Progress in America:
(3) A Book, A Movie and A Beautiful DayBen Fountain sharply criticizes the militaristic, commercial patriotism of American society in his novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk. Echoing the tones of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson’s mining of the absurdist vein of America’s celebration of its military, Fountain’s novel takes place during the halftime of a Thanksgiving Day Cowboys-Bears game in Dallas.
Billy Lynn and his ‘Bravo Company’ had fought with great heroics in Iraq. The battle was caught on camera and televised on FOX news. The Bravo Marines form an over the top collection of heroic and skeptical warriors flown home for a short cross country tour to boost support for Bush’s Great Fiasco. Wherever their tour brings them, they hear the same patriotic and religious drivel: They are ‘protecting our civilization’ by ‘fighting the terrorists,’ by their ‘honor,’ ‘great sacrifice,’ and ‘Christianity.’ They are doing ‘God’s work’ and bringing ‘civilization’ to Iraq. They however have a much finer grid of experience and these words don’t have much purchase in their experience.
Having lost his best friend in the action caught by the cameras, Billy Lynn is a 19 year old virgin Marine. The author tells the story from Billy’s point of view: utilizing a third person stream of consciousness. Coming from a hard scrabble American family, Billy remains philosophically detached from the celebrations of American Militarism, Materialism and Patriotism. Events cascade both in his mind and in the stadium as the NFL’s celebration of the Bravo Company escalates.
Strangely, the criticism of American militarism echoes the action in Aida. I saw a fabulous filmed performance of the opera by La Scala. This performance is directed the great Franco Zeffirelli and captures the drama of Verdi's great opera on the big screen. In the first two acts, Verdi portrays a heady celebration of war and warriors in ancient Egypt. The celebration involves the same basic ingredients (religion, sex, and patriotism) that Fountain employs. And the warriors’ concerns, at the center of both dramas are, though verbally supported, are abandoned by the civilian authorities and spectators. Both end up using the warriors for their own purposes.
And how strange it was to exit the movie on a beautiful day to enter a car where war was still the central topic on the news. The disbelief was only heightened by the publication of a column by Eliot Cohen in the Washington Post. Cohen, a great neo-con renowned for his support of Bush’s crazy venture into Iraq, admonishes America and it’s President, ‘you have no cause to be war-weary.’ The war is distant for you. You aren’t overseas fighting. And Mr. President you must be able to lead the country to war, not celebrating the weariness of its population for war.
People have long had art to reflect on these all too human horrors. But, hey, we humans have come along way. We’ve got the internal combustion engine, unmanned remote control bombers and we’re even all connected. Now let us try to invent institutions fit for the future - allowing us to have a chance to solve our shared problems as we share their consequences. Only that way are we likely to survive this tumultuous century without great costs.