The author, Ben Fountain, prefaces the novel with a speech he gave at the United States Air Force Academy in 2013. The story began to form in his mind in 2003-2004, when it became clear that the United States had gone to war under false pretenses with no clear plan. Soldiers were dying, Iraqi civilians were dying by the thousands, and the country was amassing a great deal of debt. Despite all this, President George W. Bush continued to insist to the American public that the war was just and necessary. His reelection in 2004 indicated that the public believed him.
Fountain's preface sets up the historical and cultural context for the story to come. He makes his own views on the war exceptionally clear by indicating that the reasons for the war were ridiculous and not founded in truth. When he talks about how Bush spoke about the war, Fountain implies that there's a disconnect between what those in power know is true and what they say is true.
Fountain explains that America has recently witnessed a similar situation, since the Vietnam War followed a similar pattern. He mentions a quote from an investigative journalist that insists that all governments lie and shouldn't be believed. Fountain admits that although al-Qaeda was (and still is) an enemy of the U.S., and that al-Qaeda’s attacks certainly warranted retaliation, there was no reason to invade Iraq—a country that was already an enemy of al-Qaeda and had nothing to do with the September 11 tragedy.
Fountain highlights how the Iraq War and the Vietnam War were both absurd from the very beginning, as they were fought for unclear reasons. By making this clear, Fountain suggests that reality of these wars is stranger than fiction. This casts the coming story in a sinister light—although the story is fiction, the reality it's based on is already absurd.
Fountain wonders how this happened in the first place. He proposes that Americans aren't stupid, but rather, that American culture is stupid. Fountain defines culture as the consistent immersion in movies, internet, and around-the-clock news cycles. He terms this immersion the Fantasy Industrial Complex, and defines it as the state of constant advertisement of anything—products, lifestyles, or political agendas. He argues that this complex makes it easy to obscure what's real and what's not, as people's lives take place in fantasy and consequently numb them.
By taking issue with the American advertising culture, Fountain insists that every person within the society has an agenda—everyone is trying to sell something. This idea will be important for the rest of the novel, as Billy learns that he cannot take people at face value. Everyone he meets has a deeper meaning or purpose, and Billy himself isn't exempt from this system.
The problem of existing within the Fantasy Industrial Complex is that it doesn't give people the tools to handle the reality of death, failure, or trauma. Fountain says that September 11 was a crisis for the American people, and though it initially started a discussion about America's role in the world, it soon devolved into simplistic us versus them rhetoric. Several prominent figures at the time counseled that some sense of history would've helped the country figure out how the events of September 11 happened in the first place.
Here, Fountain very much resembles the character Shroom, who will emerge later in the novel. Fountain advocates for learning and understanding of history, which Shroom is also passionate about in the novel. In addition, Shroom is a very liberal character, which suggests that there's a link between this disapproval of the war and one's political leanings.
Fountain tells the cadets that they don't have the luxury of living in a state of numbness, as the war isn't a game. Fountain suggests that the reality of the military is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Fantasy Industrial Complex, and it's ridiculous that the military quickly became something that the Complex used for its own means.
This passage sets up the idea that the conflict that Billy will face in the novel won't be one against a singular foe. Instead, his foe is the entirety of the American population—a group that overwhelmingly doesn't understand what the war is like, per Fountain's logic.
There are several facts that could've helped keep the us versus them rhetoric at bay. First, none of the hijackers from the September 11 tragedy were from Iraq or Afghanistan. However, instead of acknowledging this fact, the American government embarked on an advertising campaign to rally support for the "War on Terror." Congress approved invading Iraq in the spring of 2003, and President Bush spoke in May of that year declaring that the conflict was over.
Given what Fountain has already set up, it's implied that Bush's declaration that the war is over isn't true—evidenced by the fact that the coming story follows soldiers fighting in Iraq a year or two after Bush’s speech. Clearly, the war wasn't over when Bush said that it was.
Fountain mentions an interview with Karl Rove, the man known as "Bush's Brain," in which Rove said that the United States is an empire and therefore acts to create its own reality. As the war continued to defy America's "power to create reality," the Complex went into overdrive and began marketing the war even more heavily. Supporting the troops became one of the most effective angles of this—Fountain says it's easy to thank veterans for their service, but superficial acts of thanks don't translate to true love for one's country.
Rove's assertion shows that having power allows an entity to bend the facts of the world to fit its own needs and desires. This tells the reader that financially and governmentally powerful characters in the novel aren't to be trusted, and neither are the characters that only thank the soldiers for their service.
Love, Fountain believes, is what makes war real for people and removes it from the fantasy realm. In the case of the Vietnam War, everyone who knew someone of draft age was emotionally invested in the war. Now, however, ordinary citizens aren’t forced to feel the effects of war. There have been no raised taxes or rationing, and Hummers (trucks and SUVs based on military Humvees) jumped in popularity in the states while soldiers drove under-armored ones in Iraq. Fountain suggests taxing the Hummers at home to support the underfunded Veterans Administration as a way to actually support the troops.
Fountain proposes that the only way to make emotionally uninvolved citizens truly feel the effects of the war is through finances. That is, if people aren’t emotionally involved in the war by personally knowing troops, those people can and should experience the discomfort of war by having to support it financially.
Fountain says that the cadets are going to be forced to sacrifice for reasons that aren't clear, which Fountain declares is a tragedy. Further, soldiers raised in a democracy must turn into slaves when they join the military, which explains why soldiers are so adept at compartmentalizing. Although this is a stellar coping technique, human nature dictates that at some point, soldiers will have to grapple with the reasoning for what they're doing. Fountain insists that it's obscene to ask soldiers to sacrifice their humanity.
Fountain defines "compartmentalizing" as a soldier intentionally not asking hard questions while fighting in the war. However, compartmentalizing only puts off such questions in the short term—eventually, the soldier has to ask them. This shows that in order to cope with war, soldiers must pretend to be just as uninformed as regular civilians.
Fountain asks what literature has to do with war and reality. He defines literature as writing that preserves reality and the written language. Essentially, literature is the opposite of Karl Rove's definition of "reality." Fountain offers Homer’s Odyssey as an example, as it's "news that stays news." The epic poem tells the story of soldiers trying to get home from a war fought for questionable reasons. Fountain insists that the Odyssey is more than just entertainment, as it allows a person to better understand his or her own situation. Fountain encourages the cadets to read so that they can continue to connect to reality.
Although the Fantasy Industrial Complex is a modern problem, Fountain shows that these problems have existed throughout history by drawing connections to an ancient text like the Odyssey, which should read as a cautionary tale. By telling the cadets to read, Fountain hopes to shield them from the Complex by connecting them to reality and to history as a whole.