Satirizing War’s Inscrutable Logic: David Abrams’s Fobbit
Grove Press, Black Cat, September 2012
Reviewed by Kenneth Nichols
David Abrams ended his twenty-year career as a military journalist when he retired from the United States Army in 2008. During his time in Iraq, Abrams kept a journal that became the basis for his debut novel, Fobbit. Packed with deep characters who find themselves immersed in complicated situations, the book deserves a place alongside modern classics like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Buffalo Soldiers. Like these, Fobbit immerses the reader in a world that follows an inscrutable logic all its own. The novel is a satire that, above all, reminds us that wars are not only fought on the front, but in air-conditioned offices on base, in the barracks, and in the hearts and minds of individuals who follow orders, but can’t help but question them.
Ten years have passed since “shock and awe” ushered in the undeclared war in Iraq, and nearly 4,500 American servicemen and servicewomen have lost their lives. We instinctively try to find great meaning in great trauma, but what happens when the answers are either missing or worse than you expected? We will debate the meaning of the Iraq War for decades to come, and Fobbit is a potent early contribution to this discussion.
Abrams’s book isn’t aligned with any particular ideology; his characters are too busy facing suicide bombers and rising casualty numbers to question why they are in the Middle East in the first place. The book features an ensemble of protagonists instead of a single one—a structure that offers the reader the experience of eavesdropping on a grand conversation about the same events. A similar device is used in the novel Election with much the same result; each character is humanized, their mistakes are understandable (if not justified) and a situation that may be unrelatable for some is made far less so. There is plenty of rising action and a denouement or two, but Abrams faithfully recreates a Groundhog Day-esque feeling of being in a war whose primary antagonist is a tactic. The majority of Fobbit’s characters are under so much stress that a casualty report has become just another piece of paper and confronting a suspected suicide bomber dancing near gas tanks is just another Tuesday.
The novel seems to be a lament about the feeling of impotence the characters possess. For example, Abe Shrinkle receives so much mail that he is labeled the “Care Package King.” His air-conditioned quarters are dominated by mountains of civilian donations that the soldiers no longer need, but were never removed from the list of desired items. Chance Gooding, Jr. hopes that the news emerging from the military and the media will put an honest face on the violence being done in his country’s name. Vic Duret, along with every other American, wants to believe that the people who hold the real power will give their subordinates the personnel and material support they need to complete the mission. After the proverbial eggs were cracked, the bell of war could not be unrung. Abrams’s characters must do what they can to assert themselves in a hierarchy that, by definition, strips them of their ability to make decisions.
In many ways, Fobbit reveals that the true story of the Iraq War will be told through documents. Each development is charted in requisition forms, marching orders, situation reports and the countless sheets of paper destined to grow dusty in Army warehouses. Abrams augments his third-person narration with several examples of these documents. Staff Sergeant Gooding’s diary is a visceral representation of how a man perceives and contextualizes the history taking shape around him. Several drafts of a simple press release reveal the tricky application of rhetoric the military employs to win over “local nationals” and to put a positive spin on events for folks back home. A situation report puts into cold, hard fact a terrible mistake made by an ambitious Captain. Abrams uses his experience as a former military journalist to imbue his characters with kindness while illuminating their folly.
Abrams writes with great humanity and great attention to detail. There are heroes and villains in every battle, but the truth is never that simple and the actors are always more complicated. He leaves most of the judgment to the reader; the aforementioned Captain is given moments of great personal pathos to counterbalance the horror of the impulsive error he committed. The life of a Fobbit resembles, at times, that of a worker in any stateside office, but he or she must also live with the constant fear that a rogue mortar will land in the middle of an outdoor eating area. The author builds white-knuckle tension by offering unexpected details and insights: the music made by M4s being flicked between “safe” and “semi,” the hopelessness of trying to solve a situation that is like “trying to stuff eels into a can of grease.”
The soldiers who returned from the Vietnam War were greeted with mixed emotions: joy because of their safe homecoming and misplaced frustration better targeted at those who made decisions but never fell to their knees in a rice paddy. Most of the soldiers who fought in the Iraq War have already returned and we’re just beginning to contextualize what Operation Iraqi Freedom means to the country. Abrams’s book offers a frozen-in-amber representation of the psychology of the men and women who were following orders to toss water charges into bomb-laden cars while Americans at home were following the Commander-in-Chief’s orders to go shopping.
Kenneth Nichols teaches writing at two colleges in Central New York. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University.