“The real war is unlikely to be found in novels,” writes the late Paul Fussell, in his book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. He argues that novels are unlikely purveyors of wartime truth because on one hand, novels are poor vehicles for harsh wartime truths, and on the other hand, because war is so unique, and so separate from the larger civilian society, there is no real way for books to convey the true combat experience. The soldiers on the front knew what those receiving sanitized versions of it stateside could not; according to Fussell, they knew that “the real war was tragic and ironic, beyond the power of any literary or philosophical analysis to suggest, but in unbombed America especially, the meaning of the war seemed inaccessible.”
Fussell, one of the most respected voices on the subject of literature and war, was not alone in his frustration with wartime fiction, nor was it isolated to World War II. In his classic essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Tom Wolfe mocks great publishers of the day for waiting for the great Vietnam novel. And Iraq war memoirist Matt Gallagher wrote an article in The Atlantic as recently as 2011 asking, “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” David Abrams may not have set out to challenge each of these assertions and premises, but his debut novel, Fobbit, goes a long way in doing so. And who better than someone who holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alaska and recently retired from the military?
Fobbit is set on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Triumph, the headquarters for operations in Iraq for Corps and Division. Although fictitious, it bears a striking resemblance to the real FOB Victory in Baghdad, where Abrams himself served. On Triumph, the characters sit at desks pulling nightshifts, working on paperwork and presentations that will be seen and heard by no one, and waiting in line at one of the several chow halls, all safe from the danger that faces the combat troops outside the base’s gates. These are the Fobbits, and as Abrams explains:
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 these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.
A truly significant aspect of Abrams’ work is not the fact that he participates in the age-old military traditions of mocking support personnel in a combat zone. In fact, his point is hardly simply to put down, a fact evidenced by the fact that he admits to serving in such a position as a member of his Division’s public affairs team in Baghdad in 2005. Rather, the truly significant aspect of his work is that he tells a story about one of America’s most recent wars that will seem alien to most of the American public.
Accordingly, it is a book about the absurdity of the way the war is fought, the way the war is projected back home, and the massive gulf between the two. His characters, some who are comparable to John Kennedy Toole’s greatest creations, live in a humorous and chaotic world, even though they are safe behind friendly lines. Like characters in a Laurence Sterne novel, they have great and meaningful names like the protagonist, Chance Gooding Jr, the “fobbitiest” on all of Triumph, his boss, Eustace “Stacie” Harkleroad, as well as the combat soldiers they support like Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret, Captain Abe Shrinkle, and Sergeant Brock Lumley.
To a varying degree—a dramatically varying degree at times—all of his characters are part warrior and part Fobbit. Abrams explores the characters themselves by showing how they act and react to situations as they occur inside and outside of the wire of the FOB. As the title implies, the book focuses on those who never wish to leave the comfort of their FOB, a land of air condition, fast food, safety, and minor inconveniences. Although the few characters who comport themselves honorably in this book do so off base, just being outside of the wire is hardly enough to say that every combat soldier in Abrams’ book is more honorable than every soldier who sat at a desk during the war. Somewhere between the two extremes—between the easy shorthand defining those who live in danger and those far from it—are incredibly complex and modernized descriptions of those fighting in the current wars, why they are there, and whether, in a war like this, there’s hope for a possibility of achieving something more than survival.
This work will almost certainly infuriate many who pick it up. It does not glamorize the heroics of those fighting on the so-called front lines. It does not speak to the worldview that has mostly associated itself with the current wars. And it does not tell a particularly flattering story of American culture, either. But it does tell a story that many who lived it will remember. It does update the classic wartime themes for this generation’s war, and hopefully it will open the door for other literary perspectives to be developed in the future.
Fobbit, as other critics have suggested, is a cynical satire in the same vein as the best works of legendary wartime authors like Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, and especially Joseph Heller. Like those authors, Abrams’ book is important for reasons beyond his genre or categorization as well. Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that he challenges Paul Fussell’s argument that the real war cannot be effectively presented in novels.