David Abrams served for twenty years in the U.S. Army. He came to public notice during the second war in Iraq, by writing dispatches from Baghdad for the Emerging Writers’ Network email newsletter, and his fiction was subsequently published in Esquire and Narrative. His debut novel, Fobbit, is a tragicomic rendering of things he observed in Baghdad.
In popular military jargon, a “fobbit” is a pejorative describing a U.S. Army employee stationed at a Forward Operating Base, who avoids danger by staying put on the base. The novel has been compared favorably to other comic novels about war, including Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
The Rumpus: What kind of experience of war were you expecting when you deployed to Kuwait, and then Iraq, with the Public Affairs Office of the 3rd Infantry Division in early 2005?
David Abrams: Well, that’s the thing—when I got on that plane in Savannah, Georgia on January 2, 2005, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d been in the active-duty Army for seventeen years by that point, but had never deployed into combat. So, there was a little fear of the unknown churning around inside me, I suppose. My expectations, as it turned out, were different than the reality. I imagined I’d be living in some pretty hard, spartan conditions—working out of a tent, sand everywhere, not showering for days on end, etc. It turned out to be an office job not unlike all the others I’d had here in the United States. Except for the occasional mortar passing overhead, of course.
Rumpus: How did that feel? Was it disappointing in some way, or a relief?
Abrams: In a way, it was a relief, but it also took some getting used to. Of course, it only took about a day-and-a-half for me to get mentally acclimated and in the groove of the routine. Once you’re inside the wire, there’s a tendency for the war to slip away into the background. You can still hear it out there—the machine gun fire and the mortars—but it sounds so distant, at a far remove from your day-to-day reality of the office job.
Rumpus: Can you describe the place where you were working in Baghdad?
Abrams: I was at Camp Liberty (later called Camp Victory), and I was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, which was part of Task Force Baghdad. We worked out of this large headquarters building full of cubicles and air conditioning. The area surrounding our building once used to be Saddam’s hunting preserve, stocked with wild game which he and his guests would “hunt” on the weekends.
Abrams: As a rule, no. There’s a certain kind of insularity that envelops Fobbits like me when they’re working at the higher echelons. Many of the other NCOs and officers I worked with went “outside the wire” on a regular basis, and there were times when I interacted with combat arms soldiers from other units (mainly to interview them for stories I was writing or to prepare them for media interviews), but for the most part I was just a Fobbit surrounded by other Fobbits. If I have one regret about my experience over there, it’s probably that I didn’t go outside the wire into Baghdad and actually see the country I was supposed to be helping defend and rebuild.
Rumpus: It seems like such a strange way to be in a war. Reading the book, and listening to your answer, now, I’m thinking about Karl Marlantes’s and Tim O’Brien’s books about Vietnam, where the war was such an ever-present thing, and where home seemed so far away. That daily immersion seems interwoven with the moral reckoning both of those writers have had with the war. How did you begin to process the war, being in the middle of it, and yet not being in the middle of it?
Abrams: That’s a good question. Wars always evolve over time, don’t they? Iraq/Afghanistan is different than Vietnam, and Vietnam was different than Korea, and Korea was different than World War One, and so on. Some things remain the same, of course—one side fighting another over ideology or a patch of ground—but there are some aspects of combat life which differ radically than their predecessors. Nowhere was this difference more striking than the way technology has changed the way the military does business on the battlefield—a battlefield which no longer has any clearly defined front lines. There is no more “front” and “rear” where Fobbit-types would go to hide out in safer locations. In Iraq and Afghanistan, you engaged in a theater of operations that’s 360 degrees at all times. The modern wars are also omnipresent in our electronic media—to be cynical about it, we now have 24 hours of non-stop bloodshed available to us. The internet and real-time media reporting were integrated into daily life in Iraq. You’d have bloggers like Matt Gallagher (Kaboom) coming off patrol and sitting down at the keyboard to describe what just happened…you’d have soldiers being able to Skype-chat with their wives..and, if you were like me, you’d have Fox News on the TV—literally right next to my computer monitor—describing what was happening down in Firdos Square just as the Task Force’s Significant Activity reports were rolling into headquarters. It made for a very surreal, often disconnected, experience for me. It was hard to “process” the war while I was in the middle of it. I think that’s true for most soldiers. We only fully process what happened after we return home and see the war from the other end of the telescope.
Rumpus: Were there any differences between the war you were watching on Fox News and the war as you perceived it from Baghdad?
Abrams: For the most part, I think the media got the facts right. They were often on the scene first and there were many times you’d find a knot of officers huddled around a TV screen in Headquarters where I worked, watching live footage from downtown Baghdad, along with the Army’s feed from the “blimp cams” overhead. Where the differences came in was the patina of ideology which the news media laid over everything. There’s certainly a bias, to some degree, in the way the media portrays the military. I’m not saying that’s entirely wrong—the Fourth Estate is there to hold generals and colonels accountable for their actions and decisions—but having reporters on the scene, reporting in real time certainly complicates things for the military mission.
Rumpus: Were there ways in which you saw the writing of Fobbit as a corrective to some of the distortions—ideological or otherwise—that might have arisen either from media reporting, or from the public relations work in which the military invested?
Abrams: No, I wasn’t trying to write a corrective novel—that would just end up tasting like medicine, and I tried to stay away from polemics as best I could. I think that, if anything, Fobbit is my way of showing readers there’s another side to war—the backstage of combat, if you will. If you play a word association game with Americans and say “war,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Soldiers running across a battlefield through a hail of bullets, right? Rambo, smoke, explosions. In Fobbit, I hope readers will see something a little different.
Rumpus: I was thinking, though, of things like Fobbit‘s list of “Forbidden Words”—certainly, and usually in a funny way, you were showing the distance between the public story and the real experience. It wouldn’t be fit, the logic went, for Americans to hear words like “Iraqidocious” or “pretzel logic” or “metric assload.” The novel seems to refuse to sanitize the war, especially at the level of language, but also when it comes to questions of sex and video games and comfort and so forth.
Abrams: Sure, in that respect, I guess it’s an unsanitary account of the “business of war.” The careful choice of words, the scrubbing of language, the calculated images we presented to the external audiences—those were all major parts of my daily life over there. So, some of that is going to seep over into what I showed in the novel and—more importantly—how I showed it.
Rumpus: At what point did you realize the material you were gathering might be something worth turning into a novel?
Abrams: About midway through my tour in Iraq, when my agent sent me an email which said, in part, “I’ve come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public.” From that point on, I think I started seeing my daily life through a different lens. I mean, I had a skeptical, cynical viewpoint from the start, but I think those words from my agent really gave me a little more freedom to do anything with this war, on the page, that I wanted. I could make it as loud and distorted as I wanted. I could paint it in images as large as a billboard. Sometimes you have to do this to get your point across.
Rumpus: There is an argument in the book about Catch-22, whose protagonist is called “that ass-clown Yossarian” by a West Point professor. It seemed to me that this book is really more in the tradition of Catch-22 than in the tradition of more recently fashionable novels and stories and nonfiction narratives about war (the Vietnam generation especially—Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes, Michael Herr, etc.). Was this a matter of your sensibility asserting itself, or is there something about our later wars that is better suited to the comic mode than to the tragic?
Abrams: I think it’s possible—perhaps even necessary—to find comedy in any war. I mean, look at the brilliant work which was done by Joseph Heller and Richard Hooker (M*A*S*H) and Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Soldier Svejk—which I haven’t read, but have heard was funny). Seeing any war through the distortion of comedy is healthy. There is just too much absurdity and irony at play in a combat zone not to pay attention to it. At least that’s how it struck me; others may have had an entirely different war experience. As for how I approached Fobbit and made the style choices I did, all I can say is that one of my greatest literary role models has always been Flannery O’Connor. So not only did I deploy to combat in a Catch-22 frame of mind, I was also going to Iraq with some of O’Connor’s wit and sensibility coursing through my veins. O’Connor showed us how you can take something as sober and earnest as religion and punch holes in it until all the funny stuff leaks out. In the same way, I came at war sideways and wearing a jester’s hat. Just as O’Connor had her critics, I expect I’ll have mine for the light in which I cast the military.
Rumpus: The book ends in a terribly interesting place. I want to quote a little from the ending:
He ran without cease. His legs were hot iron bands and his lungs were breath-harshed sacs near collapse, but still he ran.
It was only when he was within sight of the Main Gate, the dark mystery of Baghdad lurking just beyond the bristle of concertina wire, that Chance Gooding realized he had no helmet, no flak vest, no weapon. He hesitated for a second but then tucked his bare head to his chest and continued to sprint toward the guards at the checkpoint who were even now bringing up their rifles and shouting for him to “Stop!”
Somewhere to the north, a mortar shrieked across the sky, coming closer, ever closer.
Even this is comic in its way. Comedy usually springs from the darkest places, and there’s a terrible irony to this ending. But there is also a moral weight to it. The reader immediately begins to think about the shelter of headquarters, and the disproportions that separate the warring forces, and the idea of a war that can be fought in part by men, but also in part by robotic machines handled by video game joysticks, and by bureaucratic functionaries who spend so much of their time creating PowerPoint presentations. In some ways, the action of the life-and-death things can seem like another form of entertainment. Certainly this war seemed—certainly not to Iraqis, but to many Americans at home—more like reality television than anything that came before. It was nothing like Vietnam, where everyone at home was horrified.
Were these the kinds of questions you hoped readers might be left to consider in the white space that follows the last sentence? Did you feel the weight of any sort of moral responsibility as a novelist of the war, or as a member of the military, or as an American?
Abrams: It’s disingenous for me to say that I wasn’t trying to write a moral novel. By its very nature as a novel about the Iraq War, Fobbit steps into the political conversation. There’s no way to avoid that. I can appreciate that readers are probably going to line up on one side of the novel or the other. I hope they go to those polar extremes, actually. If Fobbit leaves a reader feeling stranded in some bland in-between territory, then I haven’t done my job. But having said all that, I didn’t consciously write the book with a particular moral intent. I took what I experienced and processed it through the sausage factory of fiction. It’s up to readers to interpret what’s on the page—as is the case with any novel. Some will read it as anti-military, others will take away some empathy for soldiers. I don’t know if that answered your question about how this war was perceived as something close to reality TV. I think you’re right, though. This war was delivered to the public in a way that previous wars weren’t. Sadly, it did come across as “just another TV show” to many Americans. That’s a dangerous thing—having that disconnect from the horrible realities of war.
Rumpus: How do you think and feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and your participation in them, now? Did the writing of the book bring any new clarity to any of those thoughts or feelings?
Abrams: No, I think I’m still just as conflicted about the war as I always was. On the one hand, I was a soldier carrying out his duty, following his allegiance to his country and to the mission at hand. But yet, there was always this unease plaguing me. “What are we doing here?” “Are we really fixing this country or are we doing more harm than good?” And the most pressing question: “How do we pull ourselves out of this quicksand?” I think I’m still there in that white space you mentioned, trying to get clarity for myself on what this war did to us as a nation.