In the American wars of the 20th century, soldiers of the rear echelon were derided as “in the rear with the gear,” or worse. However, the whole concept of a “rear,” predicated on a definable “front,” started slipping in Vietnam and met its official death in Somalia. By the time of the Iraq occupation, the place where clerks did their clerking and infantrymen got a plate of hot chow was no longer in a relatively safe rear area but in the forward operating base, or FOB, smack in the middle of everything, and the soldiers stationed there became known as Fobbits.
As a former real-life Fobbit, assigned to a public affairs team in Iraq, David Abrams puts his knowledge of this world to good use in his first novel, also called “Fobbit.” Although the modern FOB is inherently more dangerous than a rear encampment miles from enemy lines, the comforts provided to the troops there are light-years beyond anything available to soldiers in a war zone even 10 years before the Iraq invasion. Burger King and Dairy Queen have been in some FOBs; even more significant, I think, is access to media, e-mail and the telephone. (As a long-serving member of the Navy SEALs told me recently, “I’m not sure it’s healthy for either my wife or me to be on the phone with each other about a plumbing contractor less than 45 minutes after I’ve put a bullet between another man’s eyes.”) The strange normality of life in Iraq’s FOBs, juxtaposed against the war’s brutality just yards from an air-conditioned fast-food joint, leads to strange parallels between the two worlds: “Dead soldiers,” Abrams writes, “were now little more than . . . objects to be loaded onto the back of C-130s somewhere and delivered like pizzas to the United States.”
Those are the thoughts of Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr., the protagonist of “Fobbit.” Stationed at FOB Triumph, in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, Gooding is a writer in the public affairs office of an Army infantry division, responsible for news releases that turn the “sucking chest wounds and the dismemberments into something palatable — ideally, something patriotic.” In Vietnam the Army inflated the enemy body count as proof of progress; in Iraq, Gooding’s commander juggles our own body count to ensure that the 2,000th American casualty is heroic enough to show the fight’s importance.
Fobbits come in many stripes — not just public affairs spinners but “supply clerks, motor pool mechanics, cooks, mail sorters, lawyers, trombone players, logisticians.” The comfort-loving Fobbits are an easy target of ridicule for a combat soldier, but they shouldn’t be the object of the reader’s scorn. After all, they volunteered to wear the uniform. Less than 2 percent of eligible Americans do.
Abrams makes some beginner’s errors: the dialogue is occasionally stilted, and I wish he spent more time with the actual Fobbits instead of the infantryman Capt. Abe Shrinkle, whose incompetence makes Gooding’s job more challenging. At the start of the book, there is a joke about the illicit relationship between a couple of young enlistees, Simon and Allison. It’s funny — but it also gets at the intimacy of war, the primordial connection, the need for human contact in the face of death. “Fobbit” could have done with more of this. But this is a minor complaint, and in fact I applaud David Abrams for sticking to his vision and writing the satire he wanted to write instead of adding to the crowded shelf of war memoirs. In “Fobbit,” he has written a very funny book, as funny, disturbing, heartbreaking and ridiculous as war itself.