Though the year in which Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk takes place is never stated outright, it most likely takes place in 2004 or 2005. At this point in time, the United States had been engaged in the Iraq War for more than a year, and public support for the war was waning. It was becoming clear that the reasons the United States invaded Iraq in the first place were questionable at best, consequently calling into question the very purpose of the war. As Billy moves through the novel and attempts to make sense of the war and the world around him, he begins to think of the war as something absurd and impossible to reconcile with everyday reality. Ultimately, Billy determines that the only way he can make any sense of the war—and of death itself—is to view it as something that defies rationalization.
The novel explores the absurdity of war through Billy's flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Iraq. He recalls one afternoon, when his beloved mentor, Shroom, instructed Billy to walk one foot in front of the other. Shroom shares that by doing this, Billy might be able to avoid losing both feet if he steps on explosives. This is when Billy first realizes that war—and the lengths to which soldiers will go to survive it—can drive a person mad. With this, Billy begins to think of the war as something abstract that defies all logic. After this realization, he stops even trying to draw logical connections between actions and their justifications, deciding that the Army is defined by nonsensical tasks and maddening habits. By understanding the war and his role in it as absurd, dubious, and nonsensical rather than guided by logic and righteousness, Billy is able to come to terms with his own mortality. He begins to see the possibility of his death as something that has far more to do with chance than anything meaningful or within his control. Eventually, this sense of absurdity also characterizes the way Billy experiences other people speaking about the war. By writing out the Iraq War's buzzwords in phonetic Texas drawl—such as "dubyaemdees" for WMDs, "currj" for courage, and "nina leven" for 9/11—Fountain heightens the sense of the war's absurdity, suggesting that the only way that Billy can make sense of the war and the language used to describe it is to transform the words into mere sounds, rendering the words themselves useless. Billy, in fact, does think of those words as useless and meaningless, and connects the words' meaninglessness to their users' apparent lack of understanding of the reality of the war.
The novel's parallel meditations on the absurdity of the war and the way in which the American public engages with it coalesce in the halftime show. The girl group Destiny's Child headlines the show, flanked by marching bands, ROTC drill teams, high school dance troupes, and the Bravo Squad as the "guests of honor." Though the show is supposed to honor the troops, Billy notes that it's far more focused on showcasing the sexualized bodies of the female performers (many of which are only in high school) and promoting football. In fact, after the Bravo Squad takes the field, it becomes all too apparent that whoever designed the show was thinking about the spectacle and showcasing Destiny's Child—not the needs of combat soldiers who have recently returned from a warzone. The show forces the squad to march across the football field as lights flash and fireworks that resemble missiles explode, triggering intense PTSD flashbacks in all the squad members and even necessitating the use of Valium to return Sykes to a semi-functional state after the show. The halftime show indicates to Billy that like the media, civilians subconsciously view the war as something detached from reality. The halftime show reinforces Billy's suspicions that those at home know little about what life is like on the front and what it's like to experience the war firsthand. In this way, the novel concludes with the overwhelming sense that it is impossible to make sense of the war, whether one is a soldier or a civilian—and that this absurdity is, in fact, one of the gravest horrors of war for those who must live with memories of it.
The Absurdity of War ThemeTracker
The Absurdity of War 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.
They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor; they know they're being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness.
"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?"
What's happening now isn't nearly as real as that, eating this meal, holding this fork, lifting this glass, the realest things in the world these days are the things in his head.
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.
Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars. This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point [...]
It seems the airiest thing there is and yet the realest, but how you enter that world he has no idea except by passage through that other foreign country called college, and that ain't happening.
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.
So fuck that, he was done with football after his sophomore year, except the Army is pretty much the same thing, though the violence is, well, what it is, obviously. By factors of thousands.
"So whas it like? You know, like what it feel like?"
Billy swallows. The hard question. That's where he bleeds, exactly. Someday he'll have to build a church there, if he survives the war.
"It doesn't feel like anything. Not while it's happening."
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."
They are his boys, his brothers. Bravos would die for one another. They are the truest friends he will ever have, and he'd expire from grief and guilt at not being there with them.
For the past two weeks he's been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality's bitch; what they don't know is more powerful than all the things he knows [...]