Soldiers who work in the forward operating base (FOB) are derisively called fobbits by soldiers on the front lines. Unlike front-line soldiers, who live in tents, hear news from an officer’s orders, sleep in the dust, and live in constant fear of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), fobbits exist in a simulated office-park-style base of cubicles, streaming cable news channels, and proper beds. However, in the Iraq war there really are no front lines. Terrorists, insurgents, enemy combatants (even what to call the enemy is a constant source of confusion) continually strike into the heart of the forward operating base.
It is in this confusion of front line, back line, what to call what, that Butte novelist David Abrams solidly focuses his book on the language of the war. "Fobbit" is a celebration of the erratic and ironic emails, press releases, effusive letters of misappropriated care packages, complaints and commendations — all of the scattered genres of talk that make up the war. In one set piece, a newly appointed commander tells his troops that these are the times that try men souls and then recommends his own nickname. “'You can call me Fledge.’ Lumley and the other nodded and said, ’Okay, sir,’ but Duret knew they would never call him that, not even if someone held the muzzle of an M4 to their heads and rotated the selector switch from safe to semi.”
The book follows four protagonists circling the different languages of the war. One is Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding, who works in the public relations office. The PR officer exists in the mortar shells and return fire of spin. Human lives are eventually pulped and reduced to a 150-word press release fed into the media mill.
The second thread is Lt. Col. Eustace Harkleroad, “a thick man. Thick in the way a bowl of risen dough is said to be thick,” the head of the publication relations office and unrelenting author of sorry-for-himself letters to his mother. He wants more than anything to be home. Yet he does not want his mother to tell him who gets voted off "Survivor."
The third thread is Lt. Col. Vic Duret, who just wants to be home in bed with his wife. Duret’s main function is damage control. He regards the public relations office as one line of defense against the swamp of unknown unknowns continually unfolding against his patrols and soldiers as they move through the continually hostile environment of Bagdad.
The source of much of the comically active lack of action in the novel is Capt. Abe Shrinkle. It is no accident that the tragic-comic figure at the center of a novel is a patriotic soldier who does exactly the wrong heroic act at the wrong time. He finds himself gradually marginalized from his command. Shunted to a workout facility on the base, he furtively sneaks into the forbidden Australian compound to drink beer and develop an annoyingly fake British accent.
For anyone who has served, Shrinkle’s irony-free patriotism rings dreadfully true. Shrinkle is the type of man who finds even the reading of "Catch-22" a seditious act during wartime. IEDs do not know nationality. Death finds everyone; even the war’s survivors pass away. Eventually the war itself becomes a story. Abrams remixes the adage “history is written by the victors” to “history is spun by the quickest press release.” Where "Catch-22" was the novel of the language of World War II, "Fobbit" is the novel of the language of the war on terror.
Matt Briggs is the author of six works of fiction, including the novel "The Strong Man," about Operation Desert Shield/Storm. His novel "Shoot the Buffalo" was awarded an American Book Award in 2006. You can find him online at www.finalstatepress.com/mattbriggs.