Book Review: Fobbit by David Abrams
I just finished the book Fobbit by David Abrams, a novel about the dark underworld inhabited by all the cooks, bakers and candlestick makers who served in Iraq but never left the relative safety of a Forward Operating Base (Forward Operating Base = FOB, FOB inhabitant = fobbit). Abrams was a fobbit, and unlike many popular authors, he wrote about something he actually knows. Based on my experiences on FOBs, everything Abrams wrote about life inside the wire rang true.
I and friends of mine, all of us non-fobbits, had countless run-ins with fobbits. We got screamed at by “Captain Safety” for driving three miles over the speed limit. We saw soldiers screamed at for wearing paracord bracelets. A soldier of mine was screamed at for not wearing a helmet, reflective belt and eye protection while driving a 4-wheeler on a FOB. Convoys were stopped as they left a gate so a senior fobbit sergeant could make sure nobody was wearing white socks. A combat veteran cavalry scout was screamed at by a fat female major leaving a PX because he didn’t salute her (and according to her, if he didn’t have enough situational awareness to see and salute an officer, how could he be trusted in combat?). Fobbits remind me of Gustav Hasford’s description of “lifers” in Vietnam: “They try to kill you on the inside.” It’s no exaggeration to say I’d rather worry about getting shot or blown up than deal with all the manufactured stress and nonsense you find on a FOB.
Of the three alleged “classics” about the Iraq War published this year, the others being Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, this was the only one I didn’t dread reading. Billy Lynn is a book about soldiers written by a liberal who was never in the military, which is like reading a book about sex written by a virgin. The Yellow Birds was at least written by a real Iraq vet, but it’s more of a Vietnam story that’s only vaguely connected to Iraq. Besides that, Powers seems to have caved to the publishing industry’s war fantasies rather than written an honest book. You can see my review of The Yellow Birds at http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2013/01/05/book-review-the-yellow-birds-by-kevin-powers/ and my reviews of Billy Lynn (yes, I detested the book so much I actually wrote two reviews on it) at http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2012/12/06/billy-lynns-bogus-journey/ and http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2012/12/24/billy-lynn-part-2-this-time-its-personal/.
Fobbit is the story of Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, assigned to the Army’s Public Affairs Office at Forward Operating Base Triumph in 2005. This book brought back a lot of memories, because in 2005 I made many trips to Camp Victory, which I’m sure is what FOB Triumph is based on. Many of the “fictional” incidents described in the book, such as a failed car bomb attack on a tank, a soldier shot by and then capturing a sniper, and the deaths of hundreds of religious pilgrims in a stampede, happened around the time I was there.
For the most part, Abrams did a great job of recreating the world of a fobbit in the Iraq War. Civilians might believe all of us who served in Iraq are grizzled, PTSD-crippled combat vets; they will, through this book, meet troops whose nearest brush with actual war was cowering from distant mortar blasts, passing combat soldiers in the chow hall and writing reports about other people’s real wartime experiences. Those with no understanding of the war will learn why many of us still feel so resentful when well-meaning people refer to all Iraq and Afghanistan vets as “heroes”.
Abrams also does a fantastic job of capturing the way PowerPoint presentations, computer teleconferences and overemphasis on staff functions have combined to suck the warrior mentality from the Army. Civilians may find Abrams’ description of fobbit life funny, but they won’t feel the same horrific revulsion we soldiers feel. Our combat soldiers have become more experienced and proficient at fighting a real war, while much of our leadership spends increasingly more time sitting in a cubicle on a huge base in a war zone. This is a horrible trend for the Army, and Abrams has done an admirable job of illustrating what it’s doing to us. The plot, in my opinion, was engaging but not that important; the value of this book to me was as an exposition of everything that’s wrong with our Army.
I’ve just described the primary strength of this book. The other strengths are that it’s funny (wait til you get to the part with “dick rabbit!”), interesting and a quick read. Abrams is a good writer, and he made the book flow well. As for weaknesses, there are a few.
This book has a few “outside the wire” episodes that were obviously written by, well, a fobbit. Most of the unrealistic bits will be missed by the average civilian reader. But for military readers like me, each little mistake was like biting into a chunk of gravel hidden in a bowl of mashed potatoes. Two-ton cars don’t “wedge themselves” under the treads of a sixty-ton tank; mortars don’t “totally vaporize” people; nobody is going to shoot someone in the head with a pistol from hundreds of yards away. The first real combat incident described in the book, a failed suicide car bomb attack on an American tank, is way overwrought with angst in addition to having technical inaccuracies. Each of these diversions from reality was unnecessary. The plot wouldn’t have suffered if Abrams had written truth instead of Hollywood fiction.
Something else I consider a weakness, although others will disagree, is that this book is without question a product of the current literary world. It insults all the right people. Rest assured, the idiots in the book are conservative and religious. I’m not Republican or Christian, but I’m getting sick of the constant anti-conservative and anti-religious references in novels (and movies, for that matter). Yeah, I get it; if you voted for “the Great White Bwana”, as President Bush is referred to in the book, or go to church, or watch Fox News, you’re a moron. You’re far beneath the literary elite who decide what gets published. Sure, whatever. Stop reminding me.
But by far, the worst thing Abrams did in this book was drop a casual reference to American soldiers possibly raping an Iraqi woman. And it served no purpose at all. It “might” have happened under an American truck, after an accident between an American convoy and Iraqi bus, while a crowd of Iraqis wandered around a nervous group of American soldiers. How the hell would that even be possible? Yes, I’m aware of a well-known incident where our troops committed a brutal rape and several murders. I’m aware crimes happen in every war. But this was a Jesse MacBeth moment, a line that plays to those who think our troops routinely commit war crimes. Google MacBeth; in an interview he “admitted” to committing mass murders with his unit in Iraq and was LOVED by the anti-war crowd for it. But then he was exposed as a poser who never served in Iraq.
If the “possible rape” incident had involved troops occupying an isolated Iraqi home maybe it could be plausible, but in the situation Abrams described it definitely wasn’t. I honestly have no idea why Abrams included it, except maybe to please people who think our troops are evil. It didn’t quite ruin the book, but it sure didn’t do anything for it either.
Now I’ll describe something in the book that maybe was a strength, maybe a weakness. I’m still not sure.
Interspersed throughout the book are the kind of references a fobbit would make about casualties. Gooding and his boss, Lieutenant Colonel Harkelroad, use terms like “road meat” to describe what’s left of American troops after an IED strike. Nothing was more grating to a combat soldier than to hear fobbits use dismissive terms about the risks we, not they, faced daily. I let each of these references cause just minor emotional irritation before dismissing them and moving on. But then I ran across one line that stopped me in my tracks and almost made me quit the book.
Late in the book, Harkelroad is pondering how the media will treat the 2000th American death of the Iraq War. He hopes it will be something heroic and noteworthy, but prays that “Number Two Thousand wouldn’t be just another bland, run-of-the-mill death – blah blah patrol struck an IED in the neighborhood of blah blah, killing Private Joe Blah Blah.”
That line hit me. I was in Iraq for the 2000th death. I could have been that 2000th pile of “road meat”. Harkelroad’s comments took me back to similar sentiments I heard in Iraq.
In October of 2005, the month we lost “Number Two Thousand”, my driver and I stopped by our battalion aid station for supplies. An older fobbit medic was at the aid station. He eagerly waved us over to look at something on his computer. “Check this out, guys. I got this from a regular Army medic at Camp Victory. Whenever one of our guys gets killed, they take pictures of the wounds that killed them.”
He started flipping through a slide show. My driver and I looked in silence at the end result of mortal gunshot wounds, carnage caused by IED and car bomb blasts, fatal burns. As he proudly showed the pictures, the medic gave a running commentary: “Oh oh, that guy without a face won’t be picking up chicks at the bar anymore. And that one’s gonna have trouble playing soccer with no legs. Hah hah, and that one – ”
That pissed me off. I cut the medic off with “Why are you showing us that crap? I still have another God damn month of missions left. I guess you think it’s real f**king funny, but this s**t’s not going to happen to you. It still might happen to me.”
The medic started to apologize. I walked out. I still get angry every time I think about it. Abrams’ line about an “IED hitting blah blah patrol, killing Private Blah Blah” could have been about me, or my driver, or gunner, or any number of guys I cared for like brothers. That line took me back to the slideshow and conversation with that fobbit medic, and made me wish I had punched him.
And the thing is, I wasn’t mad at the fictional Colonel Harkelroad. I was mad at author David Abrams. He was an actual Public Affairs fobbit and likely used terms like “road meat”, or referred to our dead troops as “Private Joe Blah Blah”. That made that particular line hard to take.
But it’s fiction. I know better than to believe an author means everything a character says. And I have to admit, Abrams wrote something that moved me. It affected me so much I had to share an almost tearful moment with my wife, admit to her (and myself) how scared I had been of dying over there. It takes a good writer to do that.
Despite my mostly petty complaints, this book is definitely worth reading. It’s the only one of the three supposed Iraq classics that deserves to become a classic. It’s also the only one I paid for, or would pay for. It’s not perfect, but hell, mine isn’t either. If I ever have the chance to meet Abrams, I’ll call BS on some of what he wrote and challenge him on a few other things. But I’ll also congratulate him for writing a good story about our war.
Edited to add: I apologize for the typos in the original post. I was trying to get this finished as my wife yelled at me to hurry up so we could go shopping.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq, Writing | 9 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, ben fountain, billy lynn, david abrams, fobbit, iraq, Kevin Powers, veteran authors, Yellow Birds