War has always provided one of literature's grandest stages, from Thucydides to Tolstoy to Mailer, but war fiction's angle of approach changed in 1961, when Joseph Heller skewered America's "Good War," World War II, with Catch-22. War as a proving ground for heroic masculinity and theater of horror gave way to war as a breeding ground for bureaucratic psychosis and bleak illogic. Classical tragedy gave way to black comedy. Catch-22 changed the game, and rarely since has war been treated in American fiction with an entirely straight face.
The black-comedy approach carried subversive power in the 1960s, with the dutifully triumphant memory of WWII still fresh, and the country's controversial adventurism in Vietnam grasping for public support, but that cultural watershed is now four decades in the past. Does black comedy still work when the war in question is long established as a bad joke? How to be subversive about an endeavor that's already been undermined seven ways from Sunday?
- David Abrams reads for the Montana Festival of the Book at the Holiday Inn Fri., Oct. 5, at 4 PM, with author Kim Barnes.
David Abrams, a 20-year Army veteran from Butte, tests that question with Fobbit.
A Fobbit, the book's cover clarifies, is "a U.S. Army employee stationed at a Forward Operating Base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011)." As everything after establishes, Fobbit is a pejorative term, used by "real" frontline soldiers to refer to the FOB's pencil pushers, press releasers, "supply clerks, motor pool mechanics, cooks, mail sorters, lawyers, trombone players, logisticians," each with a "pale, gooey center" where "their hearts should be beating with a warrior's courage and selfless regard." Fobbits, in contrast, are "all about making it out of Iraq in one piece."
This is a curious target for an absurdity-of-war novel to set sights on. Fobbit takes aim not at clueless generals or stay-at-home policy makers or even mercenary contractors, but at run-of-the-mill support staff. And when Fobbit's support staff are placed squarely in potentially transformative momentsthe opportunities that make war so attractive to writers of fiction and nonfiction alikethey don't transcend and they don't transform. They just continue to fuck things up. Your appreciation of the book may depend on how comfortable you are deriding members of the U.S. armed forces who did not choose to go to an arguably pointless war, by and large did not choose their duty assignments, and, while trapped in unpleasant circumstances for as long as their government chooses to keep them there, have the temerity to appreciate their relative but incomplete immunity from killing or being killed. Sounds like a perfectly reasonable response to me.
Hurdle that quandary, though, and Fobbit is enormously recommendable. Abrams is a highly skilled juggler of voices, from the authoritarian pomposity of a cubicle commando to the self-aggrandizing emails-to-mom of a would-be warrior to the diary entries of a Dickens-reading public affairs officer. If we're a bit too busy mocking these "dickless, lily-livered desk jockey[s]" to develop much genuine empathy for them, there's still much to admire about the way Abrams pulls their strings. Fobbit is fast-paced, realistically profane, seamless, believable and queasily funny. And while readers may quibble about Abrams' choice of targets, there's no arguing his accuracy. As a fly-on-the-wall portrait of life in the military's back office, Fobbit rings true, and if you weren't already convinced of Operation Iraqi Freedom's fundamental hypocrisies, it's highly unlikely that you'll emerge from Fobbit with your delusions intact. Regardless, it would be a seriously blunted reader who failed to enjoy the ride.
Catch-22 is one of Abrams' acknowledged touchstones here, and it's a high bar to reach for. Heller's Yossarian was an antihero for sure, but he has a clear relationship to heroism that readers can align with, pro or con. There's no such moral compass in play here. Fobbits may be despised for their supposed workaday cowardice, but it's not like the novel provides genuine heroes to contrast them to. When Yossarian abandons his Good War, he's running from an untenable moral dilemma. Whenspoiler alertStaff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr., the aforementioned public affairs officer, takes his unauthorized leave at Fobbit's conclusion, he's running because he can no longer imagine any way to spin a bad war into good news for the folks back home. You feel for him, sort of, in the way that you might empathize with Dilbert, but in terms of moral consequence, it's just not the same. And a war without moral consequence, however entertaining, is just a video game. That the American experience of war has devolved to this condition may be Fobbit's ultimate statement, less satisfying than Heller's, perhaps, but no less important. If it doesn't quite qualify as grand, don't blame Abramshe's just the messenger. And maybe his just wasn't a very good war.