Ben Fountain’s bleakly hilarious “Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk” is one of the best novels published in 2012. It’s the acid-etched story of the members of Bravo Company, caught on camera by Fox News during three minutes of a chaotic firefight in Iraq. The administration sends the boys on a cynical “Victory Tour” to inflate sagging support for its dubious war.
And so the Bravos are in Dallas on Thanksgiving for a halftime show alongside Destiny’s Child. Wined, dined and fawned over, the men are not fooled. They are deeply cynical about their nation’s hollow gestures of support — yellow ribbons, hero talk, the clapping in airports. In one scene, as they are being ushered from the hallowed ground of the Cowboys’ locker room, a group of millionaire Sunday gladiators sidles up for an offline conversation.
“‘Lissen, we wanna know…’ (Cowboys player) Octavian’s voice is barely a murmur. ‘We, like, we wanna do somethin’ like you. Extreme, you know, cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that? Like we ride wit yall for a week, couple weeks, help out. Help yalls bust some raghead ass, we up for that.’
“Billy sees that they are, up. They’re up for it. He tries to imagine the world inside their heads, and can’t. ‘I don’t think it works that way. … I don’t think the Army’s gonna be too interested in that.’
“‘Huhn. Sheee-uh. … (Y)alls sayin’ you doan need the help?’ …
“‘Sure we could use the help. But — look, you wanna do extreme things, join the Army. They’ll be more than happy to send you to Iraq.’
“The players snort, mutter, cast pitying glances his way. … ‘We got jobs.'”
I recalled the scene after seeing the now infamous advertisement for the Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle, used by Adam Lanza to destroy so many lives in Newtown, Conn. on
Dec. 14. “CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED,” reads the ad next to an image of the unmistakably upturned phallic weapon.
Just like those would-be raghead-wastin’ Cowboys, men susceptible to such a marketing pitch must, at some level, feel that their “man card” had been revoked. But how? Why? And by whom?
After each new shattering incident of armed mayhem the national conversation swiftly divides between those (leaning conservative) who want to talk about “mental illness” and those (leaning liberal) who want to talk about easy access to guns. But here’s the hairy mammoth stomping around every American living room: Men. When it comes to mass slaughter, men are the problem. (Ditto for child molesting: well over 90 percent of molesters are male.)
So how is it that this glaring fact receives almost no attention in the mainstream media? But perhaps the problem is not so much men — most of us are pretty decent — as it is a deficit of mature masculinity.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a short-lived heyday for the so-called “men’s movement” inspired by men like poet Robert Bly and writer Sam Keen. The label, alas, was swiftly tainted by everything from throngs of anti-feminist Christian men to embittered losers of child custody battles. It also was reflexively trashed in some feminist circles for the unspeakable crime of arguing that, whatever social advantages men might possess, they also face problems and deserve compassion in a changing world.
I like to say that men were once relied upon to kill mammoths — and most were in turn stomped by mammoths (or eaten by lions, etc.) before they had a chance to feel unneeded. Today we have no “mammoths,” few rites of passage, hordes of fatherless boys and few opportunities to become “warriors” in the spiritual sense.
Instead we have surrogates in the form of preening professional athletes, millions of grown men addicted to first-person shooter video games, absurd firepower (and the laughably elaborate technology to help kill docile game; somehow thousands of previous generations managed to do that without all the fancy gear) or diesel-guzzling behemoths with beds that never haul anything more than a cooler full of Bud.
Is it, as some utopian feminists have argued, the case that testosterone-fueled men cannot ever be truly redeemed (or trusted)? There are plenty of science-fiction scenarios in which women have organized societies that exile men to their barbaric ways, except insofar as they are needed to propagate the species. And some now argue that boys raised by strong single mothers or lesbians are better off than boys with present fathers. Is masculinity unneeded — a hindrance, a pathology — in a technological world?
On the contrary. In a technological world that has permanently altered what it means to be a man, we need healthy masculinity more than ever. Too many grown men are grounded on shoals of immaturity. Too many more have bought the lie that violence and domination define masculinity. Too many boys have no positive male role models in their lives.
It’s time we all protested by burning those old, distorted “man cards” and started talking about what it means — or rather, what it should mean — to be a man.