Billy struggles with what it means to be a hero. As far as he's concerned, he only followed orders and did as he'd been trained to do during the firefight on the banks of the Al-Ansakar Canal. However, because his actions were caught on film, posted to YouTube, and played on news channels across the United States, Billy finds himself heralded as a hero, awarded military honors, and sent with the rest of his platoon on a Victory Tour. Thus, as Billy revisits what happened in Iraq, considers how people think of what he did, and compares all of that to how he's treated on the Tour, he struggles to understand what it means to be a hero in America, or if such a thing actually even exists.
Throughout the novel, Billy encounters people and situations that call into question both who gets to define what a hero is, and what actions exactly count as heroic. Billy views his actions during the firefight as the result of intense training, so he feels that what others call heroism, he simply calls doing his job. What's more, Billy doesn't even feel as though he did his job as well as he could have—he was unable to save Shroom from death, despite his best efforts. Though the text makes it clear that there's nothing Billy could've done to save Shroom, the fact that Shroom didn't make it out alive weighs heavily on all of the Bravos’ shoulders. This creates a sense that Billy and the American public define the word hero differently, as well as what kind of actions necessitate that designation. However, because Billy is only a "grunt" in the Army, he doesn't have a say in who receives the honorary title of "hero."
On the tour, Billy notices that even as he's called a hero and thanked for his service, few people he meets treat him like a real person. Particularly when it comes to those with power and money, Billy perceives that he's treated as a prop, whose function is to sell the American public on the war. With this, the novel revisits its exploration of class by considering how individuals like Norm treat Bravo Squad differently. While Billy knows that Norm is using Bravo Squad to sell the Cowboys brand and to secure the film rights to a movie about them, other people (like Hector and the boojee lady) acknowledge that Billy and the other soldiers are humans first and heroes second. Though their actions are relatively small—Hector shares marijuana with Billy and Mango and the boojee lady covers Lodis in a snuggie—they offer the men connection and caring that nobody else was willing to give. Their small but tangible actions stand in contrast to those of Norm, whose actions serve solely to dehumanize the Bravo Squad and use them for his own personal gain.
As the novel investigates what it means to be a hero, it also considers how society should treat its heroes. It does this primarily by calling attention to the fact that, even though the Bravo Squad are considered American heroes, they're set to redeploy the day after Thanksgiving. Though Billy attributes this to the illogical nature of the Army and of the war itself, a majority of the minor characters who learn this fact are aghast that America thanks its heroes by sending them back to a place where death likely awaits. Similarly, though the Bravos are supposed to be Norm’s honored guests at the game, the Bravos’ treatment and reception around the Texas Stadium suggest that being heroes doesn’t guarantee that the men will be treated as such. Billy, for example, spends the entire novel asking Josh, Bravo Squad's handler, for Advil—a seemingly simple request, but one that Josh simply cannot follow through on, as he clearly considers Billy’s headache to be a low priority. Near the end of the game, the squad retakes their seats despite the freezing temperatures and falling sleet, and they're even violently attacked by "roadies" as they attempt to get into their limo after the game.
The novel very overtly draws attention to the disconnect between how people, citizens, and politicians talk to and about the American troops involved in the war, and what those people actually do for the troops. By juxtaposing the Bravo Squad’s poor treatment with the way in which the high-profile characters speak about them, the novel insists that it's not enough to hand out medals, take soldiers to a big football game, and parade them around the country. Though the novel doesn't offer any concrete alternatives to this hypocritical treatment of American heroes, it ends with the blistering assertion that more needs to be done to treat service personnel as actual humans, not just admirable specimens or trophies.
Heroism and Humanity ThemeTracker
Heroism and Humanity Quotes in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Billy sensed the true mindfucking potential of it on their first trip outside the wire, when Shroom advised him to place his feet one in front of the other instead of side by side, that way if an IED blew threw the Humvee Billy might only lose one foot instead of two.
Their eyes skitz and quiver with the force of the moment, because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.
"It was. I had to keep telling myself this is real, these are real American soldiers fighting for our freedom, this is not a movie. Oh God I was just so happy that day, I was relieved more than anything, like we were finally paying them back for nina leven. Now"—she pauses for a much-needed breath—"which one are you?"
So is this what they meant by the sanctity of life? A soft groan escaped Billy when he thought about that, the war revealed in this fresh and gruesome light. Oh. Ugh. Divine spark, image of God, suffer the little children and all that—there's real power when words attach to actual things.
Billy rattled off the cities. Washington, Richmond, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Raleigh-Durham, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Miami, and practically every one, as Sergeant Dime pointed out, happened to lie in an electoral swing state.
He glows, which isn't to say he's a handsome man but rather shimmers with high-wattage celebrity, and therein lies the problem, the brain struggles to match the media version to the actual man who looks taller than the preformed mental image, or maybe broader, older, pinker, younger, the two versions miscongrue in some crucial sense which makes it all a little unreal [...]
The role of cheerleader being secondary by definition, yet cheerleaders themselves exhibitionists by nature [...] Nobody cheers for the cheerleaders! And how that must hurt, the goad for many a deafening scream of crazed enthusiasm.
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.
Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes, views that seem quite reasonable in the context. A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, and the trick, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one side to the other.
Yes ma'am, proud, Bravo has achieved levels of proud that can move mountains and knock the moon out of phase, but why, please, do they play the national anthem before games anyway? The Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears, these are two privately owned, for-profit corporations [...]
"Son, try to look at it this way. It's just another normal day in America."
Billy's heart melts a little at that son. The stage is disappearing around them like a mortally wounded ship beneath the waves.
"I don't think I even know what normal is anymore."
Plus the fact that the war's put up some spotty box-office numbers, didn't I say that might be a problem? So we're bucking that too. I know fifty-five hundred sounds pretty lame after the numbers we've been talking about, but for young men like yourselves, young soldiers on Army pay, it's not nothing, right?