Book Club: Fobbit

Are there 16-year-olds who don’t think Catch-22 is awesome? What about The Things They Carried? Or Slaughterhouse Five? To a certain type of pre-intellectual kid, these tongue-in-cheek, what-does-it-all-mean, to-hell-with-authority, don’t-trust-anyone-over-35 novels are a rite of passage. I was no exception, and I bet you weren’t either.

Truth be told, I haven’t really read a novel in which a war was the centerpiece of the narrative in about ten years. It makes me nervous, it makes me sad. I avoid it. I have no stomach for violence. I vomited while reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and thus have avoided this particular genre for the most part. I wouldn’t have picked this up at all if it weren’t at the urging of one of my friends, and I’m glad I took her advice. Fobbit  was another quick-but-significant read, and it’s in the same vein of the aforementioned novels. If you like that, you’re in the right place.  Be forewarned, if you aren’t already, that this isn’t a shoot-em-up, glory days memoir, but something that feels at once worse and better than that. Stories like No Easy Day, while less fun to read, feel better because they can make you believe in the moral rectitude of war. There’s room for that, for sure, but there’s a place at the table for Fobbit, too.

I love a good flag motif.
I love a good flag motif.

Fobbit tells the story of the trials and tribulations of several soldiers at Forward Operating Base Triumph in the middle of the war in Iraq. In the alphabet soup that is the military jargon, FOB is the abbreviation for Forward Operating Base, and “fobbit” is the name for the soldiers who work “inside the wire”, which is to say they stay on the FOB rather than going out to the very front. In years past (say Korea or Vietnam), the rear was pretty safe (think M.A.S.H.), but now, they occupy a weird liminal space where they’re not really safe at all, but they’re not likely to actively engage in firefight or eat M.R.E.s. That’s what this book is about. The folks Abrams covers range from the fobbitiest of fobbits to bona fide tough guys, and it follows in the tradition of Heller, O’Brien, and Vonnegut: no one’s a hero, no one’s a winner, there are only plots on a continuum of gray. David Abrams is an insider’s insider, and he brings humor, wit, and intellect to a war narrative.

The primary characters we get to know over the course of Fobbit are Staff Sergeant Gooding, Captain Shrinkle, Lieutenant Colonel Duret, and Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad. I have the dubious privilege of knowing a lot of soldiers who have fought in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts over the last decade, and you can be damn sure I recognized them all. You’ve got CPT Shrinkle, a guy who has somehow been allowed outside the wire and given decision-making capacity. There’s LTC Duret, a steely-eyed, hard-bellied professional with nothing but contempt for the pasty dudes hanging out at Triumph.  LTC Harkleroad is the contemporary equivalent of your great uncle who claims to have Hitler’s piano key in his bureau but was secretly a translator who came in after the fact to clean up. Then there’s SSG Gooding, who is the closest thing we’ve got to a hero. He’s smarter than your average bear, and he manages outgoing messages to the American press. Gooding’s never going to see a moment on the honest-to-God front, and he’s smart enough to know that’s not necessarily the worst fate he could have, though he understands that those guys know something he doesn’t. Even the minor characters I met in passing were men and women I’d encountered before.Abrams tells their tales chapter by chapter; some of the best parts are when you get to look at the same event through the eyes of several different people, all of whom see things very differently indeed.  He does a spectacular job capturing their voices– the jargon, the off-color jokes, the slapstickishness. I’m sure his twenty years in the army helped him to fine tune this, though sometimes it goes a step further than I’d like, and it makes the dialogue sound a little stilted to the civilian ear.

Fobbit is the kind of book that can make you feel feels, as the kids say. I hated Eustace Harkleroad and Abe Shrinkle and the others who were like them in a way that I thought was almost undignified. The obsession with creating the Army Story (the former) and having one’s own war story to tell (the latter) made my vision narrow. Even the more throwaway details about them– that they were hoarders, or slovenly, or whatever– made me hate them. When clues came that some of them might not make it back to America, I can’t say I was upset. They were malingerers, the very worst of Uncle Sam’s Finest. But then I realized that that weird feeling of anger extended to Gooding and his buddies, too. Even though they saw what they were doing and they knew it was wrong, they carried out orders. They were part of the problem, and they extended the problem’s reach. About 200 pages in, I realized I was just angry at the whole concept of war and the army and was having the feelings I had when I read about the soldiers in The Things They Carried shooting the skin off the baby water buffalo. I wanted one of them to do something he couldn’t do: stand up, tell everyone that they were doing something wrong, and then tell the rest of the world what they knew. That’s not ever going to happen, regardless of what war we get into or out of. They weren’t horrible, they were just people responding to horror. Horror makes a fool of us all.

Forgive me for a moment while I get a little personal and perhaps political. If this is upsetting to you, you are free to stop reading my weblog and write your own weblog where you talk about how I am very stupid and extremely ugly or whatever other mean adjectives you have at your disposal, though I hope you will not because, hey, I taught you how to wear hats and stuff.  I thought we had something good here. Please hear me out.

My friend Tyler is from a really rural area in a red state where a lot of people join the armed services because of the opportunities they can offer– a chance to see the world, an education, health insurance, a rope ladder out of poverty. We were talking about bad behavior of returned veterans the other night– garden variety stuff, not like Timothy McVeigh stuff– and he stopped me. He said, “I’ve never heard anyone speak with candor about this. Where I’m from, they’re untouchable. If Steve comes home from Iraq and beats his wife and kids, whatever, he had a bad war. He’s a hero and he gets a free pass because of his service.” He seemed embarrassed by this homogeneous view of the armed services that was rampant in his hometown, but the viewpoint of most of my friends and family (if you haven’t figured this out in the last few years of reading my blog, I’m a liberal who grew up in a non-military, suburban family, and most of my friends are at least two of those things) was equally so. Almost all of my friends and family thought the army was full of people who wanted to Christianize the Middle East, guys who joined because they had no choice and no better option. Both of us have much to be ashamed of in that regard.

Currently, we have an all-volunteer military, for the first time in a long time. It used to be everyone served, so it wasn’t something remarkable, and didn’t really mean you were a good man or a bad one. The janitor was in Korea, but so was the CFO of the company, and both their sons were in Vietnam. Rich guys, poor guys, black guys, white guys, rural guys, urban guys– all of them were veterans. That’s not the case now, and for the most part, that’s good. We shouldn’t want to subject anyone to the horrors of war, and we should want a highly skilled, professional military.

But on the other hand, consider this: the vast majority of Americans do not choose to wear the uniform, and that it’s a sacrifice, not an obligation. Most people I know don’t know anyone at all in the military. I didn’t know a single person who had served, other than an uncle who was drafted in Vietnam, until 2012. This means you’ve got guys  like George Bush, like Barack Obama, like senators and congressmen, and your prime ministers and your French Foreign Legion, etc., etc., etc., on every conceivable side of every possible aisle sending a bunch of people out to do something they were unwilling or unable or unneeded to do. Something they wouldn’t want their kids to do. It’s pretty easy to say, “yeah, this doesn’t really jive with the ‘bringing democracy to Iraq message’ I want, so rewrite it so we leave out the part where we actually shot a mentally handicapped guy between the eyes and there was no danger at all and that kid from Butte didn’t lose his leg. Make sure we keep the American casualties quiet.” Most people are so far from the wars now that whatever is presented on MSNBC or Fox or CNN seems about right. Fobbit pulls the curtain back on that just a little to show you that there’s so much machination at play, and that for every act of heroism, brotherhood, bravery, and sacrifice, there are acts of cowardice, ill-will, incompetence, and carelessness.

I encourage everyone reading my blog to do two things today: one, read Fobbit  (plus the books I listed at the outset, which are completely mind-blowing in their genius and will give you pause) and let it help you learn about the range of people who are in the service, and the sheer variety of their experiences. They aren’t all heroes, but they aren’t all bloodthirsty idiots, either. Two, send a care package (most people are NOT hoarding them like Shrinkle), volunteer at the VFW or the VA, or just gchat that guy you knew who was in ROTC in college who’s hanging out on Bagram with his unit and see if he needs anything. They’re just people, doing the best they can in a bad situation, and they’re doing something none of us want to do. It’ll mean a lot to them.

If you’ve already read Fobbit, let’s talk about it. A lot of my coworkers already have (hi, Chad and Julia!), and I’ve been handing it out with a passion, so I’m hopeful I finally get to chat with someone about it! Next week, I’m reading this and it’s really good, and shut up, she wrote Coyote Ugly, okay? Get on board with it.

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