Yes, I have many reasons to be thankful.
I am reminded of these reasons every time I read a war novel, and although the Iraq war has been largely underrepresented literarily, I’ve read two doozies of late.
The first one was called “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain The reviewers call it the Catch 22 of the Iraq war. I wouldn’t go that far. Fountain isn’t as absurd, or as funny as Joe Heller, or even Dan Jenkins, but he’s a keen observer, and you’ll never be able to watch a football halftime show in quite the same way again.
The basic plot: Bravo Company returns home on two-week leave, heroes because of video shot by an embedded news crew. For publicity purposes, the army sends the eight surviving members of the platoon on a nationwide tour ending with an appearance at the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas, where they have bit roles in the halftime show.
During their time stateside, a Hollywood agent tries to negotiating a film deal for them. The agent says the biggest problem with selling their story is that Iraq movies have “underperformed” in Hollywood.
Billy Lynn, the main character, is ambivalent about the negotiation. On the one hand, he’s American, and Americans all love a financial windfall. On the other hand, he feels like the day he gets paid is the day he gets smoked …
And that’s the kicker. After the nationwide tour, the Bravo heroes are scheduled to return to the front. So an anti-war group is trying to recruit Billy to go AWOL for their purposes, while an evangelical pastor is trying to recruit Billy to join his church for his purposes …
It’s your basic, All-American, every man for himself marketing scrum … exacerbated by the Great Recession and its collective imprint on the psyche.
“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 … “
The above contributes to the reaction to the troops – which Billy finds so excessive as to be, well, embarrassing.
“Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines … Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.”
Then I read the Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which meanders along and meanders along, told in such a way that you know the outcome from the very start but not quite the path to the outcome, and when you learn the path to the outcome, it’s just a knockout punch. One of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever read, and I’ll never be able to erase it from my memory.
The most memorable parts off the book are the parts where the soldiers try to convince themselves of their odds of survival. If there are a certain number of soldiers on the ground, and there’s a certain percentage of those soldiers who are bound to die, then every time someone else dies, that means the overall odds of survival for everyone else has, statistically, improved.
Unless, however, you start thinking about it too much.
As the sergeant says, “If you get back to the States in your head before your ass is there too, then you are a f&^%ing dead man. I’m telling you. You don’t know where Murph keeps going, but I do … Murph is home, Bartle. And he’s gonna be there with a flag shoved up his ass before you know it.”
But of course, can anyone concentrate long enough to read a book these days? The following is from Vane’s desk …
Nass dies. Multitaskers can’t be bothered to notice
Stanford Communication professor Clifford Nass died earlier this month at Stanford Sierra Camp near South Lake Tahoe after collapsing at the end of a hike. He was 55.
Nass was known for his research into the relationships between people and technology. He is perhaps best known for his research into multitasking, concluding with a paper in 2009 that demonstrated self-professed multitaskers are worse at multitasking than infrequent multitaskers.
In an interview with Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday, he described multi-taskers as “basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even – they’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”
Worse still, multitaskers like those in the Nass’s study are in denial. “They actually think they’re more productive,” Nass said. “The people we talk with continually said, look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused. And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”
Nass expressed concern with his findings, considering he estimated that the top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they use media. He noted that this volume of multitasking is “something that just couldn’t happen in previous generations even if we wanted it to.”
Not all multitasking is bad, Nass said, nor are our brains ill-equipped to handle multiple tasks. However, he said, “Our brains are built to receive many stimuli at one time, but they’re related stimuli. The problem with multitasking is not that we’re writing a report of Abraham Lincoln and hear, see pictures of Abraham Lincoln and read words of Abraham Lincoln and see photos of Abraham … The problem is we’re doing a report on Abraham Lincoln and tweeting about last night and watching a YouTube video about cats playing the piano.”
He added that he and others are only now beginning to identify some of the long-term effects of multitasking. In a 2009 PBS Frontline interview he said, “Most academics, including myself, kept seeing [multitasking] as an aberration. You’d see someone multitasking and go, ‘Ha ha ha, those wacky college kids. OK, they’ll grow out of it.’ And then you start looking around and go, ‘Wait a minute, they’re growing into it, not out of it.’ Little kids are growing up with it. Older people are being stuck with it.
“We could essentially be undermining the thinking ability of our society. We could essentially be dumbing down the world.”
In a TedX talk earlier this year, Nass addressed research demonstrating that ‘tweenage’ girls who spend hours multitasking with digital devices and watching videos tend to be less successful with social and emotional development than girls who spend more time interacting face-to-face with friends. His conclusion: “The moral of this story here is really clear: We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’”