x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Book review: David Abrams' humorous and satire debut novel on the Iraq war

A novel written by a former army journalist who spent 20 years writing damage-controlling, carefully written press releases is about a 'stay-safe' soldier who uses words and sentences instead of bullets and missiles, writes Lucy Scholes

Radar O'Reilly, right, the company clerk in the 1970s TV show MASH, might today be called a
Radar O'Reilly, right, the company clerk in the 1970s TV show MASH, might today be called a "fobbit" by his army colleagues. CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

David Abrams
Harvill Secker

Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent American presence in the country saw the army's paper-pushers, previously far removed from combat, catapulted to a front line of desks "geographically central to gunfire", inside heavily fortified forward operating bases (FOBs). "To paraphrase the New Testament," explains David Abrams, they are "in the war" but "not of the war". These "pale, gooey" marshmallow-centred fobbits are like JRR Tolkien's shy, retiring creations seeking the "comfort" of their hobbit holes: "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."

Abrams should know. He served 20 years' active duty in the US army as a journalist, joining the 3rd Infantry Division in 2005 and being deployed to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which time he kept a journal of his experiences as one of the protected inhabitants of a forward operating base. These recollections became his first novel, a blackly humorous satirical takedown of the modern-day war zone.

Abrams' fictional alter ego is Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr, the "fobbitiest" of them all on the US military's FOB Triumph, at the western edge of Baghdad. He's the "poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier", with his "neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle". Gooding works in the public affairs office of the Seventh Armored Division, headquartered in one of Saddam Hussein's marbled palaces, the walls of which are still adorned with the taxidermy of the dictator's kills.

Gooding's business is damage control. But he doesn't get his hands dirty - he writes press releases: "his weapons were words, his sentences were missiles". His job is "to turn the bomb attacks, the sniper kills, the sucking chest wounds, and the dismemberments into something palatable - ideally, something patriotic - that the American public could stomach as they browsed their morning newspaper with their toast and eggs."

"Fobbit", if it hasn't already been made crystal clear, is a pejorative term, and no one hates fobbits more than Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret, a soldier stuck in what he sees as an endless game of "Whac-A-Mole", with only the idealised daydreams of his wife and golden retriever waiting for him back home to keep him going. But these lily-livered "self-preservationists", with their rear ends "gradually moulding into the shape of a chair" are nothing compared to the liability that is Captain Abe Shrinkle. Duret can handle the known unknowns, "the regrettable decisions, the logistical shortages, the unplanned deaths", but the law unto himself that is Shrinkle is kicking his behind, and proving himself a public affairs nightmare for Gooding in the process.

The rules of engagement are simple: "Complete the mission, but make it clean and professional so no Local Nationals were left broken, bleeding or oozing in the wake." If there are news cameras watching, a kid's hair must be tousled for good measure (lollipops, soccer balls and soft toys were once distributed Santa Claus-style, until, that is, the terrorists began stashing grenades in Beanie Babies, bringing these particular photo ops to a swift halt). Shrinkle's incompetence, however, makes mincemeat of these guidelines, the result of which is he's soon stripped of his company and given a "small platoon of towels" to be "filed in rank and precise order" instead in his new role as "lifestyle coordinator", or gym manager. But even this demotion isn't enough to keep him out of trouble.The overarching irony of Fobbit is of course that it's a story about the stories the army tells about Iraq. One of Gooding's duties is to pump the "moneymakers" for all they're worth. These are "the soldiers caught at the crossroads of luck and bravery, the door kickers who rose to the occasion and did something true and honourable in the eyes of the army, who participated in moments of selfless action that could then be packaged into a heart-stirring story and delivered to the media"; but not before the Public Affairs Office has first inducted these heroes in their short course in "Media Interview Tips 101".

Gooding reports to Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, whose vision of himself - as captured in the lie-filled, bragging emails he regularly sends home to his mother - is in stark contrast to the actual overweight nosebleeder wedged behind his desk. Any press release needed involves a complicated back and forth between the two of nigh-on Kafkaesque dimensions - "Somewhere in Oregon, a tree whimpered", snipes Abrams - a drafting and redrafting of spin that takes so long to reach the outside world it arrives long after the news is "as cold and dead" as the deceased soldier they're writing about. But this doesn't stop Harkleroad's blinkered claim of "another minor victory for the name of truth and democracy".

The details, Abrams proves, really are in the semantics: a "friendly reminder" email is disseminated across the department informing Gooding and his fellow fobbits that the term "insurgent" should henceforth be replaced with "terrorist", but this, it then turns out, is only a suggestion, not a directive. But, since they are "waging the Global War on Terrorism", it turns out that the "horrible, despicable creatures" don't deserve the dignity of the title "insurgent" so yes, "terrorist" it is. "Words are important. Words can wound, maim, and kill," the Deputy Chief of Strategic Communications warns in laughable spin-speak, only to be proven horrifically right when there's an unprecedented loss of civilian lives in a stampede induced by someone crying (suicide-bomber) wolf in the midst of a huge crowd.

Abrams isn't the first author to concern himself with life on a FOB - Rajiv Chandrasekaran's reportage Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone (the inspiration for Paul Greengrass's 2010 action film, Green Zone, starring Matt Damon), made for compelling reading about the management of war when published back in 2007, for example - but Fobbit is a welcome addition to the collection. Comparisons to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 are inevitable - perhaps not helped by Abrams' slightly heavy-handed self-conscious reference: it's Gooding's choice of poolside reading during an R&R break in Qatar - and in all honesty it does fall short of its precursor, but this shouldn't put readers off; Heller's novel both defined and topped the genre in one fell swoop.

There are occasions when Fobbit reads like a novel of two halves. The narrative is interspersed with bureaucratic email chains, letters home and extracts from Gooding's diary, the examples of the latter ringing with a clarity that belies their origin as Abrams' original journal entries, a somewhat stark contrast with the near cartoonish, irony-drenched pages that surround them. The last entry in the novel contains a quote from Gooding's current reading material, Don Quixote: "Fictional tales are better and more enjoyable the nearer they approach the truth or the semblance of the truth." And yes, it's these moments in Abrams' work that tie his story together. The mundane details of the eagerly anticipated weekly "Bounty of the Sea" dinner; the sting of the sand in a soldier's throat; the reality of the remains of a suicide bomber rendered a "meaty jigsaw puzzle of parts"; but most of all, the fear that offsets the farce. As Gooding eventually admits, "I may be a fobbit, but I feel it - that blade against my neck."

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.