Fobbit \’fä-bit\, noun. Definition: A U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Pejorative.
In the satirical tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H , Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like a desk job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy.
Darkly humorous and based on the author's own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war.
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About the Author
David Abrams served in the U.S. Army for twenty years, and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a public affairs team. He was named the Department of Defense's Military Journalist of the Year in 1994 and received several other military commendations. His stories have appeared in Esquire , Narrative , and other literary magazines. He lives in Butte, Montana.
Read an Excerpt
GOODING They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior's courage and selfl ess regard, you'd find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad's bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph. If the FOB was a mother's skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.
Like the shy, hairy-footed hobbits of Tolkien's world, they were reluctant to venture beyond their shire, bristling with rolls of concertina wire at the borders of the FOB. After all, there were goblins in turbans out there! Or so they convinced themselves. Supply clerks, motor pool mechanics, cooks, mail sorters, lawyers, trombone players, logisticians: Fobbits, one and all. They didn't give a shit about appearances. They were all about making it out of Iraq in one piece.
Of all the Fobbits in the U.S. military task force headquarters at the western edge of Baghdad, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. was the Fobbitiest. With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifl e, he was the poster child for the stayback- stay-safe soldier. The smell of something sweet radiated off his skinas if he bathed in gingerbread. Gooding worked in the public affairs office of the Seventh Armored Division, headquartered in one of Saddam Hussein's marbled palaces. His PAO days were filled with sifting through reports of Significant Activities and then writing press releases about what he had found. His job was to turn the bomb attacks, the sniper kills, the sucking chest wounds, and the dismemberments into something palatableideally, something patrioticthat the American public could stomach as they browsed the morning newspaper with their toast and eggs. No one wanted to read: "A soldier was vaporized when his patrol hit an Improvised Explosive Device, his fl esh thrown into a nearby tree where it draped like Spanish moss." But the generals and colonels of the Seventh Armored Division all agreed that the folks back home would appreciate hearing: "A soldier paid the ultimate sacrifice while carrying out his duties in Operation Iraqi Freedom." Gooding's weapons were words, his sentences were missiles.
As a Fobbit, Chance Gooding Jr. saw the war through a telescope, the bloody snarl of combat remained at a safe, sanitized distance from his air-conditioned cubicle. And yet, here he was on a FOB at the edge of Baghdad, geographically central to gunfire. To paraphrase the New Testament, he was in the war but he was not of the war.
On the day a soldier was roasted in the fire of an IED in al- Karkh and then, in a separate attack, a suicide bomber rammed into the back of an Abrams tank, Gooding's deployment clock was at 183 days with another 182 days to go (plus or minus 60 days, depending on extension orders, which could come from the Pentagon at any minute, triggering an increase in suicide attempts, raids on the stash of contraband vodka concealed behind the false wall of a certain NCO's wall locker, and furious bouts of masturbation). Halfway there. The tipping point. The downhill slide.
Staff Sergeant Gooding was a career soldier with ten-plus years in Uncle Sam's Army, but this was the first time he'd set foot on the soil of a combat zone. Like the majority of Fobbits, this filled him with equal parts dread and annoyancefear of being killed at any moment, yes; but also irritation at the fact that he was now on what felt like a yearlong camping trip with all the comforts of home (fl ush toilets, cable TV, sandfree bedsheets) stripped away. Going to war could be a real pain in the ass.
The infantry gruntsthe ones in the wrinkled desert camoufl age uniforms, the ones with worry and fear knotting the tight landscape of their foreheadshad nothing but scorn for soldiers like Gooding. To be a "Fobbit" or "Fobber" or "Fob Dog" was the same as calling someone a dickless, lily-livered desk jockey back in the States. In another war, REMF was the preferred term . . . but now, in this modern asymmetric theater of operations, there was no "rear" echelon elite sitting in their motherfucking safe-from-harm shelter.
But, hey, that was okay by them. The Fobbits told themselves, broken-record style, they Just. Did Not. Give. A Shit.
They were all Fobbits, everyone who worked in this palacewith the exception of a few foolhardy officers gunning for promotion who grabbed every opportunity to ride on patrols to water treatment plants, school renovations, and neighborhood council meetings in the Baghdad suburbs. Those officers didn't really countthey maintained a desk at Task Force Baghdad Headquarters, but you could hardly call them Fobbits. They were ghosts, gone outside the wire more often than not (and making damn sure everyone saw them depart, slurping loud from travel mugs of coffee, uniforms clinking and whickering, a patchwork of 550 cord and carabiners and duct tape). Everyone else? Solid-to-the-core Fobbits who kept a wary distance from the door-kickers when they came into the chow hall smelling of sweat, road dust, and, occasionally, blood. Let the door-kickers ride around Baghdad in their armorskinned Humvees getting pelted with rocks from pissed-off hajjis. Let them dodge the roadside bombs that ripped limbs from sockets and spread guts like fiery paste across the pavement. As for Fobbits? No thanks! They were just fine with their three hots and a cot. The Fobbit life is the life for me, they'd singsong to each other with sly winks.
"Don't wanna be no bullet sponge," said Private First Class Simon Semple.
"Oh, hell, no," agreed Private First Class Allison Andersen. She stuck her forefinger in her mouth and sucked with cheekcollapsing vigor because she was, at the time, eating a Ding Dong cupcake and the broiling Baghdad heat had melted the frosting onto her hand, the corners of her lips, and the tip of her chin. She was back in the cool oasis of the palace now but her skin still throbbed from the 110-degree temperatures outside, which she'd had to endure on the half-mile walk between the dining facility and headquarters. The heat was a bitch and she wondered again why they couldn't just build a tunnel between the two places. For that matter, they should just dig tunnels everywhere, make this whole FOB a network of connected passageways so they could go around like moles and not come up until after the sun went down.
Pfc Semple watched Pfc Andersen suck the Ding Dong off her finger and felt the stirrings of a hard-on. Damn that girl! Semple and Andersen had twice engaged in againstregulation, punishable by Uniform Code of Military Justice sex: once in a Porta-Potty in a remote corner of the FOB, sloshing the toilet to and fro and mashing their lips together to stifl e their orgasms; the second time on guard duty shortly after midnight when the moon was waning and no one could see them thumping around the guard shack at the opening in the coils of concertina wire around the motor pool. That time hadn't really counted, thoughit was coitus interruptus because insurgents picked that particular night to send four mortars raining down on the FOB and the two horny privates quickly disengaged, clapped their Kevlars back on their heads, grabbed their M16s, and sought shelter in a concrete bunker thinking, oh, sweet Jesus this was the fucking end, not just the end of fucking. But then the mortars stopped, the all-clear siren blew, and the privates stood up, brushed themselves off, and, too embarrassed to look each other in the eye, finished their guard duty in silence.
Semple and Andersen worked in the division's G-1 Casualty Section and were in charge of cataloguing the dead. They sat at their desks in headquarters and waited for e-mails to pop into their in-boxes, announcing the serious injury or death of another soldier who'd been scythed by the Grim Reaper while out on patrol. The reports came to them in capital letters, shouting in military jargon:
SOLDIER ON MOUNTED PATROL TRAVELING IN VICINITY OF AL-KARKH WATER TREATMENT PLANT FLAGGED DOWN BY IRAQI CITIZEN CLAIMING AN IED 200 METERS AHEAD. SSG HARDING AND TWO OTHER MEMBERS OF THE PATROL DISMOUNTED M1114 TO SEARCH FOR IED EVIDENCE. TWO ADDITIONAL SOLDIERS SEARCHED ADJACENT FIELDS FOR WIRES, BAGS OF GARBAGE, ANIMAL CORPSES, ETC. INDICATING LOCATION OF IED. SSG HARDING ALSO WALKED FORWARD, BUT REMAINED ON THE ROAD. IED WAS ONLY 30 METERS AHEAD OF SOLDIERS. AS TEAM MOVED FORWARD, IED EXPLODED, CAUSING IMMEDIATE AMPUTATION OF SSG HARDING'S FOUR LIMBS. FRAGMENTS OF IED ALSO PENETRATED SSG HARDING'S HELMET, RESULTING IN MASSIVE HEAD INJURY AND SUBSEQUENT DEATH. UNIT CONDUCTED IMMEDIATE CORDON AND SEARCH FOLLOWING THE ATTACK TO FIND RESPONSIBLE PARTY OR PARTIES AND DETAINED FOR FURTHER QUESTIONING ONE POSSIBLE WITNESS, THE INDIVIDUAL WHO ORIGINALLY WARNED THEM ABOUT THE IED.
When the e-mails with their wounds and smoldering body parts arrived in their in-boxes, it was up to Semple and Andersen to place a call to the Medical Treatment Facility that had received the casualty and verify a U.S. military doctor had officially determined the body was indeed dead. Until a doctor put his stethoscope on that blackened, suppurating chest and gave a tight, nauseous nod, it didn't matter who was weeping and wailing over the corpse of Staff Sergeant Hardingnot his loyal and sickened soldiers, not his commanding officer, not his mother, not even the Great White Bwana himself briefl y pausing in the Oval Office to brush away a simpatico tear. Without the doctor's nod, he wasn't officially dead. And he needed to be officially dead before G-1 Casualty could enter him into the system and begin the transatlantic next-of-kin notification process, which ended with a chaplain and a casualty assistance officer, both of their necks tight and sweating against the collars of their starched dress uniform shirts, standing in the doorway of a home in Hinesville, Georgia, the sun having just swapped places with the moon, a porch swing knocking against the side of the house in the soft evening breeze, the crickets rubbing their legs together and bursting forth in symphonic prelude, the casualty assistance officer clearing his throat and starting his rehearsed speech: "Ma'am, I regret to inform you . . ."
Until then, there was nothing they could do except finish their cupcakes, wipe their fingers, and go back to playing computer solitaire (Semple) and leafing through the pages of an old People magazine (Andersen). Tom Cruise was, after all, in the midst of a very passionate, very weird affair with doe-eyed Katie Holmes. And then there was that vegetable girl, Terri Somebody-or-Other, who nobody had thought to ask before she went into a coma whether or not she would want her plug to be pulled. And Jesus, what was up with Michael Jackson going to court in pajamas? Day-um. America sure was a funny place to look at when you got far enough away, thought Private First Class Andersen.
Hovering unseen at the edge of the G-1 cubicle, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding watched the two privates toss a cupcake back and forth across the cubicle and thought, Oh, man, this isn't going to be easy. He needed a word, a simple little word. Confirmed.
That's all. Just those two syllables.
His life, at this very moment, depended on it. If, that is, you could call press releases a matter of life and death. Which, at this point in time, he did.
Gooding cleared his throat. "Semple," he said.
The private turned his head, saw the sergeant standing there, and quickly minimized the solitaire screen. "Hello, Public Affairs," he said. "What can Casualty do for you this fine afternoon?" "Same old, same old, Semple. Need to know if you have doctor's confirmation of the latest onethe guy from Second Brigade. The press release is done and ready to send out to the media. I'm just waiting on you guys to give me the go-ahead." "Sorry, Sar'nt." Semple shook his head.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Server's down," Andersen said, riffl ing the pages of People a couple of inches from her throat. As if that would cool her skin. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on ice cubes, Antarctica, a guy from Alaska she once dated.
"You've gotta be kidding me," Gooding said.
"Wish we was," Semple said.
"It was fine when I left my cubicle on the other side of the palace."
"Don't know what to tell you, Sar'nt. Sandstorm must have come along in the time it took you to walk from there to here. Maybe a mortar hit. Whatever. We're dead in the water right now." Gooding gritted his teeth. Dead. Dying. Done for. By now, death was a way of life for him, a prescribed job skill he performed with automatic finger taps and wrist lifts across his keyboard. Death was just one of the commodities he traded on a daily basis.
It hadn't always been this way. He could still remember a time, at the start of this deployment, when he'd been a death virgin, cherry unpopped by all the casualty reports and photos of roadside bombings. Long before the Butcher Shop of Baghdad had dulled him to cynicism.
Once, when he was still down in Kuwait, waiting to deploy north to Iraq and join the rest of the division, which had already been in-country for three weeks, a captain from the G-2 Intelligence Section walked up to him in the makeshift Tactical Operations Center and asked, "You PAO?"
Gooding had looked up from the Dickens novel he was reading, then quickly got to his feet, heart pounding. "Yes, ma'am." "Thought you should know we just got word from up north.
Division took some fatalities earlier this afternoon. A vehicle out on patrol rolled over into a canal in south Baghdad. Two dead on impact. Another one trapped in the wreckage. Two other soldiers jumped in to rescue the vehicle crew but they got swept away. Monsoon season up there is a bitch, apparently. Anyway, last I heard, we've got three dead and two missing." Gooding had dog-eared a page of A Tale of Two Cities with trembling fingers and said in a hoarse voice, "Thanks, ma'am. I appreciate you letting me know."
Back then, he'd slumped against the wall, reeling from his first deaths as a public affairs soldier serving in his first war. He pictured the Humvee tipping, tumbling into the water, the two soldiers on the bank shouting,acting on instinct, jumping into the water, misjudging the current, and getting sucked down into the muddy swirl of the Euphrates (in his mind, the canal had become the mighty Euphrates), their mouths trying to snatch air but filling instead with dirty water. He pictured those two soldiers fl ailing against the pull of the water, soon losing all strength as their lungs filled with the Euphrates, and their limp bodies fl oating downstream. He had thought about their personnel files quickly being pulled from the division's records and labeled "Killed In Action," their ghosts quietly falling out of company formations, their names laser-etched on a memorial plaque back in Georgia.
Not many days and three U.S. KIAs later, Gooding had written in his diary:
February 13: This is how a death is announced. In the midst of the hum and buzz of idle boredom in the Division Tactical Operations Center, you hear one officer, bent over the back pages of The Stars and Stripes, ask another, "What did you get for 17 Across?" Two people are arguing about which Matrix movie was the best. Another soldier in his early twenties is surfing the Internet looking at engagement rings and wondering aloud what difference a half carat made in the quality and price andmost importantlya chick's response to the bling.
Then, like a blade swishing through the air comes a sudden sharp voice from the other side of the room, cutting through the growl-buzz of the generator and the fist-thump of wind against the tent walls. You look over and an NCO is pressing a telephone receiver tighter against his ear and saying, "Repeat that last transmission. What did you say?" He waves his hand at another NCO to get him a pen, whereupon he scribbles on an index card. Two or three others cluster near him, heads pressed in a tight circle. One head pops up and catches the eye of the battle captain sitting in his leather office chair at the front of the room. He rises from the chairhe'd been watching a NASCAR race on the TV and walks over to the growing knot of huddled heads. At this point, something like cold fear creeps around your heart like icy vines. The information on the index card is read back into the phone for confirmation, then the battle captain grabs the card and strides to the front of the room, yelling, "ATTENTION IN THE DTOC! ATTENTION IN THE DTOC!"
All sound and motion in the tent stops. Someone mutes the NASCAR race. The battle captain reads from the index card: "We have reports of one IED in the vicinity of Scania along the convoy route. One KIA. Battle-damage assessment still being made. That is all." He reads it as carefully and dispassionately as someone quoting stock market prices, then he turns and writes the information on a large sheet of paper taped to the wall at the front of the room where all significant activitiesthe loss of an M16, the arrival/departure of a convoy, the publication of an operations orderare recorded.
As you watch him write with the magic marker, the conversation-buzz of the room gradually returns to its former volume. Some drop their heads in sorrow, shaking them back and forth as if that will counteract the loss and bring the KIA back to life, or at least change his status to WIA. But the magic marker ink is permanent, seared there by the heat of an IED blast. No wounds can be reversed. The battle captain returns to his leather chair. A couple of officers return to their crossword puzzle. Someone turns up the volume on the TV and the NASCAR race resumes.
But now, five months later, death was a matter of course, one more task in a day already filled with a heavy workload. Gooding could type his KIA press releases blindfolded. If, that is, he could get these two cupcake-smeared clerks in G-1 to cooperate and give him the nod.
Gooding ground his teeth. CNN was breathing down his neck, calling every ten minutes to ask about the explosion half the people in al-Karkh saw and nearly everyone heard, the deep thud rippling through the neighborhoods, the smoke pluming like a gray finger. The producers had called an hour ago and said they already had a cameraman on the site who was telling them there were U.S. casualties. The rest of the meat-wagon media were right on CNN's heels. By the time he walked back to his cubicle, Gooding could expect to see three or four e-mails in his in-box from the New York Times, NBC, and Reuters. They wanted details. They had deadlines. They needed confirmation of death.
"Not much we can do right now, Sar'nt," said Semple, clicking uselessly at his e-mail in-box. "Dust storm's fucking up the whole computer network from here to Basra."
"CNN just announced this guy's death and they have footage of a body wearing a U.S. uniform being hauled from the blast site on a stretcher."
"You know the drill, Sar'nt," Semple said. "He ain't dead until we get the e-mail from the docs at Camp Bucca saying he's dead."
"And you can't pick up the phone and call?"
"C'mon, Sar'nt. You know it has to be official and in writing. We can't go vocal on casualty confirmation."
Semple looked at Andersen to see if she'd agree with him and get this sergeant off their ass. She had stopped sucking her fingers and was now picking at a piece of dried lunch caught on the ample breast of her DCUs. She scraped her nail back and forth right where the nipple would be beneath the uniform, the brown T-shirt, and the bra. Sweet Jesus have mercy!
When he had the chance, Semple was going to tell her about a new Porta-Potty he'd seen by the chapel where no one went except Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. He was going to make his invitation smooth as chocolate milk and maybe she'd reconsider her previous reluctance for toilet sex. For now, he couldn't say anything because the sergeant from PAO was still standing there.
"So," Gooding said, "even though you know he's dead and I know he's dead and by now his momma probably knows he's dead, the dude's not really dead, is that what you're telling me?" Semple leveled a fl at gaze at Gooding and clicked at his equally dead in-box. "He ain't officially dead yet."
"What about unofficially?"
"Unofficially, yeah. He's road meat. But if anyone asks, you didn't hear it from me."
Gooding was already gone. He'd spun on his heel and started speedwalking back to his cubicle by the time the word meat had fallen off Semple's lips.
"Day-um," Andersen said.
"Ole sarge needs to slow hisself down," Semple said. "Guy's gonna have a heart attack if he starts taking this shit too seriously."
"Yeah. He needs to pace himself. We still got another six months to go in this shit hole."
"Why you always gotta bring up the deployment clock, huh?"
"What else we gonna talk about?" Semple asked. "It's all one big fuckin' Groundhog Day anyway, so what does it matter?"
"It matters. I'm sick of this shit already."
Semple snorted. "Your words: pace yourself."
"Whatever." Andersen brushed off her breast with wide, hard strokes to dislodge the crumbs, then picked up her People and moved on to Brad Pitt. Semple watched her, crossing his legs to hide his hardness.
"Hey," he said and Andersen looked up from the magazine. The words Porta-Potty were there on the tip of his tongue, but what he said instead was, "Check the server again."
Andersen clicked her in-box. "Well, lookee here. It's back up. Whaddaya think? Should we call him back?"
Semple grinned. "Naw. Let him sweat it out for a little bit longer. Pass me that other cupcake, will ya?"
What People are Saying About This
"This novel nails the comedy and the pathos, the boredom and the dread, crafting the Iraq War's answer to Catch-22." -Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Alternate Histories: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with David Abrams
"They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow." So opens David Abrams's tale of life and death at "Forward Operating Base Triumph," a fictional version of a real American military base located on the outskirts of Baghdad. But there's nothing soft in the middle about Fobbit, a wickedly comic story of the surreal days of one Chance Gooding, Jr., infantryman and press release jockey, hunkered down in a cubicle trucked into one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, pounding out notices of the latest clash with insurgent forces, and trying to keep interfering brass and the memory of home at bay.
Abrams knows Gooding's strange experience of war all too well; in 2005, he was posted to an FOB in Iraq not unlike its imaginary counterpart. The journal he kept while stationed there became the basis of Fobbit, which follows Gooding and a collection of his fellow soldiers some admirable, some merely competent, some that should be marked "contents under pressure" through a tour of duty all the more nightmarish for its banality. The result is an achingly funny and deeply honest vision of war's absurdity in the age of Starbucks and the Internet.
Perhaps because he's been a frequent contributor to the Review, we were able to convince the author to spend a little time talking with us about his debut work of fiction. From his home in Montana, David Abrams spoke with us via email about Fobbit's origin and the classic writing on war that inspired its creation. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: All of the action in Fobbit takes place in Iraq during the U.S. occupation, but with the exception of a couple of tense scenes on the streets of Baghdad, almost the entirety of the novel is set within the confines of "Forward Operating Base Triumph" hence the acronym that produces the Tolkienesque nickname for its denizens. And life on the base partakes of a kind of postmodern nightmare of bureaucracy, consumer branding, and bored anxiety. For every soldier who goes out "beyond the wire," there is another writing a press release in a cubicle.
So the reader's experience of the story, and the lives of the men you portray, has a curious quality of unreality; they're in the midst of a lethal, unpredictable combat zone, but what they're up against looks like something we've imported.
David Abrams: I tried to bring an Everyman- Anywhere element to the novel, so I'm glad to see that's one thing you picked up on. Yes, it's very particular in its setting Baghdad, 2005 but I hope readers will be able to find some familiar points with which to identify. Not everyone's been to war, but surely most of us have had bosses who steamrolled us with idiocy whether he's the manager at the KFC or the self- important guy in HR.
When I first walked in to the task force headquarters on Camp Liberty in Baghdad in 2005, I was struck by how familiar it all felt. I'd been expecting a rougher, more frightening work environment I mean, what else should I expect when someone says "You're going to war"? but here was a cubicle jungle full of bland people hunched over computers working on PowerPoint briefings and filling out spreadsheets. The whole thing screamed Office Space to me. In a sense, I think that's when the idea for Fobbit germinated. I stood there looking at this gray maze of cubicles, and I realized this wasn't going to be a typical "war experience."
BNR: But that familiarity is radically skewed by the fact that violence can penetrate through "the wire" that surrounds the base. In one scene, Chance does the equivalent of a dive into a foxhole though it's really just underneath his workstation.
DA: That's true. The office story is one layer and the combat violence is another. When one pokes through into the other, that's when the story can get a little jarring. Not unlike what happened to me during my year in Baghdad. I'd be going along doing my job, putting in 14-hour workdays, getting lulled by routine and then suddenly a mortar would come crashing down on the FOB somewhere. It's amazing how fast complacency can get stripped away in moments like that. I never dove under my desk, but I probably came close a couple of times.
BNR: A third layer is the sheer absurdity of the environment which as a literary theme connects Fobbit rather firmly to Catch-22 among other works, but which appears here with amazing specificity. The disgraced infantry captain Abe Shrinkle's escape to the Australian "prayer meetings" in which a ribald mixed-sex crew frolic and crack beers poolside is one example; the contents of his hoarded cache of donated "care packages" is another. How much are those elements based on reality?
DA: On the whole, Fobbit is an example of my imagination running full-bore like an overheated steam engine. Yes, I worked in an Army public affairs office in Baghdad; yes, I turned bland Significant Activity reports into equally bland press releases; yes, I lived like a Fobbit, staying on the FOB nearly the entire time. But when it came time to sit down and write the novel, I knew I needed to turn the volume up to 11 if I wanted readers to stay with me. What was it that Flannery O'Connor said about drawing with "large and startling figures"? If I wanted readers to hear what I had to say, I had to shout through the megaphone of comedy. In the two examples you cite, I can tell you that the Australian pool scenes were entire flights of fancy yes, there was an Aussie pool which the commanding general eventually put off-limits to U.S. servicemembers, but the topless sunbathers and cold cans of Fosters are entirely mine. As for the hoarded care packages? Well, let's just say if you'd visited my hooch (the trailer on Camp Liberty where I lived by myself), you would have found an entire wall bricked with tubs of baby wipes. One great thing about the journal I kept that year was the specificity of details I recorded like the laundry lists of care-package items I received, or the absurd emails from higher headquarters debating the semantics of "terrorist." When it came time to punch up the narrative, all I had to do was reach back to that journal.
BNR: One of the delights of the book is seeing in those absurd emails in particular the application of military thinking and language about strategy and tactics to the task of public relations and media management, as if General Patton were handling press releases.
DA: Well, that was part of the inherent comedy of my day-to-day job over there in Iraq in my entire 20-year career in Army public relations, really. High-ranking officers who had nothing whatsoever to do with media relations would always try to put their thumbprints on what we did. I guess they thought they could control the press like they maneuvered units on the ground. That's only going to end in anger and tears of bitterness for those generals. The press is a wild stallion. No matter how hard they tried, military leaders just couldn't keep it in the corral. Of course, we in public affairs were the middlemen caught in some tough situations. Those scenes where a single press release has to make its way through layers upon layers of approval, delaying its distribution to the media by hours? That was pretty close to the truth. You wouldn't believe the amount of strategy and groupthink that went into composing a single five-sentence press release. There is an institutional mindset among military leaders especially those who served in Vietnam that public affairs belongs at the bottom of the totem pole. It's getting better these days as military commanders see the press as less of an enemy and more of a tool to shape public perception of the military. Of course, that can lead to even more problems, as we saw in the Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch situations.
BNR: One of the press-related boondoggles the staff in Fobbit have to contend with is a somewhat ghoulish (from their perspective) press request to be on the scene when a memorable American body count is reached. How exaggerated is that scenario?
DA: Sadly, that's one of the least hyperbolic passages in the novel. Near the end of my tour in Iraq, the tally of U.S. servicemembers killed in action reached 2,000, and for about a week, our office was busy fielding calls from reporters who wanted to be embedded with Task Force Baghdad units who had a high body count, thus giving them a greater probability of being near the soldier who became the 2,000th casualty. God, it sickens me to even say that out loud, but it's true. As someone who grew up watching KIA tallies from Vietnam broadcast on the TV screen like baseball scores, this was especially disheartening. Hadn't the media and by extension, our society progressed any farther morally since then? Apparently not. You can probably tell I'm still distressed by the media's headline fixation on that "landmark death." It's one of the few times I think I let my anger bleed over onto the page. It will probably come as no surprise that the diary entry by Chance Gooding, Jr., in which he talks about this is lifted almost word-for-word from my own journal: "The media is drawn like jackals to a watering hole by the number 2,000.... They love the sensuous curve of the 2 and the plump satisfaction of those triple zeroes, lined up like perfect bullet holes BAM! BAM! BAM!"
BNR: In the novel, those kind of misleading games with representation are played out on multiple levels. If the media is interested in salable abstractions about such "landmarks," they're paralleled by the generals who command that the military story about the war must "Put an Iraqi face" on victories, to prop up the illusion that nation-building is proceeding brilliantly. And by Harkleroad's letters to his mother, which read like pulp fiction of the most improbable kind.
DA: That's true: deception is multilayered in Fobbit just as it was in Iraq, and continues to be, out of necessity, in any military conflict. I say "by necessity" because there's an inherent need for secrecy when you're at war. You don't want the enemy to know your vulnerabilities or your next move or even the patterns of thinking which go into plotting your next move. This need for OPSEC (operational security) has been a mainstay of the military for centuries, but it's more challenging than ever in today's Web-wired world. More than "challenging" it's nearly impossible. So, one of the strategies of offense/defense is a well-crafted press release that can shape the truth, to some degree, of what's happening in the combat zone. As I say at one point, "Gooding's weapons were words, his sentences were missiles." Of course, writing a press release which tells half truths or lies-by-omission creates all sorts of conflict for Gooding. He knows he has to "tell the Army story" (a phrase which was repeatedly drilled into my own head), but how does he square that up with what he knows to be the full truth? Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad, on the other hand, is so deep into writing his alternate history for his mother that he's come to believe his own lies.
BNR: It's hard not to think about Harkleroad's "alternate history" as a miniature version of other counterfactual narratives that emerged before and during the Iraq conflict the story of WMDs or that infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner. Fobbit almost tantalizes readers with the hints at a "real" vision of life in occupied Baghdad, glimpsed through fragments of infantry officer Vic Duret's experience. At one point he reflects on a day's work that includes negotiations with a local sheik, and one senses the possibility of meaningful engagement with the world outside of the base. But whatever appeal Duret's working life (as opposed to Gooding's) has is counterbalanced by the mortal risk and psychic damage combat inflicts. If the world inside the wire is soul deadening, the outside is terrifying.
DA: In the original draft of Fobbit, there were more scenes involving the "reality" of Baghdad the non- Fobbit world of the conflict. The dissonance between the two worlds was sharply delineated. Some of those chapters set outside the FOB were pretty damn terrifying and, in at least one case, overwhelmingly sad. My editor at Grove/Atlantic, Peter Blackstock, and I ultimately agreed to cut some of those pages both in the interest of length and to focus the narrative a little more on life inside the FOB. Bear in mind, too, that this novel was written by a Fobbit. My experience and perception of what went on outside the wire is almost entirely based on significant- activity reports we received at task force headquarters, news media accounts, and stories told to me by soldiers who were on missions outside the wire. I hope I got some of it right at least in spirit, if nothing else.
BNR: That spirit is also a literary one: I want to mention, at this point, a suitably diverting catalogue of names from Fobbit: Lt. Col. Eustace Harkleroad (and his mother Eulalie Constance Harkleroad). Specialist Cinnamon Carnicle. Sgt. Brock Lumley. A doctor called Claspill. The aforementioned Abe Shrinkle and his fledgling replacement Matthew Fledger. Not to mention Abe's lonely Stateside correspondent Mrs. Norma Tingledecker. It doesn't seem then all that surprising when Gooding emerges from the bathroom with a copy of Dickens's Hard Times. (Though there's also a Pynchonian note in the name of the computer network the Secure Military Operations Grid, which of course collapses into the acronym SMOG).
DA: For me, the sun rises and sets on Dickens. When it comes to pace, style, and structure of the novel, he's probably my greatest influence. His choice of names, in particular, is genius. He telegraphs a lot of information about his characters in the way he christens them. He affixes these name-labels to his characters so we're already forming an opinion about them before they even open their mouths. Noddy Boffin, Jerry Cruncher, Uriah Heep, harity Pecksniff, Gradgrind, Pumblechook, Dedlock, Fezziwig I could go on and on. Dickens was a phonetic comedian, and I guess some of that rubbed off on me in my writing not just in Fobbit but in all of my fiction. Why waste words calling someone Smith when he could be a Harkleroad?
BNR: There were also many novelists and memoirists on American wars that you cite in your acknowledgements: Mailer and Heller of course, as well as Richard Hooker, Tim O'Brien, and your fellow Grove author Karl Marlantes. Do you have a personal favorite among their books?
DA: It's hard to pick a favorite because each of those books taught me something: Catch-22 showed me it's okay to laugh at the horror of war; The Naked and the Dead gave me permission to structure a novel episodically with a large cast of characters; The Things They Carried is simply a masterpiece of vibrant language; M*A*S*H, though I read it during final revisions of Fobbit, taught me how to pace jokes (which, in Richard Hooker's case, is essentially every other sentence); and Matterhorn is an outstanding example of autobiographical fiction Karl Marlantes is incredibly brave and beautiful in his personal story of Vietnam. One other book which I should mention is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It's one of the sharpest, "truthiest" novels about America's attitude toward war that I've ever read.
BNR: Have you read any of the recent nonfiction accounts of the war in Iraq?
DA: I steered away from nonfiction accounts of the Iraq War while I was writing Fobbit the details I had from my limited perspective of the war were my own, and I didn't want other true stories to seep over into the novel. Near the beginning of writing Fobbit, I did read George Packer's excellent history of the war's genesis, The Assassins' Gate. That should be required reading for anyone who wants to know how we got ourselves into Iraq and, once there, how we took a series of missteps. Since finishing Fobbit, I've been delving back into some more war memoirs like Kaboom by Matt Gallagher, What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes, and Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch each of them excellent in their own way. We can never have too many stories about war, we can never exhaust the ways to tell about how we as individuals and as a nation are shaped by this unnatural experience of combat.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am a senior citizen, a woman, a Quaker and a pacifist…not someone likely to read a book about war. Regardless, I picked up Fobbit by David Abrams and was sucked into the good, bad and the ridiculous in Iraq. This novel is not an analysis of how, why and what is happening from an academic perspective. It gives no history at all. What is does do is take you into the minds and angsts of the fears and folly experienced by a select few of the fictitious service men and women serving our country overseas. Despite the illusion and media portrayal of the brave and dedicated soldiers, you see, instead, the men and women who just want to get out of the whole ordeal alive and come home: men and women who wake up in the morning riddled with anxiety attacks and suffering from migraines and stomach cramps much of the day. I was struck by the ingenious way that Abrams could turn this tragedy into a paradigm shift again and again, i.e. the NFL game playing on the big screen TV while soldiers outside the bob wire fence are trying to defuse a bomb wired to a truck; the pure terror that is wrenching the soldier sent to see if a terrorists who has his fingers on an explosive device is still alive while local inhabitants crowd around the scene and CNN and NBC are taping the entire event live. His example of e-mails exchanged in an attempt to differentiate between the use of the words insurgents or terrorists in press releases makes you swing from laughter to tears. Abrams has written a book about the war in possibly the only manner you can get the majority of Americans who can’t locate Iraq on a world map to stop and read more. The news media presents the same sterile reports night after night. Abrams offers us a glimpse, quite possibly the most honest one we’ll ever get, into what’s happening in the lives of our service men and women caught in this nightmare.
David Abrams' FOBBIT is a pointedly funny, witty, over-the-top sarcastic look at life at war without really being IN the war. A "fobbit" is a US Army slang for a soldier stationed at a forward operating base, or "FOB," who avoids combat at all costs by remaining on the base at all times. Vietnam vets will closely associate the term with "REMF." Abrams' tale is of several such fobbits who's tours overlap and interconnect, although each is living his or her own life and trying to survive the deployment in their own way. The author is a career soldier, and uses his experience to paint ridiculous stereotypes of different kinds of soldiers, including infantry types like LtCol Duret and tough-as-nails Sgt Lumley, PAO NCO Staff Seargeant Gooding, and the hapless ne'er-do-well CAPT Shrinkle (also infantry). There also a bull-headed chief of staff, an overweight public affairs officer, and a commanding general who does nothing but clip his toenails. Abrams uses his considerable talents to paint a story for each that takes advantage of each character's particular flaws in order to poke fun at fobbits, war, and the Army in general. The result is a highly entertaining story that moves well and has more than a few smiles as well as one or two laugh out loud moments. Veterans of any war will appreciate the humor, especially if they served on the ground in some capacity.
David Abrams is a magician. With one hand, he's teasing, making ruthless fun of the characters in his book. For readers, the types he sends up may be new: the public affairs officer with a perpetual nosebleed, the company commander with stockpiled baby wipes from charity care packages, the press release writer who's got a template for everything from heroics to disaster. Abrams defines a new ridiculousness, a new absurd to go with a high tech war against a low tech enemy. Readers will find it funny. But they will have a hard time laughing, because I believe they will also find it sad. Because while one hand is creating this clever farce, the other hand delivers a fair and accurate context for these farcical people. In giving us a glimpse of what this war was really like: the horror of uncertainty, the misery of separation, the impossibility of "the truth" -- Abrams makes it impossible not to like his characters, not to feel complete sympathy for them, so that the more they are cartoons, the more pathos they engender in the reader. My sadness was real. If this is comedy, then it is comedy in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh, or the Coen Brothers. Comedy you have to own as true and therefore can't dismiss. Come to Abrams' show, and fondly chuckle at the acts he sends out. But don't be surprised when you find yourself on the edge of your seat, halfway through, having inadvertantly grown fond of the buffoons, and urgently fearing for their safety. Fobbit is a nail-biter disguised as a cartoon, a wrenching portrait disguised as a caricature, a brilliant point between cold criticism and warm sentiment -- a war novel everyone should be reading.
December 28, 2012, and I can finally answer the question "what was my favorite read this year?" In the eleventh hour, between Christmas and a new year, Fobbit took the lead. I personally found it to be hilariously heartbreakingly honest. So honest that " just get them home...just get them home...just get them home" is what repeats in MY own head stateside.
After reading an advance review copy from NetGalley, I can vouch that David Abrams has indeed pulled off a remarkable blend of comedy and tragedy in this first novel, as the incredible press this book is receiving has said again and again. It's a story that will have you awkwardly scratching your head, covering your mouth to hide your inappropriate laughter, and wiping away an errant tear when you read the final, completely unexpected scenes. Characters you'll never imagine you'll understand or cheer for when you first begin to read steal into your subconscious and assert themselves as real and sympathetic, even in the cartoon-like world FOBBIT seems to inhabit. An important novel for all of us, no matter our persuasions about war in the current political climate.
FOBBIT by David Abrams is a fantastic masculine satire set during Operation Iraqi Freedom. For those of you who don't know, a Fobbit is a U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base. Each chapter sets you solidly in the boots of different soldiers and their perceptions of one another as they move through the sand-covered world of Iraq, with mortars flying overhead and situations so ridiculous they're only eclipsed by the fumbling efforts to control the public perception of them. It's CATCH-22 for our generation, and I won't be the first person to make that comparison. Granted, there's a sly aside in FOBBIT where one of the narrators is reading Heller poolside, but it's a deserved nod and organic to the situation. I had Heller on my mind while reading FOBBIT for sure, but Chuck Palahniuk as well (another great genre-buster to read, b/c hey - none of us write like him). The writing is masculine and gorgeous at the same time, gut-wrenching and mind numbing. Abrams captures the ridiculous and makes the reader want to put their head in their hands right along with his characters.
Satirical and sarcastic, Fobbit was one of the best books about the mess in the Middle East I have ever read. The characters are so true and so flawed, everybody has met at least one person just like them in their lives, if they have ever ventured outside their front door. Despite the overtone of frustrated humor, Fobbit never lets you forget the real tragedy of a war that is costing way too many lives.
It took almost twenty years for the great World War Two books to start to appear; the same can be said for Vietnam books (to the extent that the books were set in Vietnam and not simply about the war, a la Catch-22). That means we can look forward to the first great Iraq War book in about ten years. In the meantime, we have David Abrams’ Fobbit. Fobbit was for me an exercise in mixed feelings. Abrams nails the atmosphere, the places, the everyday life during a rear-area deployment in the Sandbox. I was briefly a fobbit-like creature in Qatar, which makes a cameo appearance partway through the book (the Topoff’s moved since you were there, Dave); I attended those meetings, I edited those PowerPoint slides, I read those SIGACTs, I sat in those operations centers with football or NASCAR on the big screen on Sundays. The rhythms of shifts in a windowless box, the inanities of staff work, the theme menus at the DFAC, the dusty little PX – been there, done that. All that part is spot-on. However, some of the main caricatures (not a typo) pushed me out of the story. Fobbit has been compared to Catch-22, but the reason the latter has endured as one of the classic antiwar novels is that its characters, while tweaked, are essentially recognizable humans while the war and the system it engenders are the villains. Abrams, however, stocks his work with several major characters so grotesque that they can exist only as punching bags. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen an obese slob in uniform, far less an obese senior officer; I have to hope an infantry officer as spectacularly incompetent as Captain Shrinkle would’ve been weeded out before he pinned on his railroad tracks. Even the more solid characters – PR drudge SSG Gooding and battalion commander LTC Duret come to mind – fall into repetition of the qualities that make them types rather than humans. Ironically, Abrams’ secondary characters are more human and more believable than some of the major ones. God knows there’s plenty to lampoon about our Iraq and Afghan misadventures. The constantly stirring spaghetti bowl that is HQ organization, the primacy of PowerPoint, the transplanted pieces of home that make the theater even more unreal, the ridiculous attempts by senior leadership to impose chaste wholesomeness on young men and women trained to be aggressive and physical, the drumbeat of the deployment calendar – these are the latest wrinkles on the human enterprise of war and make for great literary furniture. Fobbit touches on all of these, and more. But where Fobbit falls short – and what keeps us going back to Catch-22 and M*A*S*H and so on – is the story of how relatively normal people react to the stresses and absurdities of war. This is almost there, but it tries too hard and too many of its shots hit in the white. Maybe in ten years we’ll get the Great Iraq War Book. Until then, you can give Fobbit a try. The self-satirizing world in which it’s set is as good a depiction as you’ll get, but keep a grain of salt or two for the characters.
Great, just great
There are so many layers of fabulous to this novel. I fell in love with the writing, the characters, and the gloriously un-pc humor. None of my emotional reactions were predictable, and I love that as a reader. In the early chapters, I cried with laughter many times, but as the characters evolved, I entered a darker mindset. My heart even raced with fear on the last page. I loved that Abrams made me laugh and made me care. Honestly? I struggle with anything that touches on war and violence, but this novel was pitch perfect. It captured the absurd and the tragic and even touched on fate. As Richard Belmouth would say, "Bloody brilliant."
The book is a fictional portrayal of real life experiences. Well written. As a civilian defense contractor, I read military fiction and nonfiction to gain better perspective on my work environment, and this alternate spin was worth reading. Yes, it's fiction and yes, it likely isn't a fair depiction of all deployed fobbits, but still, it brings home tedious routines and soldiers' loss of physical, mental, and situational control. "Yesterday's weird is tomorrows reason why." (H. S. Thompson)
I purchased this book partly based on a review which said “A modern day MASH.” In hindsight, I can see why someone might write that, but it has none of what made MASH great. The premise is the term FOBBIT, used to describe those who serve in the military but never see combat, or want to. A cohesive story is non-existent until the last few chapters, and all but one chapter is entertaining. The rest seem to be copies of each – like Groundhog Day, over and over. A plethora of obscenities, a handful of military acronyms that you forget the meanings to, and the death of a US serviceman and/or “Hadjis”. On about four occasions I considered chucking it and going to something else, but felt both a need to see it through and give the book a chance. Much like leaving a game early, the losing team can come back. This book never really did.
We need to know the true happeness and not the lies we are told be the lying press.
In FOBBIT, David Abrams manages to juxtapose irreverence and respect, humor and horror, and fact and fiction. It is a gripping story that pulled me in to the darkness of war. Even as sidelined as the characters were for the most part, the danger felt real, immediate, and threatening. A brilliant book!
Crappy story with little to no humor. Baseless story line that never went anywhere but down. I would not recommend to anyone unless you want to be bored and waste your money.
I ordered this book over a month ago and never received it. When I called Barnes and Noble, they informed that it had been damaged in shipping. They never bothered to email or call me. So they said they ship me another one. Which as of today I have not received. Bottom line: TERRIBLE CUSTOMER SERVICE!!