Chance sent the press release into cyberspace, feeling like he just released a dove into the air, his words now flapping and fluttering their way to newspaper editors’ desks all across America. Really, though, the Division’s little massaged, 150-word press release was a mere afterthought in the grand scheme of things because, by that point, the wire services had already filed their own stories with no help from Division Public Affairs. Nice try, though.
I chose to read this book because of an excerpt – and twin spurs of guilt.
The first spur came from Rachel Maddow, whose discussions of her recent book Drift featured the premise that most Americans are only vaguely aware of the two simultaneously-waged longest wars in American history where our fellow citizens are facing life-changing, sometimes life-ending, chaos in places many of us couldn’t locate on a map, the result being it’s far too easy, psychologically, to send people to war. That I don’t want to actually read her book, in spite of agreeing with her, seemed to me an ironic fulfillment of her very premise.
… Someone might even have a football game turned in on satellite TV, keeping the volume low but just loud enough for the cheers of the crowd to rise and fall like fuzzy waves. Duret always took surreal comfort in the sound of the thousands of people back home roaring open-throated at a couple dozen men who move a ball back and forth. He liked to think those cheers were also for the work he and his men were doing over here in Baghdad where, it was true, they were also, in a sense, moving a ball back and forth across a limited field of play.
The reality was, of course, that of those thousands packed into the stadium, only a couple hundred knew what was happening over here in Iraq; and of those two hundred, only a dozen actually gave shit – and those twelve are probably the wives of the men who were over here listening to the game on a Sunday morning. America, the beautiful ostrich – Oh, beautiful, for heads buried in the sand, for amber waves of ignorant bliss.
The second spur stemmed from my habit of promiscuous following. I started following David Abrams’ blog, The Quivering Pen, at least a year ago. I don’t remember why; I probably liked a review he wrote. I’ve been enjoying his Trailer Park Tuesdays (book trailers), occasionally entered his Friday Freebie book giveaways (I haven’t won yet, sigh), and though I don’t always read the My First Time entries (writers talk about their virgin experiences with authorial milestones), I love the concept. And all along, I’ve been following the publication progress of Fobbit, his debut novel. But I didn’t really plan to actually read it.
But then I read an excerpt on Electronic Literature‘s Recommended Reading. Chapter 17. The “moneymaker” chapter.
That was Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad’s term for them: moneymakers. These were the soldiers caught at the crossroads of luck and bravery, the door kickers who rose to the occasion and did something true and honorable in the eyes of the U.S. Army, who participated in moments of selfless action that could then be packaged into a heart-stirring story and delivered to the media.
I bought the book the next day.
Now, remember, I don’t do “book reviews.” I don’t know how. All I do is write about what I’ve been reading, as the tag says. So if you want a real book review, take a look at The NYT or The Washington Post or The LA Times. Or check Abrams’ website for a complete list of reviews.
I’ve seen many comparisons of this book to Catch-22, a book I was never able to finish in spite of my complete agreement with its premise that war is a fucked-up absurdity. Maybe I should try again. I did see a similarity to The House of God by Samuel Shem, a far lesser known work featuring a similar satirical skewering of the medical care system (with which I’m far more familiar than the military) in the 70s, a book that was itself compared to Catch-22.
While Fobbit rotates among four primary characters, two predominate, in very different ways. Captain Abe Shrinkle is, in plot terms, the character who undergoes chapter-by-chapter change and thus carries the overall plot of the book forward. He screws up every mission by indecision or overaction. How he rose to the rank of Captain is a puzzle. His men don’t respect him. He hoards care packages he should be sharing with his men. He eventually screws up badly enough to be demoted to passing out towels in the rec hall, and from there, descends into resentment and undisciplined rebellion. But don’t let me scare you – his rebellion shows the form of joining the Australian troops in their swimming pool, forbidden to American troops, and taking on the identity of a British museum curator, thus escaping the ignominy of his fall. It’s hilarious. Until… well, you’ll just have to read about that. I never knew a mortar could be a poetic device.
There was never any question he would enter the military. His grandfather had served, two of his uncles had served, and his father would’ve served if it hadn’t been for the lupus. When the time came and Abe, a high school senior, stood on that cusp of decision, the choice was already mapped and plotted. There followed a brisk four years at Northwestern, eager participation in the Young Republicans Club, application and acceptance into West Point, and a steady rise through the army ranks. Abe Shrinkle was on his way toward something big, something great, something magnanimous that would benefit his family and America at large.
The train of ambition had been barreling down the tracks so fast Abe hadn’t seen the washed-out bridge ahead.
However, it’s Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding who seems to me to be, though for most of the book an observer and recorder, the guy who is in the end permanently and dramatically changed by his time as a Fobbit, the one who carries that change forward into the world, and thus is the main character. I have to admit, however, this is colored by my sense, based on outside-the-book information, that Chance Gooding is a stand-in for author David Abrams. Gooding is the good guy in a bad place, literally and figuratively. He spends his days trying to write press releases for events CNN has already broadcast, trying to find the right words to change horror into heroism, writing in his journal, and trying to stay sane in an insane situation.
Reporters routinely called Gooding on the phone, wanting more information about, for instance, “the explosion on Airport Road,” and he would ask them for more information – time of the explosion, number of killed and injured, any unusual body parts, et cetera – to pinpoint the event. His press release headlines all sounded the same with vanilla-oatmeal predictability: “Iraqi police, Army secure bomb blast site” or “Baghdad explosion kills eight, wounds twelve” or “Iraqi security forces, US Army mop up blast site.”
At one point, Gooding got so frustrated that, in his confusion, he turned to Major Filipovich in the next cubicle and said, “Sir, can’t we start naming these attacks, just like we name hurricanes? I mean, I could keep them all straight if we could call them IED Martha or VBIED Larry.”
Lt. Col. Eustace Harkleroad is another guy with an overblown opinion of himself. He’s a “spontaneous nose-bleeder,” always with a food stain on his straining-at-the-buttons shirt in the shape of different countries; he’s an expert at finding ways to sneak off for a snack. He writes long letters to his mother falsifying and glorifying his own role in various operations, and demand that she not under any circumstances contact Jim Powers at the Murfreesboro Free Press with the information, and if she must tell the ladies in her church group, she must tell them not under any circumstances to relay it to their husbands. He’s so used to lying, and only hopes “one day actually do something that, if not exactly brave or significant, would at least have the truth as its foundation.” When he does finally tell her a true account, he picks the worst possible thing to tell the truth about.
On every Army division staff there is always at least one officer who is the object of pity and/or ridicule. He is the one who sits stranded around the polished mahogany table before the briefings to the CG while the others from G-1 Personnel, G-2 Intelligence, G-3 Operations, G-4 Logistics, and G-5 Civil Affairs (the Gee-Whiz Gang) scoots their chairs closer together and talk with blustery guffaws and manly winks and conspiratorial nods; he is the one who sits there fiddling with the clicker on his ballpoint pen and pretending to find something of great interest in the sheaf of PowerPoint slides he printed and brought to the meeting; he is the one who begins his daily update to the CG with a choked, squeaky wheeze before clearing his throat and trying again while the commanding general stares hot impatience at him, chewing his spleen and wondering how in the good goddamn he ever ended up with this doofus on his staff.
In Task Force Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad was that designated staffer – even the chaplain was held in higher esteem – but there was little Harkleroad could do to penetrate the burly, hairy-chest circle of colonels ringed around the commanding general, except to try harder – flap his wings and hope he flew.
Lt. Col. Vic Duret is haunted by visions of his brother-in-law dying on 9/11. He’s a good guy who’s hanging by a thread, using the image of his wife’s breasts waiting for him at home to keep himself going. I’m not sure he has much reason for being in the story, other than as a contrast to Harkleroad, but he’s such a sympathetic character, doing a little completely understandable self-deception of his own, I’m glad he’s in the book. The description of his torment is reason enough.
The pounding in Duret’s brain vibrated against his sinus cavity. Behind the curtain of his fingers, he broke into a sweat as, inside his head, his brother-in-law bumped against desks and plunged through the blizzard of once-important papers, finding his way by instinct, not sight or touch, to the blown-out window. Once there, he launched into the cool blue space, soaring aflame into the buffeting wind. Ross was already gone – no longer the brother-in-law Vic had fished with, laughed with, clinked beer bottles with, mutually grouched about the wife/sister with – so it wasn’t really Ross that morning who arced like an ember out of the tower.
I was less interested in the designation of Fobbits (those ensconced in relative safety, if anyplace in Iraq could truly be considered safe) as opposed to those in combat roles. Gooding and Harkleroad are Fobbits; Shrinkle becomes one after his demotion, a sting worse than the loss of rank and command. But considering it’s the title of the book (and in light of the powerful opening paragraph below), there’s less made of it than I would’ve expected. That’s fine with me; I only wondered about it in retrospect.
They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph. If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then the soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.
One of the more powerful elements, for me, was Words. I’m not sure how much of that is just my own predilection for verbal expression, and how much is actually in the book, but I felt a lot of “The Pen is Mightier Than The Sword (except sometimes). ” And just as deadly, when a shout causes a panic that kills hundreds in a stampede (one of the most horrific chapters, extraordinary and terrifying reading – and don’t forget, this is fact based; that event actually happened.). The Public Affairs Office itself – how bizarre the Army has PR flacks in Baghdad. How bizarre they need PR flacks at all. How bizarre, the email circus about the words “insurgent” and “terrorist.” I’m not sure how the Army feels about this book – I suspect they’re less than thrilled – but it’s a lot more honest and informative than “Be All You Can Be.” Or “Mission Accomplished.”
It’s fine reading throughout. I’m not familiar with the military, and the book is loaded with jargon and acronyms, but I found it highly readable. That’s quite an accomplishment. In places the language goes a little purple, but it worked for me: who am I to say a mortar doesn’t have desire?
… It cared where it hit, who would struck, how it spent its final moments of life before the death that brought wholesale death to others. It cared about the final target, whether it was rock, soil, water, or flesh. This is all the mortar thought about on the upward flight, the peak of the arc, and to the down tilt of final descent. Sometimes, the very thought of opening its maw and gobbling a bellyful of human flesh filled it with such anticipation that it started to whistle a happy tune in its final moments, keening a kind of joy unknown to man.
I found many wonderful little touches: Gooding in the opening scenes with a copy of A Tale of Two Cities and later on R&R in Qatar reading Catch-22 ( Abrams did not choose those books at random); Harkelroad editing Gooding’s memos; the shower scene (no, not that kind of shower scene, the one in which – oh, you’ll have to read the book). The multiple casualty drill, with soldiers in Karo syrup and fake wounds. Fobbit blood finally spilled.
While many of the 34 individual chapters are excellent, overall I did find a lack of forward momentum. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one recurring image is the movie Groundhog Day, in which the same day is repeated over and over again; for the Fobbits and the door-kickers alike, their days are repeated over and over. So it makes a kind of sense that the forward motion would be more subtle. There’s this event and that event, but Harkleroad is still the slob with the gravy stain and Duret is still the guy tortured by 9/11 and Gooding is still the guy writing press releases of horrors and trying not to let it get to him. Shrinkle’s metamorphosis from incompetent spit-and-polisher to incompetent slacker to incompetent rebel provides, in plot terms, the road map. The addition of the “2000th soldier” trope, I think, starts too late in the book, and thus had a slightly invented sense to it. But it was used so effectively, it’s hard to complain.
I’m very glad I read this book.
So am I feeling less guilty? Not really. If anything, I’m feeling the Maddow-induced guilt even stronger, because it symbolizes exactly what she has been saying: David Abrams served in Iraq and all I did was read a book in the comfort of my living room. There’s something wrong with that. I think Rachel’s right: we all need to have more of our own skin in the game before we start shipping other people’s skin around the world in uniform. We need to pick our battles for better reasons than we have been.