- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Over the weekend I read Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a well-written novel about an imaginary “hero squad” brought home from Iraq to bolster the war effort. It is well-done. The author is a strong writer, with a sharp eye. He gets off some good lines about military life. “Part of being a soldier is accepting that your body does not belong to you.” The entire story takes place during the game between the Cowboys and Bears in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day 2004. In the book, unlike in real life, the Cowboys lose.
The book gets military life right, I think, but its account of Army life circa late 2004 won’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention. And if you want to know what it is like to be a hero vet returning from Iraq, there are good memoirs out there that will tell you flat out, no-holds-barred. You could start with Brian Castner’s The Long Walk — an interestingly similar title.
Where Fountain’s terrific effort of imagination is impressive is capturing American culture right at that tipping point where the country was coming to grips with what a disastrous move it was to invade Iraq. For that slice of queasy excess and the attempt to refuse to entertain doubt, the book reads to me like what Jonathan Franzen, one of my favorite novelists, would be producing if he were grappling with the central issues of our time and culture, instead of obsessing on pet cats killing wild birds.