah, between being a nation at war and being a nation that watches a war was never wider.
None of the neo-con warriors could ever have anticipated Billy’s angry rebuke to the good times we Americans won’t let any war get in the way of. They lack the imagination and knowledge. They lack the awareness of other lives that novels, memoirs, and history (not the great-man variety) provide.
The Marines look for a few good men, but our present and future leaders (not Romney or any of his five sons have worn a uniform; neither has Obama) might at least turn the pages of a few good books. What William Carlos Williams said of poetry, really all literature, is quite literal in this regard — men do die for the lack of what is found there.