Posted tagged ‘David Abrams’

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

July 2, 2017

2017 brings novels by three contemporary war lit “plank-holders”–Navy SEAL-speak for members who were in on the game at its founding. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season takes contemporary war-and-mil-writing preoccupation with dogs to its fantastical-yet-logical extension; Brian Van Reet’s Spoils reimagines the female-soldier captivity narrative first presented by Jessica Lynch’s and Shoshana Johnson’s memoirs, and David Abrams’ Brave Deeds riffs on the rogue soldier motif familiar from Bowe Bergdahl’s and Robert Bale’s real-life sagas.

Helen Benedict, Wolf Season. Bellevue Literary Press, 2017.

Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen was by my count the first Iraq War novel; if I’m wrong, someone please correct me. A story about the intersecting lives of two women, an American soldier named Kate and an Iraqi medical student named Naema Jassim, Sand Queen eviscerated the American conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom by portraying the ruin of its two protagonists’ lives as a result, primarily, of the American military’s toxic masculine culture. The sequel to Sand Queen, Wolf Season takes place in America, where Naema has unexpectedly taken up residence in a small upstate New York town where she serves as a doctor in a VA clinic. One of her patients is, not Kate, who doesn’t figure in Wolf Season, but another female veteran named Rin Drummond. Rin’s time in service has ended badly, leaving her widowed, badly wracked by PTSD, the mother of a blind daughter, and the caretaker of three semi-domesticated wolves. Rin wants nothing more than to be left alone, protected by and protective of her wolfpack, but life in a small-town home to Iraqi refugees and overly-macho military men still on frequent deployment cycle to America’s forever wars ensure that’s not going to happen. Rin and Naema are compellingly drawn, as are Rin’s daughter Juney and Naema’s son Tariq and the three wolves, Gray, Silver, and Ebony. Most striking, however, are two male characters, Louis Martin and Todd Wycombe, both veterans struggling to be men worthy of respect. Benedict’s not completely hostile to the idea that military service might be improving or even ennobling, but two novels’ worth of portraits of America boy-men whose propensity for self-delusion, misogyny, and violence are exacerbated by time in uniform make it clear she’s skeptical that those things are happening very often these days. One could almost feel sorry for Benedict’s male veterans, if they didn’t bring on so much trouble for themselves through their stupidity and vanity, and if they didn’t fuck things up so badly for everyone around them.

Brian Van Reet, Spoils. Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

Spoils, US Army veteran Brian Van Reet’s long-anticipated novel of war in Iraq, comes many years after the author established his reputation as a war short-story author par excellence. Even before the fine “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, Van Reet was placing striking short fiction in literary journals, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is, if anything, surpassed by a story titled “Eat the Spoil” published in the Spring 2014 Missouri Review. Van Reet attended, as did I, the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, which I most definitely wasn’t, so I have a high regard for the intellect he brings to bear on the consideration of war. Van Reet was a tank crewman in the early days of Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor, which is also saying something. A tanker named Specialist Sleed figures in both the aforementioned stories and now appears again in Spoils, but he’s not much of a scholar and as a soldier one more likely to get an Article 15 for misconduct than a medal. A follower rather than a leader of soldiers even more indifferently motivated than he is, Sleed, in true “E4-Mafia” fashion, is good in spurts but more typically wavers between commitment to mission and impulses to “get over.” Scenes describing tank battle in Iraq especially intrigue, but Sleed’s just one of a trio of protagonists in Spoils; another is a young woman named Cassandra Wigheard who serves in Sleed’s unit. Wigheard’s not exactly a super-soldier, either, but she tries, and she can’t be blamed when she is captured by a group of insurgents led by the third principal, a very conflicted and not especially fanatical Egyptian jihadist named Abu Al-Hool. Van Reet seems to be making a point about how war unfolds in the contemporary trenches—whatever the clarity, fervor, and righteousness of the political and ideological rhetoric, for the participants on both sides it’s a haphazard, highly contingent, badly conceptualized and realized mess that’s likely to get them killed through sheer sloppiness. We can see Sleed as Van Reet’s alter ego, while Al-Hool joins the Pashtun protagonist of Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue as a rounded literary portrait of one of our War on Terror opponents, but it’s the depiction of Cassandra that really stands out as the author’s effort to represent “the Other,” with all the attendant risks that endeavor brings. Sleed and Al-Hool narrate their stories in first-person, but Van Reet, UVa-educated gentleman that he is, circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person, perhaps thinking graciously that full, extended novelistic inhabitation of a woman warrior’s subjectivity and depiction of perspective should be left to, well, a woman veteran. That will come, in time, but what Van Reet offers here rings true; for example, on Cassandra contemplating a career in the Army: “Yet more and more, the thought of going for a twenty-year pension has begun to feel like prolonged suffocation in a cavernous, airtight room.”

David Abrams, Brave Deeds. Black Cat, 2017.

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth–is a kind, gentle, and sweet soul, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war and age-based generation gap sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that many junior enlisted suspect them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: many contemporary war fiction titles strive to portray the worldview of junior enlisted service members—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in the Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least; Brave Deeds‘ focus on the infantry squad and young male soldier may be traditional, but the view rendered through Abrams’ eyes is up-to-the-minute.

War of Words, Words of War

April 21, 2014

Last week I was fortunate to hear masterful short-story war authors Phil Klay and Hassan Blasim read in separate events to West Point cadets, faculty, and interested community members.  Both Klay and Blasim were eager to share their enthusiasm for literature and what they have learned about war for the benefit of future officers.  Both, I think, were pleased to find receptive audiences—Blasim, no fan of Saddam Hussein but equally appalled at the destruction of Iraqi civilized, artistic, and intellectual life in the wake of his displacement by American forces, and Klay, a Semper Fi Do or Die Marine in the heart of the belly of the Army beast.  Both read powerfully, both were charming raconteurs in informal discussion, and both were inspirational about the necessity of imagination and art to help people—future Army officers—understand the complexity of war and the human experience of it.  Hats off to my bosses and colleagues at West Point who have worked hard to make contemporary war artists and writers relevant to the education of cadets.

This week, Klay and Blasim read together in New York City, where I took this picture of them together:

Klay Blasim

Also this week, I participated in two Vassar College classes that explored the Iraq War through fiction and photography.  The class had read David Abrams’ Fobbit, and now we were privileged to have Abrams join us by Skype—shades of deployment!—to discuss his black humor vision of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Abrams has written about the experience in his blog The Quivering Pen and even included two wonderful student response papers to his novel.  The following class, the professor, Dr. Maria Hoehn of Vassar’s History Department, brought in Michael Kamber, a photographer who has covered both Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.  Kamber has recently published an important and fascinating book called Photojournalists on War:  The Untold Stories from Iraq.  In it, Kamber compiles hundreds of photographs too graphic for military censors and media editors and published them along with their photographers’ accounts of their taking.  Kamber is adamant that photographs can shape consciousness and politics and he is vehement in his indictment of a military-media complex that has restricted, censored, and otherwise blocked distribution of the photographs that would truly inform the American public about the Iraq War.


This swirl of words and impressions came as a series of publications and events brought veterans and veteran fiction into high relief.  George Packer’s glowing assessment of the contemporary war lit scene in the New Yorker was great, but its fulsome praise was undercut by Cara Hoffman’s  indictment in the New York Times that that same scene has been inhospitable to women’s first-person accounts of war.  Next came the news of yet another shooting rampage by a veteran.  One could sense public patience with vets draining away with each new article; we who were once heroes are in danger of morphing into monsters.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the New York Times ran an opinion piece that confidently asserted a causal relationship between military service and membership in white supremacist groups and then an article that made the current generation of West Point cadets sound like bloodthirsty ingrates for their admission of regret that they would not probably not see combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the midst of these gloomy accounts came a personal triumph, but one whose relevance to contemporary war literature I’m still trying to figure out. The current Maryland Historical Magazine features an article I wrote about early American novelist John Neal.  Neal is unknown to most, but he authored seven novels between 1817 and 1823–a time when very few other American writers took novels seriously.  Neal obviously did.  He called novels “the fireside biography of nations” and said, “People read novels who never go to plays or to church.  People read novels who never read plays, sermons, history, philosophy, nor indeed any thing else.”  Novels, for Neal, were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.”  Ominously, he wrote that readers were excited by immoral and criminal characters more than virtuous ones.  Speaking of two popular authors of the time, Neal claimed that “all their great men are scoundrels….  their good men are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.”  Be that as it may, Neal urged that all writers “write fiction–let them put out all their power upon a literature that all may read, century after century–I do not mean quote, and keep in their libraries, but read.”

Is any of this true, then or now?  Is any of it important?  Tomorrow I travel to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to participate in a “Writers on War” panel with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  I’m interested to hear what they and our audience have to say.  And what about David Abrams?  Michael Kamber?  Phil Klay?  Hassan Blasim?

Where’s the War in Contemporary War Novels?

October 7, 2013

The past few weeks brought two significant additions to the contemporary war literature conversation. The first was a long review essay by Michael Lokesson in the Los Angeles Review of Books called “Passive Aggression: Recent War Novels.” Lokesson’s review covers much the same ground as this blog, with extended commentaries on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Fobbit, The Yellow Birds, and Sparta, among others. Lokesson also offers some historical musing about war and literature, going back to Homer, and finally a bit of meta-analysis on the possibilities for contemporary war lit to achieve greatness. “Reading this latest crop of accomplished soldier’s novels,” he writes, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe modern war and its aftermath, as told through a soldier’s eyes, simply isn’t the stuff of great novels anymore.” Contemplating the fact that much “combat” in Iraq and Afghanistan consisted of waiting for IEDs to go off or a rocket to hit the FOB, Lokesson continues:

“In warfare [today], the soldier is passive to a startling degree, and even the war effort itself is built on passively securing the population rather than actively defeating the enemy. Molding passivity into great literature is never easy, as the current harvest of soldier’s novels attests, and the novelist who sets him or herself to the task is forced to climb a very steep mountain indeed. Can a truly classic novel arise under such conditions? I’d like to say yes, but I have my doubts.”

Regarding the wars that gave us Fallujah and COP Keating, I’m not so sure Lokesson’s characterization of them is entirely correct, though he might be onto something regarding their literature. He seems to have it in mind that a great war novel must portray heroic action or striking scenes of battle, and the current war lit record is scant on both counts. To help stir the pot of discussion, also out recently is Men in Black, a stunning video rendition of a terrific combat scene from Colby Buzzell’s memoir My War. I’ve praised Buzzell’s writing before; for my money, the scenes describing combat in My War render the material detail and visceral feel–half adrenaline, half fear–better than anything I’ve read elsewhere, fact or fiction. Hat’s off too to Buzzell’s collaborator Evan Parsons for bringing My War to video-digital life with his excellent graphic-novel like illustrations. Buzzell is certainly not passive, as either a fighter and writer, which is good, but he’s also not especially reflective. From his grunt’s eye perspective, war is about kill-or-be-killed, with factors that might require thought before, during, or after action of second import. Nor does he portray himself or anyone else heroically.

A great battle scene that unabashedly depicts a war hero can be found in another memoir, Lone Survivor, written by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell with the assistance of novelist Patrick Robinson. If you haven’t read the scene lately, or at all, describing the death of Lieutenant Michael Murphy, please check it out. The description of the battle leading up to Murphy’s death is also terrific, with Luttrell and Robinson vividly portraying the terror that comes from being shot at from all sides. While Buzzell’s as irreverent as they come, Luttrell’s 180 degrees the opposite—Lone Survivor is a glowing elegy to an officer whose last moments inspired Luttrell to write, “If they build a memorial to him as high as the Empire State Building, it won’t ever be high enough for me.” The passage gives me the shivers every time I read it, but it’s such an uncomplicated encomium I couldn’t imagine it in a “serious” novel, full of doubt and irony.

So, My War and Lone Survivor demarcate a range of possibilities, but they are memoirs, not fiction. In the major novels, there’s not much combat on display, let alone brave acts. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk contains about a page’s worth of fighting detail. The Yellow Birds and Fobbit both depict scenes in which friendly and enemy soldiers and civilians kill and get killed, but the climatic “battle” scene in each is an incoming mortar or rocket round that takes the life of key character while unawares on the FOB. A true enough possibility, I well know, but not exactly a heroic way to go out. Or one that allows an author to portray combat at any length.

A Camp Clark, Afghanistan, barracks showing the results of a direct hit by a 107mm rocket.  Fortunately no one was inside at the time and no one was hurt.

A Camp Clark, Afghanistan, barracks after a direct hit by a 107mm rocket. Ouch.

But Fobbit–contra to its title–actually does quite well depicting two episodes set outside the wire. In these, author David Abrams portrays dispute and potential violence between Americans and Iraqis that place American soldiers in the crucible of real-time, on-the ground decision-making, with many eyes watching, about whether to take a life or not. In the two scenes, a hapless officer underreacts in one tense stand-off involving a suicide bomber and overreacts in the other. In the first scenario, Abrams writes, “If someone had taken immediate action forty minutes ago, none of this would be an issue, but the commander on the scene–a pinch-faced captain named Shrinkle, known for his hems and haws–had waited too long.” A bold sergeant named Lumley takes charge, which needs to happen, but Abrams hints at the after-effects: “It would be a long time, years and years of therapy, before he could wipe from his mind the sight of that head erupting in a bloody geyser. He’d pulled the trigger without thinking through the consequences. He was not sorry he hadn’t hesitated but there was always that nagging, niggling doubt: maybe haji wasn’t going for the grenade….”

Abrams is on to something here; he seems to be saying that successful performance in combat isn’t so much a matter of bravery but of incisive decision-making under pressure. Here may be the gold waiting for extraction by future war novelists: not scenes of valor, but scenes of the mind as it decides what to do next, continuously, again and again, in difficult circumstances with important consequences.

In the Rear with the Gear: David Abrams’ Fobbit

August 8, 2013

Fobbit CoverOften 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).

Bob on the FOB

BOBontheFOB Comics Facebook page.

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