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An Evening with Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

An Evening with  Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

[Music playing over crowd noises]
Ben grew up in North Carolina, he is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill and Duke Law School. He’s the author of a short story collection
“Brief Encounters with Che Guevera” and a novel “Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk”. His work has received, get ready, this is
a long list, The Pen Hemingway Award, the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for
Fiction, the Jesse Jones Award for Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, an O
Henry Award, two Push Cart prizes also. His short fiction and non-fiction has appeared
in Esquire, the Paris Review, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas
Morning News, and Le Monde, among other publications. His series of essays for The Guardian on the
2016 presidential election has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for commentary… congratulations
Ben! … those essays are being included [applause] …yes, that’s certainly to applaud…Now
these essays are actually going to be included in a forth coming non-fiction book
about the election called Beautiful Country Burn Again. Ben served as the associate producer and consultant
on the film adaptation of Billy Lynn’s Long halftime walk directed by three time Oscar
winner Ang Lee. Ben Fountain, we are thrilled to have you
here tonight, thank you for joining us. [applause]
And also speaking with us this evening is Bryce Dubee is the public affairs officer
for the Texas Veterans Commission and a US Army veteran. He enlisted in 2003 as a photojournalist and
spent the next 13 years helping tell soldier stories around the world. This included two deployments to Iraq, one
deployment to Afghanistan, and also as a reporter for the Tokyo Bureau of Stars & Stripes. In 2012 Bryce started a 15 month fellowship
working at Google in the Washington DC office. He was responsible for coordinating events
and outreach programs to leverage Google’s tools and programs to support veterans’
initiatives. And here come Bryce’s awards now, in 2014
he was recognized for operating the best social media program the Department of Defense and
again in 2016 for having the best program in the Department of the Army. Bryce Dubee thank you so much for being here
this evening too.[applause] So we’re gonna ask you two to share a microphone
so if you could sort of pass back-and-forth, you and I can share if we need to. And we’re going to talk for probably about
45 minutes or so and then open it up to you all for questions so while we’re talking if
there are things you want to ask kind of make a mental note and we’ll leave plenty of
time at the end to take questions from you all please keep that in mind as we’re chatting. Ben what I thought we should do first of all
to kind of get everybody on the same page here is to just tell us a little bit about
what actually happens in the book what happens on the day that the book is primarily set
on and then what the characters are doing and going through. [Ben] So the best program in the whole Department
of Defense? That’s impressive, congratulations. Thank you for the Center for the Book and
a thank you to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. It’s a real honor to be here and I am definitely
a book nerd so I feel very at home here and today I was taken down into the stacks of
the archives and I would’ve happily just stayed and gone through every single drawer down
there that you know I wouldn’t of come up for six years. But it’s a real honor and privilege to be
here. Billy Lynn’s Long halftime Walk, it’s a novel,
it takes place over the course of one day. It’s Thanksgiving day at the old Texas Stadium
where the Cowboys used to play. It’s a concrete batch plant now. They leveled it a few years ago. But it takes place 2004 and it follows a group
of American soldiers who go by the name of Bravo Squad. It’s a misnomer put on them by the media
but it’s eight surviving soldiers of a squad. They were filmed by a Fox news crew in combat
performing heroically. That footage goes viral, and so the Bush administration
in order to pump up support for the war they bring the surviving Bravos back for a two
week victory tour around the country. And at the end of that two-week victory tour
the Bravos will go back to Fort Hood, get on a plane to go straight back into combat. This Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving day game
is their last day of the tour. And so this is at the very end of that two
weeks. And so in the course of this day Bravo, they’re
going to take part in the halftime show with Destiny’s Child. They’re gonna be hosted in the owner’s suite. They are going to have a lot of encounters
with grateful citizens. They’re going to experience the Thanksgiving
day buffet at the stadium club etc. etc. etc. Anyway and the main character is all seen
through the eyes of a young soldier named Billy Lynn whose 19 years old. He was awarded the Silver Star in the engagement
that makes Bravo famous. [Jennifer] So Ben you’re obviously a writer,
you went to law school, you’re practicing attorney for a while, you don’t have though
military service in your background, so why did you want to write this novel where did
the story come from for you? [Ben] Um, yeah and um, there was a real question
in my mind and there’s still a question as to whether I had the right to write a book
like this. I mean writers do this all the time. They step into someone else’s skin. Sometimes you know, it’s the skin of an animal,
sometimes it’s the skin of a rock. They are really no limits but I think anytime
you get into matters of life-and-death and blood, um, it’s not a thing to be taken lightly. And so I felt like I mean this story feels
like it’s a powerful thing in me. I am trying to get my head around this country,
and what this country is about and what is in us that would cause us to engage in the
wars that we’ve been fighting for the last 15 years. And so to try to get my head around that question,
not necessarily to answer it, because I’m not sure it can be answered definitively. I had to write this book and the inspiration
for it was a halftime show very much like the one I depict in the book. And by the way if anybody thinks this book
is a satire, it’s not, it is straight up realism. So all the things you think are exaggerated
and blown up and cartoonish in the book, I defy you to show me one of those things that
hasn’t happened already in America. But anyway it was a halftime show very much
like the one I depicted in the book. And it’s this very surreal mash up of all
the crazy parts of America. Pop culture, pop music, softcore porn, American
triumphalism, American militarism, you know, about 8 million American flags. J, you know, all the crazy parts of America
mashed up together and I felt like well if you were young soldier down on the field taking
part in this halftime show and you had been in that ultimate life-and-death reality of
combat and now you’re dropped into this extremely artificial situation, what would it do to
your head? And that was really the germ of the story. [Jennifer] So Bryce before we continue with
the conversation I want to give you a chance to describe for us a little bit more than
I did in the introduction, your service in the military. Tell us more about your time and what you
did in your service. [Bryce] As you said, I think the focus for
me was, I joined in 2003, I saw kind of what was going on and it’s sounds really hokey
but there’s a old film came out a couple years ago based on a book “We Were Soldiers Once
and Young” and there’s a line at least in the movie that always jumped out at me where
this reporter Joe Galloway said “My family’s always been in wars, I want to make sense
of one and tell a story.”, and I found out that there was a photojournalism job in the
army, and I was like: that’s what I’m gonna do! So with basic training, went to journalism
school, went straight to Iraq. Ironically, came back in November 2004 just
in time for Thanks giving and all of that. But kind of had that experience and covered
that and worked kind of telling those stories, trying to tell to the Americnan people, keeping
soldiers informed, things like that. Kind of traveled back and forth all that. That’s really was kind of my experience throughout
my entire time. Just relate that storytelling piece of it
so. [Jennifer] When people ask you about your
service and you describe for them what you’ve done, what kind of responses do you tend to
get, I mean I’m I think a lot of people have a natural inclination to want to say thank
you. Do you get thanked a lot for your service? What kind of responses do you get? For the most part I would say it is that kind
of general 30,000 foot view of the “thank you for your service” that’s something
that I see in the book for example. That is kind of the casual passing by thank
you handshake, when there could be more conversation. Something that always jumps out to me when
before I went to my last deployment to Afghanistan. I was back home in Virginia
having dinner with a friend of mine who is well educated, keeps up with the news, all
these things and we’re chatting and he’s like hey what are you doing next in the Army? And I’m like oh, I’m going to Afghanistan,
and he’s like oh, I didn’t realize we still were over there. I was like I’ve known you for 20 years,
how do you not…, it was like, how do you not… it was one of those…so I think, I
think there is that kind of level sometimes of folks, there is a discussion, but it’s
that kind, kind of a casual passing off , there isn’t necessarily that second follow up
question to all of that. [Jennifer] Ben, could you read for us a little
bit from the book? There are several moments throughout the novel
when primarily at the stadium when football fans and people who are there encounter Billy
and the other members of Bravo and they, they try sometimes clumsily, to thank them for
their service. If you could just read a portion of that for
us. [Ben] Right, this is a scene where Billy is
in the stands with the other Bravos and And a bunch of fans are coming up to greet
them and thank them for their service. [Ben reads] No one spits no one calls him
baby killer. On the contrary people could not be more supportive
or kindlier disposed. Yet Billy finds these encounters weird and
frightening all the same. There something harsh in his fellow Americans:
avid, ecstatic, burning that comes with the deepest need. That’s his sense of it, they all need something
from him, this pack of half rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms and corporate VPs. Their all gnashing for a piece of a barely
grown grunt making 14,800 year. For these adult affluent people he is petty
cash in their personal accounting. Yet they lose it when they enter his personal
space. They tremble. They breathe in fitful stinky huffs. Their eyes skits and quivers 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 flaked on talk
radio. It’s been hard times in America. How did we get this way? So scared all the time and so shamed at being
scared through the long dark nights of worry and dread. Days of rumor and doubt. Years of drift and slowly ossifying angst. You listened and read and watched and it was
just so obvious what had to be done. A mental tick of a mantra that became second
nature as the war dragged on. Why don’t they just send in more troops, make
the troops fight harder, pile on the armor and go in blazing full frontal smackdown and
no prisoners. And by the way shouldn’t the Iraqis be thanking
us? Somebody needs to tell them that. Would you tell them that please? Or maybe they’d like your dictator back? Failing that, drop bombs, more and bigger
bombs, show those persons the wrath of God and pound them into compliance and if that
doesn’t work then bring out the nukes and take it all the way down, wipe it clean, reload
with fresh hearts and minds. A nuclear clumps clearance of the country’s
soul. Americans fight the war daily in their strenuous
inner lives. Billy knows because here at the contact point
he feels the passion every day. Often it’s in their literal touch a jolt
arcing across as they shake hands, a zap pent-up warrior heat. For so many of them this is the moment. His ordeal becomes theres and vice versa. Some sort of mystical transference takes place
and it’s just too much for most of them, judging from the way they choke in the clutch. They stammer, gulp, brain fart, and babble. Gum up all the things they want to say or
never had the words to say them in the first place. So they default to old habits. They want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. 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 in this tangible proof of their
goodness. [Jennifer] They know they’re being good when
they thank the troops. It seems that there is very much
an element about the thinking that’s about the thanker and not the thankee. [Bryce] I think the one that when I read that
passage the one that jumped out of me years ago. I was in an airport so I was stationed we
did a lot of the airport rotations for escorting media to cover troops coming home troops deploying,
things like that and I remember being, we’re grabbing lunch in a restaurant and gentlemen
came over and handed us a $20 bill. Like he didn’t, he was just kind of like here…and
I was like, it’s just kind of you have to do something reaction I think sometimes but
folks aren’t necessarily sure what it is so it was an attempt at something, if that
makes sense. [Jennifer] It does and you know since this
this evening is is meant to be the beginning, the first conversation of what’s hopefully
a series of conversations here and all around the state about veterans coming home. I’m curious to hear from you Bryce you know
especially from what we’ve heard from Ben’s novel
what would be, what would you like to hear from people that you encounter who you know
the inclination may be, you know they do the jolt, they may want to thank you or throw
money at you but what what would actually be helpful, what do you want to hear? [Bryce] That is an eternal question and I
know there are some veterans in the room and we probably all have very different answers
to that. To me personally, have a follow-up question,
what was it like, or hey can you tell me something about your experience. Something, I mean, there’s a thank you but
then there’s everything else because everyone has a different story. I was not a grunt I was not in the infantry. Someone who was in that had a totally different
experience. Then there’s someone else who was an admin
clerk or a combat medic or a helicopter pilot or working in the warehouse. So they’re different experiences and stories
and they’re all sort of unique and asking about that I think is a great first step. I would say, the reality…
who here knows a veteran? Like one first, oh wow actually good crowd. That, I mean if you look at in the population
today it’s only about .45% of the population is on, wears uniforms so most folks don’t
know. So kind of having that conversation to bring
folks back in is what I would say. [Jennifer] And Ben when you were doing research
for the book and speaking with Veterans did did they convey to you I mean obviously they’ve
conveyed to you what those encounters are like. Did they convey you their hopes about what
those encounters could be? [Ben] Whell I was probably never that direct
real. I mean I remember two young Marines, former
Marines, that I got to know and um they were telling me, one in particular was really
angry when he came back. And so when people would come up to him and
say thank you for your service, he would say THANK YOU MAY I PLEASE TAKE YOUR DAUGHTER
OUT ON A DATE. And and he said after a year I calmed down
and learned to be civilized again. But I mean it’s a complex thing. I think virtually everybody who you know expresses
thanks to soldiers and veterans, they mean it. They’re sincere. They they truly want to show appreciation. And yet there’s something missing in that
exchange. And I thought about it from different angles. I mean you know how sincere can your thanks
be when you don’t really understand the experience that you’re thanking the person for? And you know how much can your thanks mean
when you haven’t educated yourself about the war. Or you don’t have skin in the game in the
war. I mean in World War II my dad and I talked
about this a lot. He said nobody thanked anybody for their service
because everybody had somebody in the service. I mean the war was real in practically every
home in America. It was a common experience. And so nobody felt the need to think anybody
else because they were all in it. And you know Bryce you just quoted that statistic
just you know a fraction of a percent of the population has fought in this war. So I think there’s a gap, there’s a disconnect
between the you know, the …soldiers reality and mainstream America’s perception of that
reality. And so I think you know these expressions
of appreciation they can’t help but ring hollow, be shallow in most instances. [Jennifer] Well and Ben you do such a beautiful
job I think of depicting that gap and it seems like a good time to mention that another sort
of thread that runs through the book is there is a movie producer with the Bravo squad because
there is interest in turning their real story into a Hollywood movie. And so there’s a lot of discussion about re-creating,
creating their story and how it might need to be changed to be more palatable and it
seems like the perfect overlay for all of this that talking about creating a story about
a real story and there’s talk of a woman playing one of the men, and so it’s just further turning
reality kind of upside down things. One of the things that was really interesting
to me is there are times when the members of Bravo are actually are quite specific about
things that they want. And when I was reading I thought wow here’s
a way where somebody could honor a Bravo member by listening to the request
and carrying it out. Billy keeps asking for Advil. He has a hangover because they were out the
night before and he keeps saying could I please have some Advil and I won’t spoil whether
he gets it or not but it’s it you know he has to ask a lot of the time. The members of Bravo all they want to do is
meet Destiny’s Child. Like they ask and ask and ask and they also
have very specific request about contracts for this potential movie. And so there are moments when it seems like
there are specific things they want where, wow, here’ll be a way to honor them and they
don’t, they don’t always get. [Ben] Yeah I’m not very nice to the soldiers
in the book. But I’m trying to stay true to reality. And when I was writing the book I wasn’t so
much thinking about other books that have been written about war and soldiers. A person who was on my mind a lot was Robert
Altman. And his wonderful ensemble movies he made
like Nashville or Prêt-à-Porter where you had this big public event or series of events. And and you have this big cast of characters
and they’re all having these encounters with one another but they’re never really connecting
because they’re so focused on what they want, hat they kind of ping off each other like
you know lottery balls. And there’s never a meaningful engagement. An so that was kind of the tone I was trying
to hit for this book. I mean the Bravos, yes they’re very specific,
like all Billy wants is a couple Advil. And he asked all day like can you get me some
Advil, can you go to the equipment room, where, you know, where the The Dallas Cowboys suit
up. And there’s you know gazillions of of items
of equipment, there’s all kinds of drugs down there and he asked for two Advil. And the equipment manager says, well actually
we have to account for every single item, every single pill, and I could lose my job
if I give you two Advil because the accounting is so strict and Billy being Billy’s says
that’s okay I don’t want you to lose your job. And and he goes on, so yeah I mean there’s
certain things they want that they can’t get. On this fairly personal level. But you think about when soldiers come home
and they’re the ones who are physically injured, they’re the ones who are emotionally injured,
then their the ones who simply could use a hand getting integrated back into civilian
life. It’s hard and I feel like this society doesn’t
give them nearly enough of what they need. And so you know when you are discussing you
know, you know, what could we give the soldiers? How about a big fat tax hike you know to boost
veterans programs and that way everybody would be sacrificing, everybody would have skin
in the game, and um, and then maybe we would really start as a society thinking okay what
is this war about, it is it really worth it? I mean in World War Two the top tax rate was
90%. And when I gave that statistic out in Aspen
at the Aspen Ideas Festival there was this gasp in the audience. I mean all these centimillionaires were out
there [makes gasping noise]. 90%? I’m like yeah well if you’re gonna fight
a war, if you’re really gonna mobilize, if you really gonna support the troops, well
put skin in the game. [Jennifer] You know Ben another thing that
occurs to me is there a times and especially Billy is actually asked to take care of other
people I mean he’s got to on the day when, and I’m actually thinking of the flashback
moment to just the little bit of time before he’s with his
family for a few days. And he’s he’s worried about his sister and
is worried about his mother and how they’re gonna react and how his departure is gonna
be and he is working very hard to make everybody else okay. While, you know they’re also kind of wrapped
up in their own thing and they’ve made meals and things but really he’s the one doing a
lot of caretaking with them. [Ben] Billy’s a good kid and he has that
he has a big heart. You know there’s so much talk about the emotional
damage that these have wars have done and PTSD, there are plenty of soldiers who’ve
come back and they are strong people and they’re stronger because they been in the military. And the way Billy is interacting with his
family he’s only 19 he’s the youngest kid of three. he’s he is becoming the power in that
family. I mean they are looking to him to be to be
the rock in that family. And for those two days he’s home he’s thinking
I can see what’s happening here am I up to it? Yeah I think I am up to it. I got to be up to it. And the reality is a lot more complex then
what mainstream culture would have is believe. [Jennifer] Well let’s let’s get to this halftime
show and this mashup of football, music, everything, let’s start then if we could, if you could
just read portions of the description of what actually happens once we get the halftime
of the game and everybody’s going out onto the field. [Ben] Okay, um. All right, the Bravos find themselves down
on the field, their taking part in the halftime show and the headliners are Destiny’s Child. There’s five or six marching bands on the
field. There’s flag girls, baton twirlers, lots of
cheerleaders. There’s hip-hop dancers, there’s dancers
up on the stage with Destiny’s Child. And Bravo with no preparation whatsoever they’re
thrown into the situation. And as I thought about this halftime show
a lot and I watched it over and over and YouTube, and in the course of writing this scene I
was trying to figure out what exactly is going on here. Is it just stupid? I mean is it just a big dumb show? And I went into it thinking well, that’s probably
what it is, just a big dumb show. I mean it doesn’t make any sense. And in the course of writing this scene and
thinking about it, I decided no there’s something really going
on. And uh I been to Haiti, I started going to
Haiti 25, 26 years ago. And I’ve seen a lot of vodoo ceremonies. And I don’t think I could’ve written this
scene if I hadn’t seen how those voodoo ceremonies because I think a kind of voodoo is going
on with this halftime show. Anyway, so Billy’s down on the field Destiny’s
Child is strutting around right in front of the Bravos. [Ben reading] Just assume you’re going to
die. [Ben speaking] No, excuse me. Destiny’s Child has just been introduced. [Ben reading] Such an unholy barrage of noise
pours forth that Billy thinks he might be lifted off his feet. It is a damn bursting, bridges collapsing
at rush-hour, Tsunami of killer froth and boulder size debris revising the contours
of the known world. Just assume you’re going to die so they were
instructed the week before deploying to Iraq. Affirmative, roger that, sir-yes-sir carnage
awaits us, we are the ones who will not be saved. The poor sad doomed honorably fucked frontline
who will fight them over there so as not to fight them here. A harsh thing for any young man to hear but
this is part of every youth education in the world, learning the risks are never fully
revealed until you commit. Destiny’s Child is really laying into the
strut. They could be wading through a storm surge
up to their waist. Goddamn, Billy thinks, watching them sling
it. Goddamn! So how is he supposed to redeploy with such
sights in his head. Within days, no hours, Bravos back in the
shit and he’s waiting for them to say it again. He dreads ti but the harsh words need to be
said: you’re going to die. Just get that part of it over with please
but no no one will do it they get Beyoncé and her mouthwatering ass instead. Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense. Or maybe not for you Billy reasons, is because
you are a dumb shit. [Ben speaking]
Okay so that’s Billy like thinking it’s just a big dumb show. It doesn’t seem to make any sense. So the show goes on and he starts to see it
in a different light. [Ben reading] It occurs to him maybe he’s
wrong, maybe the halftime show is as real as anything. What if some power or potent agency lives
in it. Not a show but a means to something. Something conferred or invoked. A ceremony, something religious, so long as
religioun extends to such cold-blooded concepts such as mayhem, chance, nature out of control. He feels the pool the pool of the superseding
reality that trumps even the experiential truths of a grunt on the ground. The blood on your hands. The burn in your lungs. The stink of your unwashed feet. Merely thinking about it sets off a pounding
in his school. Not his headache but a heavier sonar throb
deep in the lower brainstem. And very clearly the thought comes to him
that’s where it lives, the God in your head. All the gods. Is that what’s happening here? He’s too self-conscious and church averse
to accept a completely straight notion of God, so how about this? Chemicals, hormones, needs and drives, whatever
it is in us so supreme and terrifying that we have to call it divine. Billy is cold where the warmest part of him
should be. As if meaning naturally registers first in
the most delicate instrument he has, his balls. He’s scared. He knows this is a bad place to be. They love to talk up God and country but it’s
the devil they propose. All those busy little biochemical devils of
sex and death and war, that simmer at the base of the skull. Punch up the heat a few degrees and they rise
to a boil, spill over the sides, do they even know he wonders. Maybe they don’t know what they know given
that what he sees before him is so random, so perfect, pouring light out of it’s mind
on martial dope. Short of blood sacrifice or actual sex on
the field you couldn’t devise a better spectacle for turning up the heat. [Jennifer] Wow that’s beautiful writing Ben,
very powerful. Bryce, I’m wondering if maybe not quite that
that specific kind of show but if you if you have ever been in a situation like that being
part of something where troops are part of the show, part of the ceremony. [Bryce] Oh sure, ironically enough I’ve
actually done a ceremony at Dallas Cowboys stadium. [laughter] [Jennifer] With Destiny’s Child? [Bryce] With Garth Brooks! [laughter] [Jennifer]
Oh, okay, whoa, all right, star power! [Bryce] But it was a similar experience in
that we got the request at Fort Hood from the Country Music Awards, hey they want to
have soldiers as a backdrop. So we got on an air conditioned bus and drove
from Fort Hood to Dallas and then sat in the back for probably four hours and then walked
out there during the last half of the song, walked back, and then sat in the back, then
got back at one in the morning. But we were a good backdrop and it does kinda
play into it like you watch the song, you watch the video online, and you’re like,
wow that looks really cool! But it is that kind of scene, you’re standing
there, you don’t, our structures were go out there in a line. And you just kind of follow while everything
else is going on and there’s lights and lasers and people cheering and all these things but
it was that very similar sort of alien I’ll follow the head in front of me and then we’ll
stop moving and then hopefully everything is good experience to the whole thing. It’s a very surreal thing kind of. You’re a prop but it’s also kind of cool
and weird and fun and exhausting. I don’t know it’s it it’s a bizarre experience. [Jennifer] Did it feel real? [Bryce]Not in the least… walking into the
Dallas Stadium and all of a sudden because because of the crowd and the audience there
and all of a suddent they get this pop and the lights come on us and the crowd goes
wild for me standing there in my class A’s with a bunch of other service members. That’s a, that is a weird experience to have
10,000 people, tens of thousands of people cheer for you, like just on on kind of that
lizard brain que , Oh service members, go! [snaps fingers] [Jennifer] When you’re talking
about it you said you know, you guys were a backdrop essentially and sort of props,
I mean and that’s how Bravo, I mean they’re used in the show, you know they they didn’t
just pick some random guys to stand there. They’re they’re using they’re using the
soldiers. [Ben] Yeah I mean I think we have to call
it what it is, I mean you’re being used as props. And um there is recognition and honor there
are those aspects to it. But it’s become such a reflex in American
life. I mean if anybody watched any of the Super
Bowl this year, it was a mud wallow of American triumphalism START AT 34:53 and patriotism. But what is patriotism? Is it, you know, putting a flag on your lapel
thanking the troops? I mean, that’s not not patriotism but what
is patriotism? It’s love of country. In my experience, love is hard. Love involves sacrifice, love involves pain. It involves a lot of giving and not much taking. And my wife is in the audience is looking
at me saying you got… your right buddy! [laughter] It’s because I’ve been giving
a lot and you’ve been taking a lot. [laughter]. But, but I think you know in any long-term
loving relationship, there is sacrifice. It’s it’s I mean we’ve all been through that
puppy love, you know, adolescent love where it’s it’s you know it’s like this spongy Koosh
ball of emotions and it’s just all wonderful and um. And maybe that’s the kind of patriotism that
we’re experiencing in the country right now it’s just. I mean for most of us it’s this like okay
it feels good to thank the troops, it feels good to cheer cheer cheere, but don’t bug
us with the hard stuff. But I think real patriotism, I mean, it’s
love of country and love is sacrifice, pain and having skin in the game. [Jennifer] Bryce, what what is real patriotism
to you? [Jennifer] Oh, was not expecting that question. [Jennifer] Well you know I wasn’t either!
[laughter] [Bryce] I don’t, I don’t know that’s … I was raised in a family of civil servants
so for me it’s always kind of like we’ve been part of this and that’s that’s our, that’s
that’s my that’s my thing it’s not it’s not a military family by any means, and my
parents were in the Peace Corps. But there’s always been that kind of service
piece to everything that we did. I guess I kind of rebelled like joining the
army while they were in the Peace Corps, but but I think that’s always been just kinda,
to me it’s like you said I mean having skin gaming and participation. I mean that that that to me is the biggest
thing. [Jennifer] I just kinda want to wrap up talking
about halftime show before I move on, for, our time is it is quickly evaporating but
one of the most powerful parts of the description of the halftime show to me is actually the
beginning of the following chapter. I’m just gonna read the first couple sentences
and I condensed a little so the next chapter begins: [Jennifer reading] No one comes for
them. They gather around Sykes [Jennifer speaking]
Who is one of the members. [Jennifer reading] And wait as instructed
but Bravo has fallen through a crack in the collective mind and so they stand there marooned. [Jennifer speaking] So after this extravaganza
mashup performance, their literally left like a prop. And nobody tells them where to go or what
to do. And that to me that was incredibly telling
and powerful. [Ben] Yeah, I mean, it’s another example
of me not being very nice to the Bravos. I mean there told before they go out to the
halftime show they say well when it’s over just stand there on the stage and we’ll
come get you. And so nobody comes to get them, there just
like the lost patrol except they’re stuck in the middle of the playing field at Texas
Stadium. And they get into a fight with the roadies
who are taking down the stage. Because they say we aren’t leaving and the
roadies say you have to leave and so, yeah, I mean their job is done. They were useful obedient props and um now
nobody comes to get them. [Jennifer] So guys we’re sitting in a library,
so we’ve got to talk a little bit about the importance of research in creating a novel
like this. We touched briefly Ben, you don’t have personal
military service experience yourself, so obviously a lot of research have to go into writing
the novel. What did you do to come as close as you could
to putting yourself in the boots, in the shoes of those who who have served and are serving. [Ben] Well, I feel like because I’ve never
been in the military, I felt like I got to earn the right to write this book, hopefully
to the extent I can. And I had the nation for the book in 2004
and I was working on other things. So my default reading for the next five years
was this war. These wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, if there
was anything else I had to read or didn’t have a burning desire to read it was always
about these wars. And so I was trying to build background, as
deep a background as I could. You know, saving all the relevant magazine
and newspaper articles so that in the end I have a stack about this high. Talked to all the active-duty soldiers and
vets that would talk to me. And also when you do this kind of work and
you’re in a long-term project, things come to you from your own experience. That’s one of the wonderful things about doing
this kind of work. You know more than you think you know. I grew up in North Carolina. Our next-door neighbor was a sergeant major
in the army. He was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. And until you tap into these people who you’ve
known over the course of your life. I’ve known American veterans going back
to World War One. And so you know you you pull up things in
your own experience as well as you know doing the external research too. [Jennifer] And Bryce, how would you how would
you assess then the reality of this, how did Ben do? [Bryce] I think the thing that jumped out
to me as a former enlisted person, I know there’s other enlisted folks who are here,
the the dialogue, the sort of immaturity among, like you’d mentioned the brawl at the end. I mean that there are things in the book where
I could absolutely, yeah, a bunch of grunts would get challenged and of course, they’d
throw down because, that’s what grunts do. Like there’s there’s an authenticity to the
how, how they spoke that really kind of reached me in a way that I found interesting because
a lot of times they may want to put soldiers and certain others the stereotypes of these
these guys have southern accents, and this guys got the Brooklyn accent. These are more, their just guys and their
their kids and they’re doing kinda dumb the army as we call it, dumb Joe things. It it made sense to me, and some of the same
conversation felt very familiar to me. [Jennifer] So one more question from me and
then we’re gonna open it up to questions from the audience. And actually I want to ask about conversations
because again this this night is meant to be a kick off of of an extended period of
time we hope of having conversations with veterans who are coming home from service. I’d like to hear from each of you how we can
start and have those conversations effectively, successfully. Understanding that, especially going back
to what you said earlier Bryce, it’s not one, it’s not one passing conversation one time
it’s meant to be ongoing. START AT 42:31 How, how can we start those
conversations that a lot of us don’t don’t necessarily feel qualified or knowledgeable
enough to start. Either or both. [Bryce] So, not to put one of our other authors
whose also here but one of the other authors did a book called The White Donkey. But he’s also a cartoonist on his day job
and has this great strip that always sticks in my head where there’s a marine and he’s
like “hey I’m heading off to basic training” and then it’s like “cool, kill somebody
for me”, it’s his buddy just kinda sitting there playing video games and the next panel
he comes back from Iraq and goes “hey I just got back from Iraq. I’ve had some profound life-changing experiences”,
and his buddy still sitting there playing games [and says] “cool, did you kill somebody?” And in the next panel he’s like “hey I’m
headed off to college” and he is now very clearly a civilian, backpack on him, “hey
I’m headed off to college, I’m gonna go to class for the day”, and he’s like “I
thought you were still in the army” and then he’s like “no I was in the Marines,
and I got out three years ago.” So it’s this kind of like having that conversation
again kind of above that, higher … ask those questions “so what did you do?” or “tell
me about it”. Those, I mean, I could sit here and talk stories
all day long. I mean 13 years gets you a lot of stories. And every veteran has those. And they are some profound life changing experiences. And I think that that to me is the most important
part is just asking. And I mean that there are the bad, that “hey,
did you kill somebody” that that’s the bad question but the “so what was it like?” so what is Iraq?” or “what can you tell
me about the Iraqi people?” or “what’s it like flying over?” I mean there there’s all sorts, anything is
a good there are no bad questions really. [Ben] I mean, I’m thinking one of the things
civilians like me, we can do, is not be numb. Not be dumb and numb because there’s so much
in this culture that encourages us to be dumb and numb. I mean, you know, these damn things. I mean, you know it’s like everybody’s walking
around doing this [looks at phone]. Nobody’s really engaging you know with anybody. It’s like “oh, oh, I thought you were in
the Marines, oh you’re in the Army, oh you’re out now?” It’s um… I mean, there’s so much coming at us in this
culture now, it’s just, we’re saturated and overwhelmed. And I think you know, we have to make a conscious
effort to be there, to be present, to actually engage with people on a meaningful level. And um you know just to recognize the humanity
of the person who’s in front of you. Whether it’s a active-duty soldier or veteran
or not. And there’s so much in this culture that’s
pushing us the other way. You know, to be focused on the screen instead
of the flesh and blood person in front of us. I think one of the best things we could do,
or it would be a start, is to turn off the damn machines. [Jennifer] Well, we have done that tonight
I’m glad to say. And thank you both for participating in the
conversation. We’re gonna continue the conversation with
questions from you all and I do want to remind everybody that this conversation is meant
to be the start of a year of conversations and beyond for Read Across Texas Veteran Experience
Welcome Conversations. So encouraging communities of all kinds to
talk with veterans when they come home, ask them what their experience was, what was it
like. These, I want to hold up a card, you’ll
see these cards in your chairs. There’s information on these, a website about
the program is also here. And Rebekah Manley who you met little earlier
she also has a lot of information. So ask her, check out the website, look at
the card and that will also help to keep the conversation going. So let’s keep it going now with questions
from you all, I know we probably have a lot of them for, and I’m actually gonna give
you my mic. And as a reminder, as we’re taking questions
from the audience, please also fill out these cards. The basket will come around if you’re interested
in being entered for a chance to win a copy for the book yourself. We have some cards up here and also on the
chairs. So also be filling those out as we’re chatting. [Audience member] Hi, my name is Cody Garret and my question is I’m very curious as to how you guys feel about
whether these wars have ended or not and if not when will they end? [Bryce] I have a friend who got home from
Iraq two weeks ago and have a friend who just packed up her household goods to head to Kuwait
today. So, that’s my answer. [Ben] So yeah they certainly aren’t over. And I don’t think it would take very much
at all for the power establishment in this country
to tip us right into a full-scale active engagement. I don’t think it would take much at all. We came close in 2013 with Syria. A friend of mine, a very smart friend, he
said we no longer have postwar era. It’s just all war. Just like we no longer have postelection era. It’s, we’re always in the election cycle
and it seems like we’re always at war now, or in a war footing of some kind. So no I don’t think there over and God knows
when they will be over. [Jennifer] Questions? Don’t be shy. I’m gonna hog in with more if you guys don’t… [laughter]. [Audience member] Hi my name is Ann Keene,
I’m from North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I loved your book and saw the movie. And I wondered
the two saddest characters to me, were the daugh…. the sister and the father in the
wheelchair. And I was curious to know how you were inspired
to write that. [Ben] The two saddest characters, Catharine,
Billy’s sister, and um, his father, I can’t remember his name. [laughter]. It happens. Yeah, what inspired them? Well, the basic inspiration is, is I think
the notion that family is the hardest thing. It’s the hardest thing for virtually all
of us to come to terms with and to have peace with. It should be the easiest thing, it seems like. You’re born into this group and you share
DNA and you share a home together and you should have all these things in common and
yet, family is the hardest. And um, you know I try to stay true to that
notion that family is hard. And you know, loving your family is hard. Even when you love them it’s it’s hard. And um, bad stuff happens all the time. There’s, and even when bad stuff isn’t happening
all the time, it’s still complicated. And so that’s probably the best short answer
I can give you. [Audience member] I hear a lot of subtext
there in what you’re saying, political and social. So I’m asking you, as you read your first
excerpt there, I’m asking you to kind of comment on what we see today in the political and
social context, how that relates to your book. [Ben] Yeah I think… right, we’ve gone
into hyper drive. I mean when I started writing this book in
2009, one of the things I realized I wanted to explore was the gap between the soldiers
reality that life and death reality of combat which is about as you know rock hard reality
as you can experience as a human being. Then mainstream America’s perception of that
reality which I feel like is is largely a fantasy. And um and so, I mean, if a society can’t
tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake? I think we’re in real trouble. Just like individuals, if we can’t tell the
difference of what’s real and what’s fake, I mean you’re gonna hit the wall pretty quickly
I think. It hasn’t gotten any better since 2009. And I think you know you can make a strong
argument that it’s gotten a lot worse. I mean now we’re up to our necks in fake news. And you know and we’ve got this individual
as president now who… I mean he can barely open his mouth without
a lie coming out, a demonstrable untruth. And, and he was elected president! [sighs]
So the book hasn’t gotten less relevant I think in fact I’m may have soft petaled it. I may have gone too easy on the culture so. [Jennifer] So I think we have time for one
more question. [Audience member] So we heard from Bryce START
AT 52:58 and why he chose to serve and I was just curious
I’m sure there is a point in your life where you either had to make a choice to serve or
not serve and what led you to your choice? And looking back now from this perspective
how you feel about it. [Ben] I was born in 1958. So I was too young for Vietnam. My first cousin went to Vietnam. We had a lot of other family members, I mean
we’re from the South, you know if you’re called you go. If I had been of age in Vietnam I don’t know
what I would’ve done. Something Tim O’Brien said that really stuck
with me. He said, “I didn’t have the guts not to
go.” I think you know the Southern culture is so
strong pushing you, you know if if your country calls, you go. So I was 18 in 1976. The military had really hit hit a low point
in the United States by then. You know there was the legacy of Vietnam. It just, it wasn’t anything I thought about. And um and actually that’s something I need
to think about. You know, just the fact that it wasn’t you
know it wasn’t it wasn’t anything I considered. [Audience member] So I want to start by making
a statement as much as a question, I do have a question. Before I do that, I also want to thank for
this program, the Reading Across Texas, is a great idea. Ben is the perfect person to kick it off. My statement is, earlier in the
conversation Jennifer asked, what, you know, when you ask a soldier, when people say thank
you, what do you want people to say, how do you want them to react? That’s a great question. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I spent 26 years in the army, the last eight
years as a public affairs officer, I went to Iraq three times. And I’m going out on a limb in saying this
and I’m sorry to say it but it is the truth an in part what Americans need to hear more
often. At the end of all my service, where I ended
up, I met Sebastian Junger one night and we were talking about his book Tribe, and he
said where did you end up? And I said they had a saying in Vietnam, it
was “it don’t mean nothing”. And it was a way of dismissing the annihilation
of a meaningless experience because that’s where you end up. After it’s all over and all the sacrifice. And you go to some small dark hole and be
quiet and you try to find a stillness. And it’s a bad place to end up, to end up
with “it don’t mean nothing”. But at the end of all that time, and all those
years and I grew up in the army, my father was in the army and his father was in the
army. And I’m really worried about what Americans
think soldiers want them to say regarding their experience. And my daughter asked me when I got very upset
a couple months ago. And the anger is really there. And she said “what do you want people to
do?” I said I don’t want people to do anything. It is too late. You can’t fix it. You can’t give enough money to Wounded Warrior. It’s too late. The time you had a chance was when it was
time to vote. And you didn’t. And this person came in and he sent me over. And it was a disturbing comment to her, she
doesn’t know what to do with that, I agree. I wish I could be more upbeat than that, I
really do. I think Ben, you’re painfully honest. That’s the beauty of your book. It is realism. That was a great comment about it not being
satire. My question to you would be, when someone
describes your book as an antiwar novel, how do you respond to that? [Ben] I say hell yes. I mean it’s absolutely anti-these wars. I mean, look, I mean, with Al Qaeda there’s
no question Al Qaeda was and is a sworn enemy of the United States. They attacked us by land, by sea, and by air. They attacked us in 93, World Trade Center. They attacked embassies in 97. They attacked the USS Cole by sea in 2000. And then the towers by air in 2001. There’s no question that Al Qaeda was and
is an enemy, is an enemy that needs to be confronted and dealt with. So why in the hell did we invade two countries,
you know where, I mean the 9/11 hijackers, not a single one came from Afghanistan, not
a single one came from Iraq, not a single one came from Iran, or North Korea, you guys
remember the axis of evil. You know, it’s um, the majority of them came
from our staunch ally Saudi Arabia. It’s a stupid war. And I think stupid wars I think it’s harder
for soldiers to come home from wars like that. And that goes as far back as the Odyssey. I mean, think about that war. That war was started because Helen ran off
with Paris. And so King Agamemnon, his brother says
We’ve got to go get Helen back. I mean the King should of said “dude, go
get a divorce lawyer or a marriage counseler.” [laughter] But they go and they fight this
war for 10 years. And so then the Odyssey is the story of Odysseus
and his companions trying to make it home. It’s the story of soldiers who can’t find
their way home. One makes it home. And when he gets home what happens? Nobody recognizes him. I mean how many times have we heard that the
last 15 years? He came home from the war. I don’t recognize him. Like he’s a different person. So I mean go back to the foundational work
of Western literature and there’s Odysseus commenting about stupid wars. And just how disastrous it is for individuals
and societies. [Jennifer] Well, thank you all for your wonderful questions.

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