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Two Texans in Iraq: An American Sniper and Billy Lynn

Walter Moss: As our country struggles whether or not to support President Obama’s proposed Iran nuclear deal—he has said “the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war”—what is most valuable about Fountain’s novel is what it has to say about patriotism and war, especially as contrasted with American Sniper.

By now almost everyone knows of the film American Sniper directed by Clint Eastwood and based on Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s book of the same name. Fewer have heard of Ben Fountain’s contrasting, satiric, award-winning Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel (2012), which will soon also be transformed into a film, this time directed by Ang Lee. But Texas figures prominently in both works, as does right-wing patriotism, and the macho male American culture that delights in sports like football and, at least in Texas, rodeo riding.

American Sniper

I do not know Texas very well. I just recently discovered that my great grandfather, Benjamin Moss, had ended his Civil War service there as a Union soldier. And I spent some weekends there while I was an artillery officer in the army stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in the early 1960s. And later when Roger Staubach quarterbacked the Dallas Cowboys, I was a Cowboys fan—for no better reason than that he had gone to the same Cincinnati Catholic high school as I had and was in the class of my younger brother. That’s it except for what I’ve read and heard about Texas and Texans.

Each work we are considering here was written by a Texan and deals primarily with a Texas soldier during President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Chris Kyle, “the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” as the subtitle of his autobiographic American Sniper proclaims, grew up in small Texas towns, where he says he “learned the importance of family and traditional values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors.” Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn, Fountain’s fictional creation, grows up in Stovall, Texas (also fictional) “a mere eighty miles west” of the Dallas Cowboy’s stadium (then in Irving. but now demolished).

Because of the heroic actions of Lynn’s squad fighting the enemy in Iraq, he and seven of his fellow soldiers are on a two-week “Victory Tour,” including a meeting with President Bush. Most of the novel, which includes many flashbacks, is set at a Thanksgiving Day game at the Cowboys’ Stadium, where the heroes are honored at halftime. In real life, as Eastwood’s film shows at its end, Kyle’s memorial service is also held at the Cowboys’ Stadium—only this time at the newer AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And the service occurs after a procession along a long highway route lined with those paying their respects, a scene that reminded me of those along train tracks as Bobby Kennedy’s body was taken to D.C. in 1968.

In the Billy Lynn novel, the fictional owner of the Cowboys (Norm Oglesby), tells Lynn that “it’s only natural that a native-born Texan would distinguish himself in military service.” He adds, “Everybody knows Texans make the best fighters. . . . Audie Murphy [a World War II hero and later actor], the heroes of the Alamo, you’re part of a famous tradition now.”

And indeed there is something about Texas that helps produce real-life warriors like sniper Chris Kyle. According to 2009 statistics, there were more U.S. casualties per capita in Iraq from Texas than from any other state, with only it and California each suffering over 400 military deaths, each more than twice the number of any other state. In addition, both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the chief architects of the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq, had deep ties to Texas, with Bush being one of its former governors and Cheney being the CEO (from 1995 to 2000) of the Houston-based oilfield services and equipment corporation Halliburton.

Fountain satirizes the Dallas Cowboys organization and links it with the right-wing patriotism and macho masculinity of the Bush presidency. Although Staubach had retired decades before the time the novel is set, he was a true patriot to many Texans, having served four years as a Naval officer (including one year in Vietnam). Decades later, he declined (according to Fortune magazine) Bush’s offer to become Secretary of the Navy. In 2007, with fund raising for the 2008 presidential race already underway, Staubach urged his fellow Americans to support John McCain, like Staubach a former naval officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Fountain’s fictional owner of the Cowboys (Norm, as he is affectionately called) is the chief spokesman for its later-day patriotism. “It’s my personal feeling that the war on terror may be as pure a fight between good and evil as we’re likely to see in our lifetime. Some even say it is a challenge put forth by God as a test of our national mettle. Are we worthy of our freedoms? Do we have the resolve to defend our values, our way of life? . . . . So I would ask all those who oppose the war, would the world be a better place today with Saddam Hussein in power? Because what is America for, if not to fight this kind of tyranny, to promote freedom and democracy and give the peoples of the world a chance to determine their own fate? This has always been America’s mission, and it’s what makes us the greatest nation on earth.” Norm also says, “Ladies and gentlemen, nine-eleven was our national wake-up call. It took a tragedy of that magnitude for us realize there’s a battle going on for the souls of men. This is not an enemy that can be appeased or reasoned with. They don’t negotiate; terrorists do not unilaterally disarm. In a war like this, mixed signals only encourage our enemies.”

Fountain suggests various links between football and war, which reminds one of the words of Earl “Red” Blaik, the former coach of West Point’s Army football team: “Football, beyond any game invented by man, is closest to war.” Lynn thinks that the Cowboys players

are 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! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys— how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skirts and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!

One of the Cowboys’ players is eager to get briefly in on the killing of Iraqis and asks Lynn: “We, like, we wanna do somethin’ like you. Extreme, you know, cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that? Like we ride wit yall for a week, couple weeks, help out. Help yalls bust some raghead ass, we up for that.” At halftime owner Norm tells his team, “to be as brave and determined in facing the challenge as these young soldiers were facing theirs. It starts today, gentlemen. No time like the present. So let’s go out there and kick some Bear [Chicago Bears] butt!”

In real life, the U.S. sniper Kyle shares many of the patriotic beliefs of Norm and many of the Cowboys’ fans. In Eastwood’s film, Kyle (convincingly played by Bradley Cooper) tells another soldier in Iraq: “Evil lives here, we’ve seen it. . . . You want to invite these motherfuckers to come fight in San Diego? Or New York? We’re protecting more than this dirt.” Later, he tells his wife that those he is fighting in Iraq are “fucking savages,” and that he is fighting to protect her. Like the fictional Cowboys owner Norm (and President Bush), Kyle believes that by fighting in Iraq, he is responding against the terrorists responsible for 9/11.

Kyle’s basic belief is stated early in the film when he takes to heart his father’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” speech in which he tells his son, “Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. . . those are the sheep.” But he praises the sheepdogs and says they are “blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock. . . .These men are the rare breed that live to confront the wolf.” Toward the end of the film, Kyle tells a navy doctor that he’s not troubled by all the Iraqis he’s killed—this includes at least one woman and young boy, as shown in the early part of the film. “I was just protecting my guys. They were trying to kill our soldiers and—I’m willing to stand before my creator and answer for every shot I took. The thing that haunts me are all the guys I couldn’t save.”

As to be expected, most of the right-wing media lauded Eastwood’s film and praised Kyle as a genuine American hero, while leftist media was much more critical (see here and here). The reaction to Fountain’s novel has not been as split ideologically, with even conservative columnist George Will and a Wall Street Journal book club having some good words to say about it.

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My own opinion is that the novel is much more insightful and speaks much more truth than does Eastwood’s film. The legendary actor and director claims that many people misunderstand his movie, that it’s really an anti-war film and that he hates violence, although he admits it’s central to American history. Be that as it may, American Sniper is Chris Kyle’s story, and Kyle represents a type of right-wing patriotism that is simplistic and harmful—see elsewhere for my view of a truer patriotism.

Simplistic? Why? The film portrays Kyle enlisting in service after witnessing on TV the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, thereby accepting Bush’s premise that invading Iraq was an appropriate response to that terrorist attack. Evidence is ample that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for 9/11—nor did he possess the weapons of mass destruction that Bush claimed he did.

In an insightful piece by David Masciotra that appeared earlier this year on the Salon website, its author contrasted two opposing views of masculinity as presented in American Sniper and Selma. In the first film, we see “the prevailing and prevalent projection of American manhood [which] is at once a cartoon, simplistic in its emphasis on strength and eschewal of sensitivity, and dangerous in its celebratory zeal for violence. It is not masculine as much as macho.” The second, about Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil-rights protestors displays a truer and nobler type of masculinity. It is not the world of football, rodeo riding (a passion of the young Kyle), or war, but protesting injustices, as was done at Selma, which requires a different type of heroism and courage, one more grounded in sound ethical judgments.

Both Kyle and Billy Lynn value, and correctly so, the commitment and bond that soldiers share, their willingness to sacrifice their lives for one another. But what is noble about killing foreigners, including women and children, whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or elsewhere just because some national leader like Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush says it’s the right thing to do? Were Germans in World War II right to kill Americans (or the Russians, French, or English) just because Hitler told them it was necessary? Or does the fact that we are Americans—in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”—make it okay to just trust our leaders and do what they decide?

Unlike the American Sniper, Billy Lynn and his creator Fountain perceive much of the bullshit (a word used 19 times in the novel) being spewed about the Iraq war and imbedded in America’s consumer culture. (Compare Jon Stewart’s final rant on “bullshit.”) After hearing some of Cowboys’ owner Norm’s nonsense, Lynn thinks about his fellow citizens, “All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms. Billy himself never noticed how fake it all is until he’d done time in a combat zone.”

American Sniper

The whole Cowboys-Bears game that Billy witnesses and the half-time extravaganza that he and his squad participate in are filled with commercialism, glitz, and militaristic patriotism. At one point Billy thinks:

It’s not like you’re supposed to watch the actual game anyway, no, you watch the Jumbotron, which displays not just the game in real and replay time but a nonstop filler of commercials, a barrage of sensory overload that accounts for far more content than the game itself. Could it be that advertising is the main thing? And maybe the game is just an ad for the ads. It’s too much anyway, what they want from it. Such a humongous burden the game has to bear, so many advertising dollars, such huge salaries, such enormous outlays for physical plant and infrastructure that you can practically hear the sport groaning under the massive load,

Regarding the half-time show, Billy later watches it on YouTube and appreciates “the enormous scale of it, at least five marching bands cycling on and off the field, the frantic sex-show choreography happening onstage [featuring Destiny’s Child (including Beyoncé)], flag girls and drill squads [including the United States Army Drill Team] from one end zone to the other. . . . The proverbial cast of thousands. Someone will describe it as a production worthy of a Broadway musical.”

There is much more to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk than indicated here and many reasons why it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award. But at present, as our country struggles whether or not to support President Obama’s proposed Iran nuclear deal—he has said “the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war”—what is most valuable about Fountain’s novel is what it has to say about patriotism and war, especially as contrasted with American Sniper.

In another place, I have mentioned the impact films could have on young Americans thinking of war and wrote the following about those like Phillip Caputo who once romanticized war (as he tells us in Rumor of War):

Caputo recalled how as a young college student in 1960 he enrolled in a Marine officer training program partly as a result of the romantic heroism of such war movies as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Guadacanal Diary (1943), and Retreat, Hell! (1952) He explained his motivation as such: “The heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man's most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. . . . Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest . . . I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood.

Other Vietnam veterans also recalled the impact of films about World War II, especially the very popular To Hell and Back (1955), starring Audie Murphy and based on the autobiography of this war hero turned actor. Both Ron Kovic, in his Born on the Fourth of July (1976), and Lieutenant William Calley, court-martialed for the Vietnam atrocity My Lai, mentioned Murphy’s influence on their desire to fight in Vietnam. During the 1991 Gulf War, decorated combat veteran Colonel David Hackworth observed of Western troops, “Hollywood completely colors their way of seeing war.”

The Texas “patriots” satirized by Fountain praise John Wayne’s war heroes and the real life Audie Murphy, and in his book Kyle tells us “I love John Wayne.” Fountain satirizes the mentality that thought about Iraq:

Send in more troops. Make the troops fight harder. Pile on the armor and go in blazing, full-frontal smackdown and no prisoners. And by the way, shouldn’t the Iraqis be thanking us? Somebody needs to tell them that, would you tell them that, please? Or maybe they’d like their dictator back. Failing that, drop bombs. More hand bigger bombs. Show these persons the wrath of God and pound them into compliance, and if that doesn’t work then bring out the nukes and take it all the way down, wipe it clean, reload with fresh hearts and minds, a nuclear slum clearance of the country’s soul.

This is an unthinking, stupid kind of patriotism. Wars are not the glorious experiences often made out to be in films or books or nostalgic celebrations. Read, for example, Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, and you’ll be reminded why Union General William T. Sherman told listeners at the Ohio State Fair in 1880: “There is many a boy here to-day who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

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Walter Moss