I arrived at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) to
begin my teaching career three weeks before the attacks of 9-11. For those of us who teach about the Middle East and Islam and for those who have been actively involved in the US wars that followed, the events of 2001 continue to haunt us.
Almost immediately, students who had signed up for the National Guard to reap educational benefits found themselves called up for military service in Afghanistan. Less than two years later, scores were headed to Iraq.
I always have at least a couple of veterans– and sometimes a significant number– in my classes. For many, military service comes with educational benefits and, thus, increased opportunities for employment and a career. We are also only 20 miles from Scott Air Force Base which oversees transportation logistics for the entire US military. I have the impression this region has a well developed tradition of military service that passes from one generation to another.
This generation of soldiers faces social and psychological challenges that may rival those of their Vietnam predecessors. Statistics on military suicides for previous wars are hard to come by, but reports earlier this year indicated that even after the end of combat operations in Iraq and their projected end in Afghanistan in 2014, active duty suicides were at an all time high in comparison with other periods over the last decade. During the fist half of 2012, more US troops committed suicide than were killed in action.
The main reason is that Americans who fought in Iraq and in Afghanistan are more isolated from the American public at large than was ever the case before. According to a recent (2010) survey by the Pew Research Center, during the past decade only one percent of Americans has been on active military duty at any given time. This compares with around nine percent during World War II and signals a growing gap between the vast majority of civilians and a small minority in uniform.
How did this happen?
On the one hand, the managers of the American military industrial
complex learned the propaganda lessons of the Vietnam War. During that war, the draft made it inevitable that disenchantment with a misguided and stubbornly prolonged war would ripple through the ranks and, by extension, the populace at large. All American wars since have been fought by volunteers. The Vietnam War also unfolded in prime-time and the horrors of the war were visited upon families in their living rooms. Since then, the media has been carefully managed by government minders and corporate managers. The result: the US public is shielded from the human cost of war.
On the other hand, American society has inoculated itself from the “Vietnam syndrome”. As the Vietnam War became unpopular, many vets were either blamed for its excesses or ignored as most people wanted to put the debacle behind them. The result was a generation of soldiers who saw the disappearance of the social support that had accompanied soldiers returning from previous wars. The stigma of being a Vietnam veteran caused all manner of social and psychological trauma. Beginning with the first US Gulf War (isn’t it distressing that there have been so many American wars in the region that we have to number them?), political leaders vowed never to let their misgivings about a war get in the way of offering unconditional support to soldiers once it was on. I remember the heated debates that preceded that war; it may have been one of the finer displays in recent memory to take place in the legislative chambers. But, once war was declared, everyone fell in line behind the Commander-in-Chief. The result is that criticizing US wars and the soldiers who fight them, is tantamount to treason.
Since 2001, 85 Illinoisans have been killed in Afghanistan and between 2003 and 2010, 162 were killed in Iraq. Every time the governor’s office gets word of a Illinoisan military death, we get an announcement on our faculty/staff list serve that the US flag will fly at half mast that day in memory of the fallen.
That is about as close as many of us get to these wars and their human toll in this country. (The toll for Iraqis and Afghanis is, of course, exponentially higher but that is a topic for a different discussion).
As of today, the flag has gone to half mast 247 times over the course of almost 4,000 days of war. And if it weren’t for the messages from the governor, who would know? Yet, many of us say we support the troops. Our leaders stumble over each other praising those who have paid with their lives for the sake of… our country? our freedom? our honor? for the sake of Iraqis and Afghanis? I venture that we are now at a stage where very few take these pronouncements seriously.
What do the soldiers think?
Since I have had students returning to the classroom after military service, I have wondered what is it like to be back from the battle zone. Everything we do must seem so petty when you’ve come back from war. PowerPoint, Katy Perry, Republicans and Democrats, trigonometry, lab manuals, fire drills. How do those stack up against life outside the Green Zone and in Helmand Province dodging (and not always missing) IEDs; hearing the screams of fallen comrades; confused by the behaviors of foreigners in their own land; the randomness of it all?
Few of my students are comfortable talking about their war-time experiences, but a new novel may offer some clues. The author is a keen observer and harsh critic of the culture that envelopes returning soldiers when they forced up as models of the heroism that the majority of us would rather toast than emulate.
Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) lays bear the naiveté, hypocrisy, commercialism, sexploitation and sheer– there is no other word for it– stupidity of organized welcome home spectacles on the home front.
The novel centers on a dazed and dazzled crew of 18- to 24-year-old soldiers on a two-
week “victory tour”. Billy Lynn and his comrades happened to be part of a unit that fended off an enemy attack caught on film by an embedded Fox News team. As the footage is “viraling” through the culture, the military wants to maximize the public relations effect of what they dub “Bravo Company”. The whole affair is managed and produced like the culminating half-time show at Texas Stadium (“the sheltering womb of all things American– football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel… ” (21)) “Climax” may be more to the point, as the shell-shocked soldiers find themselves wandering on field at half-time, buffeted on one side by drill grunts “snapping their Springfields around in the rock-star version of close order drill” while Destiny’s Child ascends a massive stage “with their prancing diva strut” as stage dancers “go right on humping like the nastiest video on MTV.” (233)
As improbable as Fountain’s description of this peculiar Texas sized public display of sex, guns, and patriotism may seem, it is based on an actual 2004 Thanksgiving half-time show at Texas Stadium.
But the extravaganza is only the artifice that hides the hypocrisy of those who want to make a celebration out of a war that, Billy rightly suspects, no one believes in. All it takes to keep the patriotic machine humming is a host of nonsense phrases which filter through the culture, like memes, justifying without explaining. Fountain scatters these phrases on the blank page disembodied like the sound bites and Bushisms that spread through a comatose populace : nina leven, terrRist, wore on terrRr, double y’im dees…
The impresario behind the spectacle is the Cowboys’ owner, Norm Oglesby, who embodies the corruption of celebrity capitalism. He appears at carefully timed intervals, surrounded by an entourage of lawyers in suits, to mingle with select crowds only to disappear into a smokey private lair where he makes deals and turns profits. He pumps up Bravo Company (“You have given America back its pride” (112)) before attempting to make a film deal at their expense.
The most compelling parts of the novel involve Billy’s effort to understand these people, his own people in his own country, who act so strangely. Military service has cured him of any illusions about the integrity or honor of war. “This huge floating hologram of context and cue that leads everyone around by the nose, Bravo included, but Bravo can laugh and feel somewhat superior because they know they are being used. Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher? Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed. Every Bravo is a PhD in the art and science of duress.” (28-29).
When Norm thanks them for giving America back its pride, Billy thinks, “America? Really? the whole damn place?” (112)
When people are surprised to hear that they think the war is fucked, Billy wonders, “Well duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.” (11)
By delving into the minds of soldiers caught between battle ground realities and the un-realities of stage managed welcome-home-ism, Fountain may have exposed the most sensitive nerve in this generation of soldiers’ relationship to their society at large. Though they may be inspired by positive intentions, knee jerk support-the-troops-ism may do more harm than good.