Fobbit, by David Abrams
What a difference a few decades makes, but I’ll come to that in a bit. David Abrams’ book, Fobbit, is perhaps the most comprehensive look yet, through the lens of fiction, at the U.S. involvement in Iraq. Its cover blurbs want us to compare it to Heller’s Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. For my money, the comparisons are apt, but with some significant differences. First, a bit about the book.
Fobbits are the so-called public affairs personnel of the U.S. Army, the Pentagon’s spin doctors, who attempt daily to put a freshly-scrubbed face on the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq, on the mounting deaths of soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and insurgent/terrorists. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, the various warring sects of that country, not least among them the Sunni and Shi’a religious factions, are at one another’s throats – as they’ve been for centuries – and the U.S. and its allies are caught in their crossfire, constantly being subjected to IEDs (hidden explosives) and other maiming and killing situations. Of course, the soldiers on the firing line hold the Fobbits in high disdain for their inherent lack of risk.
Abrams, who served as a Fobbit in 2005, gives us an often blurred cast of characters, some Fobbits, some on-the-line soldiers, and some commanding officers who are trying to make strategic sense of the stacked deck they’re playing from. Some characters rise and fall quickly. Others, such as Fobbits Eustace Harkleroad and Chance Gooding and soldiers Abe Shrinkle and Vic Duret, reveal the schizophrenic nature of the war. Eventually, Gooding serves as the war’s chronicler, a counterpoint to Harkleroad’s spin doctoring – even to the extreme of Harkleroad spinning e-mails to his mom. And Shrinkle, a hyper-patriotic officer, who proves too inept to hold down such a role, proves the book’s eventual catalyst.
The author does an excellent job of depicting the war, both in his narrative and his characterizations, all in excellently wrought prose. Perhaps he tried to do too much here, but that temptation is always great when such a war is seen from a perspective still too close to the author’s war experience. And that brings me back to my opening paragraph here, and the distance of a few decades.
None among his characters is a parallel to Catch-22’s Yossarian or Slaughterhouse Five’s Billy Pilgrim. These earlier novels’ primary characters were openly sensitive to the violence, chaos, and insanity of war, sometimes reacting in passive aggressive fashion a la M*A*S*H’s Corporal Klinger, sometimes as desperately moral anarchists, such as that of the movie/TV show’s Hawkeye Pierce.
In Abrams’ war, there are no draftees, only volunteers, and one senses (quickly) that the public at home is paying little attention to this overlong conflict. No one openly challenges the war’s ethics, nor the Fobbits’ spin. It’s a story of playing it as safe as one can in such dangerous conditions, militarily, morally, and emotionally. As close as they come to moral outrage is sneering at these overweight, air-condition-protected “knights of the keyboard.” And only two, Shrinkle and Gooding, eventually display resistance and moral qualms. But by then it’s too late for their metamorphoses to matter much in this book.
Still, Abrams does pitch the war in powerful terms, terms the U.S. and its European allies may not reconcile for many years to come.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars.