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A deadly firefight with Iraqi insurgents caught on video by Fox News has transformed eight U.S. soldiers into media stars. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is the lead character in a novel about the surviving men of the “Bravo Squad” and their brief return home. As the squad mourns the death of a fellow soldier, they are sent on a two-week nationwide “victory tour” to drum up support for the war. But their painful reality is obscured as they are honored during a Dallas cowboys Thanksgiving Day game. A Readers’ Review discussion of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain.
- Maureen Corrigan Book critic, NPR's Fresh Air; author, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures"
- Tom Tarantino Chief policy officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and former Army Captain who served in Iraq. He was awarded a Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star.
- Louis Bayard Author, "Roosevelt's Beast." His other books include "The Pale Blue Eye," "The School of Night" and "Mr. Timothy." He teaches fiction writing at The George Washington University.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It's sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life. That's a line from "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," a debut novel by Ben Fountain. The book is about a group of soldiers struggling to make sense of their experience in Iraq as they become media stars sent on a nationwide victory tour. Joining me in this studio for this month's "Reader's Review," Tom Tarantino with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Maureen Corrigan of Georgetown University, and Lou Bayard of George Washington University.
MS. DIANE REHMI invite you to be, as always, part of the program. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. TOM TARANTINOThanks for having us.
MS. MAUREEN CORRIGANThanks, Diane.
MR. LOUIS BAYARDNice to be here.
REHMGood to see you all. Tom Tarantino, I'll start with you. I had some problems with this novel in the beginning, because of the language. It's pretty, sort of, right in the gut, and profane as it can possibly be. Every sentence, every other word, and I sort of thought, where is this going? Why have my producers recommended this book? Tell me how you came to it.
TARANTINOYeah, I was actually really surprised. I generally don't read war novels, mostly because that was my job for 10 years, and it's essentially still my job working for IAVA. But I found this shocking realistic, Especially for a fictional novel. The way that he portrayed the soldiers and how they interacted with each other. In terms of the profanity, you know, soldiers tend to be, and I apologize to my other military brothers, I'm gonna say soldier, and sisters, I'm gonna say soldier, I was in the Army, and just, we don't have enough time to go into it.
TARANTINOSoldiers are pretty irreverent. We're pretty funny because when you're in combat, you have to adopt terror and violence as part of your everyday life. And so, you know, you get profane, you get silly, you get irreverent as a way to cope with that. And that is one of the mechanisms that I think he very successfully used for the squad dealing with the uncomfortableness of being back home. And dealing with the absurdity of looking -- you know, the American perspective of the war at the time.
REHMSo, you're saying because it was the familiar way they behaved, they carried that on.
TARANTINOAnd then that you see, it's interesting in the novel, is that they do that amongst each other, but once they're on, so to speak, suddenly the switch gets flipped and they're the perfect model soldier. It's part of that discipline that you live, and it's also part of the duality that you live in when you're in combat, and how you compartmentalize the terror and violence while still maintaining your relationships with your fellow soldiers.
REHMLou Bayard, how did you feel about it?
BAYARDAbout the language itself?
REHMAbout the book in general.
BAYARDI enjoyed the hell out of this book, I'm telling you. And not just because of the language. I just used some language of my own, I know. But because, to me, it's such a juicy serial comic romp through this particular time in America. We're thinking it's 2004. The Iraq War is raging. It's before people have started to turn away from it in massive numbers, but there are pockets of resistance already in place. And you have these soldiers, Bravo Squad, who are being treated to a victory tour because they've been captured on film by a Fox News camera engaged in this major firefight.
BAYARDThe Battle of (unintelligible) Canal. And now, they're being feted throughout America, they're being treated as heroes, and as a climax, they're brought to Texas Stadium in Dallas for a Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day.
REHMAnd, of course, Maureen Corrigan, one of the reasons that the scene captured on television is so important is that their leader dies right there.
CORRIGANAnd it makes for good television. A big concern with this novel is whether something or not is real if it's not captured on TV, or if it's not an image. And I think that's one of the things that distinguishes this novel, and makes it so smart, the way it keeps asking that question of, well, what is real? And if we don't believe something unless it's on TV, you know, what does that do to our everyday experiences? This is a novel that goes beyond just, and I put that in quotes, being a war novel to ask the question that so many novels have been asking since the '60s. How can you discern the authenticity of experience?
CORRIGANHow can you tell when someone is just putting you on, as so many of the people in this novel do. They come up to the soldiers and thank them for their service, for their patriotism, for their courage.
REHMProfoundly. Over and over again.
CORRIGANAnd the words don't mean anything. They're rote, they're cheapened by their overuse.
REHMAnd the soldiers themselves feel this. They feel as though they're being used, Tom.
TARANTINOYou know, what's interesting to me when you read the book, and you look at whenever someone goes into their diatribe about, you know, how proud they are and the War on Terror. The author, suddenly, like devolves into this word cloud, and it's words scattered across the page, and I actually found that really accurate. Because I've lived through these speeches, and you just sort of tune out and wait until they're done, and then say thank you and shake their hand. Because, it's people coming to terms with the war that they didn't experience, they don't understand, and trying to associate with something that, largely, the American people have had no connection to.
TARANTINOWe're talking .7 percent of the American population has served in the Iraq War. And this, for a 12 year war, we have never had such a small amount of people have this shared experience. And that's causing a lot of problems, not just with the war, but with the veteran's community, you know, with employment, education and healthcare and so on.
REHMSo, how about the language at the start of the book, Maureen? How did that get to you or not get to you?
CORRIGANHonestly, Diane, I would have been surprised if the language weren't there. I mean, when I think about other war novels and non-fiction works that I've read that have come out of Vietnam, for instance. Michael Herr's "Dispatches," leaps to mind. Or Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night," about the march on the Pentagon in 1967 about the war on the home front during Vietnam. They're studded with obscenities and foul language. I think it's part of the project, again, of this novel, to get to what is the real? And as Tom was saying, when the soldiers are off duty and just speaking amongst themselves, they're using that language.
CORRIGANWhen they have to put up a front for the citizens who expect a certain kind of polite, manly behavior of them, then they don't use that language.
REHMDoes this novel, Lou, strike you as a war novel, or something else?
BAYARDIt's a little of -- it's more than a war novel, as Maureen said. It's also, I would call it, a satire of, frankly, Bush's America. I think this is a very political book. It's a very searing take on the plutocracy, the kind of guys who have sky boxes in Texas Stadium and make millions of dollars a year. These, I think in Ben Fountain's view, are the architects of the war, and they're the ones who are shaking hands of these soldiers and fawning all over them. And yet, they would never begin to send any of their own children to this war. I think there's this class divide that the hero, Billy Lynn, is very attune to from the start, and it really makes him mad.
TARANTINOYeah, I mean, that's always been an undercurrent. I mean, when so few people are serving in the military, and so few people are deploying, the divide, that I would argue started, really, during the Vietnam War, has gotten so much farther. And, you know, you have so few actually serving, and, you know, I think it's a line from a movie, I think it was Troy, where it says war is old men talking and young men fighting. You know, you'd have to amend that to say it's old men talking and a very small amount of young men fighting while the rest just ignore it, or stand around and watch.
REHMLet's talk about the main character, 19 year old Billy Lynn. Maureen, he's so appealing.
CORRIGANHe's appealing because he's still innocent about so many things. I mean, he says that he's a virgin, for one thing. And I think he has that youthful will to believe. He wants to believe these old silverbacks, as the older men in the novel are called, who come up and congratulate him and the other members of the Bravo Company. He wants to believe that they're good men, that they're people to look up to. These elders of the community, these industrialists. And I think he still has that youthful naïveté.
CORRIGANIn some ways, this novel is very traditional. It follows that familiar plot. We see it from Stephen Crane's, "The Red Badge of Courage" on, where a young man is thrown into war and he's awakened. His idealism is stripped away.
REHMWhy does he join the Army?
CORRIGANProbably because it's the only career option open to him, really. I mean, as Lou was saying, this is a very smart novel about class. I mean, what are his options? He's not going to go to a good four year college. He's a working class kid from Texas.
REHMBut there's actually another reason, Tom.
TARANTINORight. I mean, she is right.
TARANTINOBut, you know, he was avoiding going to jail, and there was this whole thing with his sister, and I won't ruin the plot too much. But, you know, he gets in some trouble, and gets the opportunity to go into the military to, quote unquote, straighten himself out. Or pay...
REHMOr go to jail.
TARANTINOOr go to jail, which has been a common theme, but, you know, what he did wasn't particularly criminal. It was a knucklehead thing. But I think these talks about the undertone of, you know, what we're having in the military, but also the ability for this generation to transform itself. I mean, one of the things that Billy, if he were a real person, would be able to do after his service, is get a full college education, and change his circumstances of his life.
REHMTom Tarantino. He is with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to this month's Readers' Review. We're talking about Ben Fountain's book. It was his first novel titled "Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." It's about a group of Iraq veterans brought home for a very brief time to take sort of a star tour around the country, but specifically to go to a Dallas football game. What happens at that game, Lou?
BAYARDA lot of things happen. They are -- they're charted out for a press conference. They get a fancy lunch. Then they're brought out for the halftime show with Destiny's Child. They're very excited about meeting Beyonce. She's really the central female figure in the whole book, almost like the Virgin Mary with these guys. They are so...
REHMAnd they're all fantasizing about what they'll be able to do when they meet her and they see her.
BAYARDExactly, exactly. And these guys have been, you know, in combat for 11 months so they're raring to go here. So -- and in the process they get into scraps and they meet some girls -- some Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, these world famous beauties. And they start drinking. They do some weed and things get out of hand after a while.
TARANTINOWhat's interesting is that, you know, they are trotted out on stage and they don't -- you know, and...
REHMThey're very uncomfortable.
TARANTINOThey're very uncomfortable and because they're suddenly in this garish environment where there's fireworks going off and there's lights and there's people and it's just very overwhelming. And what's interesting, and that the author is very subtle about, is that this isn't a post traumatic stress reaction. This is a normal stress reaction. It is a normal reaction that anyone who has come from that environment mere days before and thrown into something like this, in addition to the physical somatic response, it would be -- the ridiculousness would also cause a lot of stress and frustration.
REHMWhen you think about Billy, does he ring true to you?
TARANTINOYeah, I mean, this is the one thing that the author gets so right and I don't know how he did it because he -- I don't know if he ever embedded or -- I don't know how much time he spent with soldiers. But he really got the characterization right. He uses a couple literary tricks, like for instance, you know, we talked about how Billy's young and innocent and not very worldly but he also speaks through Billy a lot. You know, a lot of Ben Fountain's sort of philosophy and stuff comes through Billy's internal monologue.
TARANTINOAnd so in a way he seems a little wiser than he is but it allows the story to go through. And, you know, Billy reminds me an awful lot of the guys that I led through Iraq.
REHMBut do you think, as many have said, that Bravo Troop is used to drum up support for the war?
TARANTINOOh, absolutely. I mean, that's the central reason they're on this tour. And this is not new. The Army's been doing this since World War I. I mean, this is a very old public relations device that the military uses where they take war heroes and they trot them out, whether it's to sell war bonds or to build public support. You know, and it's -- what's interesting is that you never really, with a few exceptions, get to tell the story of what that does to the warrior.
REHMExactly. And I found myself thinking, these poor guys, they've been transported and they know they're going to face going back to Iraq, Maureen.
CORRIGANAnd by the end of the novel, I think they want to go back to Iraq.
REHMIt's almost safer.
CORRIGANGet me back to that foxhole rather than the stadium here. They know how to behave back there. And they're constantly thrust into situations in this novel where they're not quite sure what the protocol is. The one thing that I think we haven't stressed enough is just how funny this novel is. There were passages where I was laughing out loud and the exuberance of the language.
CORRIGANI mean, Ben Fountain is fabulous, for instance, at describing the physical super human attributes of the Dallas Cowboys players. And there's this moment where Billy even thinks, why not send them into the war and have done with it. It'll be over in a day.
REHMLeave us here, yeah. What about the central part of the novel, Lou, when Billy goes home and he's back with his family? His father has suffered a stroke. I gather he never really got along very well with his dad to begin with. But now his father is even more removed from him as a son and indeed from reality as a whole.
BAYARDYeah, it's a very tender and bittersweet family reunion. The father is severely disabled but he spends his old days in a cocoon of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. That's his reality right there. And the rest of the family is groping toward reality of a different kind, particularly Billy's sister Kathryn who was in a terrible accident and unwittingly caused the violent incident that wound up putting Billy in the Army. And she feels very responsible for him.
BAYARDAnd she is kind of this counterbalance through the whole book. She is the one saying, you don't have to go back to this war. You're already here. You don't have anything left to prove. They can't do anything to you. go AWOL. I'll help you. I'll set you up with the right people, the right lawyers, the right organizations. She feels such tremendous guilt for his -- the dangers that he goes through and for what he's experienced. And she's just longing to bring him back home.
REHMIt's interesting because he, as a soldier, has been separated from the female sex for quite a while. So as his lying close to her sun tanning in the garden, he feels a sexual arousal because of her beauty. Totally understandable. What -- Tom, you're frowning.
TARANTINOWell, I think it's -- I read it as less a sexual arousal and more -- the thing you really miss isn't necessarily sex. It's actually like intimate or personal contact with another human being. When you're in war, like, it's a very personal relationship between you and the other guys but it's not that sort of physical intimate contact. Either -- you have to remove that mostly because you're dealing with violence and terror and that's just not really compatible. And so I really read into that that he was -- for the first time he was really feeling that sort of intimate personal contact with another person, particularly a female that you just don't get over there.
REHMThat's a good point. That's a good point. Maureen, how'd you see it?
CORRIGANI did think that there was a little bit of an erotic charge there with the sister, which happens in life. You know, all of a sudden you have these inappropriate responses that you tamp down. The one other thing I would say about the sister is that we see her for a bit and she seems like a very likeable and even strong female character. What I missed in this novel was kind of any awareness that women play another role these days besides waiting on the home front or being the reward for battle, which is what the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders represent, you know. They're the spoils that the victors are entitled to when they come home from battle, these beautiful women.
CORRIGANYou know, I guess at the risk of sounding like a Johnny one-note feminist, I'd like to see more of an awareness in war novels of the different role that women play, the more active role that women play these days in war. We don't get any of that in this novel.
REHMWe haven't gotten it yet and perhaps that is to be written. But what we do know is that Billy's mother is burdened by Billy's father, Lou.
BAYARDYeah, she's been trying to hang it -- keep it together for a long time. The father is a philanderer. He has fathered a child with some other woman, given her a car I think for her 16th birthday.
BAYARDAnd yet Billy's mother just keeps hanging in there trying to make things work somehow just through force of will. There's a wonderful phrase we were talking about, Fountain's wonderful just gift with language talking about the mother trying to smile and forcing the cheer like Christmas lights in the poor part of town. That just says so much to me about the duress. And the economic stress as well that they're living under. He's from Stovall, Texas, right, so he's a Texas boy.
BAYARDAnd many people make note of that fact that he's in this long lineage from the Alamo through Audie Murphy, you know, and they are extra proud of Billy for that. He's a native son.
REHMAnd, of course, his sister -- Billy's sister totally resents the father because she too is involved in the caretaking and feels that, you know, this philandering father has come home to be taken care of. And where is the daughter to whom he gave the car? Where is the woman with whom he had this mad passionate affair? It's poignant.
CORRIGANIt is poignant. The women are in the caretaker role and they're living out a different test of endurance, as opposed to the one that Billy and his comrades are. It's a quieter test. And they'll never be invited to the Texas stadium to stand with the cheerleaders and the football players to get a round of applause for their test of endurance. That sublet was the one time in the novel where I wished it would change into a mystery suspense novel and someone would poison the father in the wheelchair and have done with him. He was unbearable.
TARANTINOYou know, I found the family to be a very interesting metaphor to try to tell a story that's really hard to tell. You know, the father having a stroke. He couldn't speak. He's encumbered by a wheelchair but he lives in this bubble. And he's, you know, super, you know, conservative. You know, that's an interesting metaphor for the detachment of the American people as opposed to the people who actually fight. The family being sort of a hyper realized hardship is a way to tell the experience of the military family who deploy along with their service member. You know, it's very difficult on ones...
REHMIn one way or another...
REHM... (unintelligible). But there's such animosity between the father and the son and the father and the rest of the family. There's just no warmth there coming from him or toward him, Lou.
BAYARDIt's so true. Billy is waiting for this moment. He's actually pausing at one moment in the book waiting for this -- to exchange some sort of look with his father...
BAYARD...a connection because the father of course can't speak. And that's part of the frustration with someone who drives you crazy, if you can't even get them to talk back to you. It must be unbelievably frustrating. And there's this moment, yes, where he tries to make that connection. And the father just shuts it down. There's just so much anger going on between them that it almost rises off the page.
REHMWe really don't know why that anger is there and has been for a long time. But I really appreciate your characterization of the family and the rest of us. Going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Andre in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
ANDREGood morning, ma'am.
ANDREMyself, I'm a Desert Storm veteran. I was in the Marine Corps for ten years and I was an infantryman. And at the beginning of the program, I sort of chuckled when you were shocked by the language used by the soldiers.
REHMShocked, shocked, shocked.
ANDREAnd I recall -- I spent from the mid '80s to the mid '90s in the Marine Corps and I recall one time back in the mid '80s I was sitting in front of a television and I was watching I believe it was Rex Reed giving a critique of a Clint Eastwood movie where he had played a Marine. And in the movie he was -- Rex was just appalled by the language in this movie. And I can remember sitting in front of this television just laughing and thinking, he doesn't know the half of it.
ANDREAnd, you know, in a way it just shows me -- it demonstrates the disconnect from the, say, the warrior class and the general public.
REHMAndre, thanks for your call, and as many say to Billy and his fellow soldiers, thank you for your service. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to go now to Jerry in O'Fallon, Mo. You're on the air. Jerry, are you there? I guess not. Let's try it again.
REHMHi. Go right ahead, sir.
JERRYSorry. Good morning. My -- this reminds me of my next door neighbor -- former next door neighbor who served in the first Gulf War. And he often commented, the experience made him -- you know, I would say I'm probably pretty liberal and he's far to the left of me -- and he talked about the fact that he served with guys like him from small towns that really there was no future economically and guys from the inner city. And he said it was like almost a -- it was the only economic path out of the circumstance. And I contrast that with the fact that I'm closing in on 60 and I'm the generation that probably people two years ahead of me were drafted.
JERRYAnd on my short suburban street there were four guys that went to Vietnam.
JERRYI knew and still know tons of people. I worked in the airline business with a lot of ex-military people and just -- that was part of the American fabric. And we have reduced the percentage of people that serve and almost it's -- I can't think of anyone outside of a certain social economic class. And I'm not saying anything bad about them but it's almost as if we just expect them to do the dirty work. And that's why I think there was such a disconnect with the public fervor for this particular invasion.
JERRYAnd the distancing from it is as if it really didn't mean all that much. Because it really wasn't people that we know. I know two people that served in the invasion of Iraq of all the people I know.
REHMJerry, thanks for your call. Tom.
TARANTINOYeah, you know, you've often heard the narrative that, you know, this war was fought by the poor kids and patriots. I don't know how true that actually is but there -- I mean, there is definitely a reality that the military is a viable option -- it was certainly for me. It was how I paid for college because my parents just didn't have the economic security to do it, even though they tried like hell. Sorry.
TARANTINOBut, you know, what's interesting is that you do see this huge range of diversity within the military, whether, you know, rural, inner city, suburban. But what's amazing is that what's going to come out of that is that you're going to have this generation of leaders that has come from the lowest economic class to the middle class to the upper class who are going to continue to lead, who are using the GI bill, who are going out and starting businesses. And this is what you're going to see come out of this generation.
TARANTINOBecause this -- when you have the most profound experience of your life at 19 or 20 years old, you have to spend the rest of your life searching for something to one up that. And I think that's what, you know, created this amazing surge after World War II where you have young men and women completely transform this country. I think you're going to see that again with this generation.
REHMYou do? You have faith that that is going to be the case, and yet we see such a high rate of suicides.
TARANTINOYeah, and that's actually a huge problem amongst the entire veteran population, not just Iraq and Afghanistan. And, in fact, it's actually -- the core group of that is the older vets that we're seeing right now. This speaks to the gaps in services and care that we have for our -- in our country, with the Department of Veterans Affairs not having adequate mental health support, with the Department of Defense virtually ignoring mental health until just a few years ago. And not having a connect between the two of them.
REHMTom Tarantino. He's a former Army captain who served in Iraq. He was awarded a combat action badge and a bronze star. We'll take a short break here. More of your calls, your email when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back to our Readers' Review of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain. I want to read you an email from Kim in Raleigh, N.C., who says, "What struck me most in this book was its underlying theme about how many Americans treat sports as war. To the football fans in this book, that game was war, and the players are the soldiers exhibiting physical violence on the field. To the true soldiers who know real battle and real terror and real physical violence, this just demonstrates again the disconnect in how the public pretends to understand war, but how nobody can really understand what it feels like to be in war unless you've been there." Tom.
TARANTINOYeah, I mean, that's incredibly perfect. You know, we have this -- we have this sort of hyper masculinized, you know, rah-rah attitude towards the war, and you have people sitting there, and then you see this in the book, they come to the Bravos and so, you know, this is why we fight, this is why this is important. And the Bravos are polite, for the most part, but they sort of look at this guys with sort of a morbid amusement.
TARANTINOAnd in one case, which, you know, I'd like to read later, they actually just sort of mentally take this guy out who's trying to be, you know, very supportive, but in a way that's really inappropriate. And, you know, that comment really articulates that well, and how we find a way to relate to the horror and violence of war without actually having to relate to it.
REHMAll right. And, Maureen, you've got a passage to read about going into that stadium.
CORRIGANYeah, and I think it really speaks to Billy's initial innocence, and also to the fact that class differences aren't as invisible as we sometimes think they are. And the book is very sharp about that.
CORRIGANThis is Billy speaking of course. "Americans, he says to himself gazing around the room, we are all Americans here. But they are different, these Americans. They dress well. They practice the most advanced hygienes. They are conversant in the world of complex investments and fairly hum with the pleasures of good living. If they aren't quite as flawlessly handsome as models or movie actors, they certainly possess the vitality and style of, say, the people in a Viagra advertisement. Special time with Bravo is just one of the multitude of pleasures available to them."
REHMAnd then, Tom, they get in trouble.
TARANTINOYeah. Would you like me to...
REHMWhy don't you read.
TARANTINO...so one -- while they walk in and one of these very rich guys tries to talk about why we fight. And their squad leader just mentally screws with them to the point where the guy has to leave at a very uncomfortable situation. And then Billy reflects on this.
TARANTINOAnd, you know, "Don't talk about stuff you don't know, Billy thinks. And therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters. The Bravos speak from a high ground of experience. They're authentic. They're real. They have dealt much death and receive much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it splattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths. That's their -- this is their advantage. And given the masculine standard America has set for itself, it's 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 their sleeve."
REHMAnd here's a question for you, Tom, from Joanna in Lacona, N.Y. "I hear you about the hollowness of the, quote, "Thank you for your service," speech to Veterans. What should we say? What would be helpful to him or her when they come back?
TARANTINOWell, I think it's actually a much larger conversation. You know, please don’t stop saying thank you for your service and buying guys beers and stuff when they come home, that is appreciated. But what would help would be a larger cultural connection and understanding to the issues we face. You know, veterans have a hard time finding a job. They're -- you know, we have a hard time, you know, navigating through college because we're quite a bit more worldly and older. We are having a hard time getting the care and services that we need. And we need to reflect the necessity to help them with our political and public support.
TARANTINOYou know, right now there is a vote going in front of the senate that should help curb sexual assault significantly. But because the American public is so detached, what should be a very easy vote is going to struggle, because it's been very difficult to muster the type of policy support and care to fix the things that need fixing for our veterans' population.
REHMAnd here's another from Tom in Maine. He says, "I was a U.S. Naval flight officer during the height of the cold war and waning years of Vietnam. When we returned, no one thanked us or made a big deal over our service, and neither did we. All during the '70s, '80s, well into the '90s, there were no "I support our troops" bumper stickers or flag waving salutes at ballgames for current and former military service. Please ask your panel why now."
BAYARDThat's a very good question. That's a very good question. Because in the Vietnam literature that Maureen's talking of, that whole culture blamed the soldiers as much as the architects of war for what was going on in Vietnam. Soldiers were vilified in a way. I think maybe that's a correction that's been happening in the left wing in terms of opposing war, as you no longer go after the grunts, the guys who are on the ground making them -- 'cause they're just doing their job. You go after the people who are putting them in the field. There is a section I wanted to read...
BAYARD...that gets to that because Billy talks about his experience of being surrounded by all these well wishers everywhere he goes. And it's -- there's an immediate distinction there with the Vietnam experience. It says, "No one spits, no one calls him baby killer. On the contrary, people could not be more supportive or kindly or disposed, yet Billy finds he encounters weird and frightening all the same. There's something harsh in his fellow Americans. Avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes with the deepest need. That's his sense of it. They all need something from him. This pack of half rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms and corporate VPs, they're all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year."
BAYARDSo it shows -- he does a wonderful job of showing how Americans project their own needs onto these soldiers. We need their victory as much as they do.
REHMDo you want to add to that, Tom?
TARANTINOYeah, I think a lot of it's a response of turning the page from the American culture's failure during the Vietnam War. That's also sort of a psychological response to the lack of connection that the vast majority of Americans even have to this conflict. Most people not only haven't served, but don't nobody anybody that's served. And so you have this sort of -- you want to support the troops 'cause you feel like it's something you should do because we're at war and you're really not doing much of anything.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Mel in Charlotte, N.C. You're on the air.
MELThank you so much, Diane. I'm a huge fan and I'm horribly nervous, so excuse me if I stumble, but I wanted to make two comments.
REHMYou'll be fine.
MELThank you. The first is my husband's a senior officer in the reserves. He spends about three hours a day managing a staff of 150 people, and flies out, you know, commutes. And I would say we are easily in the 1 percent of the country, but he would never advertise the private clubs he belongs to, the Porsche he drives, any of that with the soldiers. And I think, you know, where someone is a career officer, he served in Afghanistan, he's been 20 years, he was full-time and then he left. But, you know, they would certainly never advertise that they were not just a regular soldier if they are from more advantaged backgrounds.
MELAnd the second...
MELThe second thing is, maybe you could talk about it a little, is my husband always brings up the fact that currently in the military if you are downrange, you cannot have sex with anyone who is not your wife, and you can't look at pornography. And so for soldiers who are really manly guys, they are being asked, I mean, men and women are being asked to go downrange on multiple tours. That's like four to six years, sometimes eight years not having any sex. And it's going to make people a little screwy, especially when you're dealing with primarily guys with a lot of testosterone.
MELMaybe you could talk about that.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Tom.
TARANTINOYeah, this is tough. Okay. First of all, if you believe that nobody's having sex in Iraq, I have a nice bridge I'd like to sell you. But, I mean, let's just be real. Yes, there is general order known, no alcohol, no fraternization. Part of that is to maintain discipline and focus, and part of that is very necessary, but, you know, there's a lot of stuff that happens behind the scenes. The problem is that you have -- you do have these things where you're asking people to spend a year in what is, you know, the only way to really describe it is sort of a minimum security prison environment where you're restricted.
TARANTINOA lot of that is practical because you have to focus on the task at hand, which is, you know, combat. But it is causing an interesting problem. When the war is only a couple years old, that's one thing. When it goes on for a decade, we don't really know how that's -- how that's affecting. I mean, you see a lot of ancillary social problems coming out of it, but it's going to be -- it's interesting to see how that's going to affect everyone in the long-term.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Joe in Baltimore. You're on the air.
JOEYes, thank you. During the height of our involvement in the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney was being interviewed by a reporter, and the reporter asked him, well, Mr. Vice President, what can the average American citizen do to help this effort? And Dick Cheney's response was, go shopping. And I'm a Vietnam veteran and I was totally enraged by that sort of flippant response. Any comments?
TARANTINOI mean, Dick Cheney I think has served never in the military, so, I mean...
BAYARDAnd that's the point that's made in the book more than once by the Republicans who are championing the war, never actually were in harm's way.
CORRIGANRight. And I think the book is also smart in several scenes where Billy is congratulated, he's bought beers, the Bravos are given food and claps on the back. Nobody's offering them a job, and Billy thinks about that.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to, let's see, Birmingham, Ala. Hi, Mike.
MIKEHi, Diane. How you doing today?
REHMI'm good. Thanks.
MIKEYeah, it is an honor to speak with you, first of all.
MIKEI am an eight year veteran of the United States Marine Corp. My brother served four years in the Army. I deployed three times overseas. My brother deployed twice. We'd like to say our mother deployed five times. You know, and then -- and my time in Marines, you know, I have -- I have been to just -- I have buried just as many friends who died in combat who took their own lives. And, you know, just like last year, there were 55 more veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who killed themselves than who actually died in combat.
MIKEAnd, you know, to me -- to me it seems like that there is a -- there's a disconnect between somebody saying we need to support our troops either in the form of a pat on the back, a bumper sticker, a politically convenient talking point, and actually putting action to those words. You know, just here recently, you know, our own senator here in Alabama blocked the Veterans Job Bill, you know, which would've -- which would've provided planning for jobs for over 200,000 unemployed veterans, you know. And it just seems like that there is a huge disconnect on actually putting action to the words of support our troops. And I'd personally like to see some action taken with that, you know.
MIKEI mean, we...
REHMAnd, Mike, you put it very well. Thank you for calling. And to you, I hope you find the work you wish and that things go well for you. What about this jobs bill?
TARANTINOYeah, that was a tough one. I mean, this was just a jobs bill that it was about 11 provisions, 9 of which came from Republicans, and it was a very bipartisan cobble together. There's a lot of background politics that eventually caused it to fail. But the problem is that we're letting politics more often than not get in the way of good policy. I mean, let's face it, it really wasn't until 2007 that the American people actually started caring about the problems that soldiers face.
TARANTINOIt wasn't until the Walter Reed scandal. And so we're fixing problems in 2008, '09 and '10 that we've had since 2003, and so there's going to be a huge amount of catch up that we have to do. This is why we need people to get engaged. And that's why I do the work that I do for IAVA, you know, trying to fix healthcare, employment, suicide, all those types of things.
REHMDo you think that this book is going to help people understand the experience of what these men are going through, even a tiny bit better, Lou, even though he has framed it as something that's funny, that can make you laugh, that has all kinds, the whole range of human experience?
BAYARDAbsolutely. That's one of the wonderful things about the book. He pivots between comedy and tragedy and never misses step. You never feel like the tone is being pushed one way or the other. It's the same book from start to beginning. But I was the one enlightened by this book. I found it fascinating, for instance, the scene where they're going up in an elevator and all the men, all the members of the Bravo squad are about to evacuate their boughs because being in close spaces has that effect on them. There's also the halftime sequence. And this is an incredibly sad comment on veterans and how they're -- they've been trotted out basically as entertainment figures, with Destiny's Child. And all the noise triggers these traumatic events.
BAYARDAnd at one point Sykes I think is the one who just breaks down weeping uncontrollably, inconsolably. He's still weeping, you know, a long time later. And you feel like talk about the issue of suicide. One of these guys is going to be killing himself. You feel like down the road. Unless he gets the help that he needs. You know, there's such dire straits.
REHMAnd the book we've been talking about in this hour is titled "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain. Tom Tarantino, Maureen Corrigan, Lou Bayard, thank you so much.
TARANTINOThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd for our next Readers' Review, J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults. It's set in an idyllic English town that's not what it first seems. The story revolves around residents who form opposing camps after the death of a local parish council member. So join me December 18, the book is titled "The Casual Vacancy," by J.K. Rowling. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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