Often compared in reviews to Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, David Abrams’ Fobbit portrays the Forward Operating Base, or FOB, as the material manifestation of the conceptual perversity and corruptness of the US military mission in Iraq (and by extension Afghanistan). Fobbit’s exposé of rear-echelon life and culture supports the sneaking suspicion of many deployed soldiers that victory was doomed as long as the FOB, with all its bloat and isolation, served as the locus from which the fighting forces might generate the will, the might, the ingenuity, and the resources necessary to defeat the wily foe on the other side of the base barrier walls. We’re lucky that Abrams, a writer with a laser-like eye for character, social context, and telling detail, has chosen black humor as his mode of expression. Though the novel ends horribly for its characters (as does Catch-22), most of it is played for laughs. I’ll speculate that Abrams has taken it easy on the Army out of an affection borne of 20 years of service as an award-winning Army journalist. Were the tone serious, the bloodletting would be merciless and unbearable.
Joseph Heller supposedly said that to write Catch-22 “all he had to do was take notes” while serving in the World War II Army Air Force. Abrams obviously kept his pen-and-pad nearby, too, while the Army around him unveiled the laughable reality behind the pretence of organization, efficiency, and idealism. Fobbit’s plot tracks the parallel lives of a variety of soldier types easily recognizable by veterans: the Army captain hopelessly over his head as a leader of warriors, other much more decisive officers and NCOs who just seem at home in combat, and a variety of rear-echelon staff officers, sergeants, and troops (the “fobbits” of the novel’s title) preoccupied with rationalizing their feeble contributions to the war effort. Many of these types get their say, but most of the novel is focalized through the perspective of Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, Jr., a Public Affairs non-commissioned officer whose job and views seem to reflect Abrams’ own. The coin of the social capital realm on Gooding’s FOB is competence and courage in action—an even question the novel proposes is whether it is worse to fight and find oneself lacking or to never have fought at all. Fobbit’s answer is that the two are equally bad: from a fobbit’s point-of-view, a war that doesn’t allow all its participants to excel in battle is mean and unfair, besides being deadly and horrible.
Big picture considerations aside, Abrams doesn’t miss many of the foibles of FOB life and its minor characters: the smoke shack heroes whose braggadocio matches their nicotine consumption while standing in inverse proportion to the time they’ve spent outside the wire; the hot chick who is not going to sleep with everyone, but might do so with at least somebody; the hard infantrymen who give the lie to the soft comfort of the fobbits and make them ashamed of themselves. “They also serve who stand and wait,” wrote John Milton, but if all your standing and waiting is in line at the Dining Facility, it’s tough to feel especially good about your deployment. Or how your nation has organized itself to fight the war. In my experience, though, many fobbits seemed to enjoy their year overseas. Squeaky clean from daily showers and weekly laundry, plump from three hot meals a day, padding from bunk to workplace to chow hall to PX to gym to MWR center, oversized M16s slung awkwardly across their backs, mindful of the virtual military requirement to be perpetually chin-up and cheerful, lots and lots of fobbits appeared to be having a good time. Honestly, they just seemed high on the shared experience of danger, distance from home, and life shorn of decisions and distractions.
Of course there were exceptions, such as the male soldier whose marriage was floundering, or the single-mom female soldier whose child care plan had fallen apart. And Abrams-slash-Gooding’s perch inside a division “G1 Personnel” Public Affairs Office rendered him full access to the most misery-producing structure of life on a FOB: duty on a battalion, brigade, division, corps, or task force headquarters staff. Having experienced it myself, it’s hard to imagine jobs better designed to enrage and enfeeble a middle-aged officer, nominally at the height of his or her adult powers, but now reduced to bone-grinding servitude and routine, interspersed by always terrifying and usually humiliating interactions with full-bird colonels and general officers. As a career non-com, Abrams must have often wondered at the unholy conglomerations of bureaucratic rigmarole in which he was snared, concocted by superior officers and said to be responsible for the operational, logistical, and administrative support of the fighting force. That these self-constructed torture chambers made their inhabitants deeply unhappy must have seemed clear. That they were necessary for the effective conduct of the war much less so.
An excerpt from Fobbit, from David Abrams’ webpage.
David Abrams’ Fobbit: A Novel. Grove Press-Black Cat (2012).