“I’m Not the Enemy”
Four new novels address the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the soldier’s perspective.
The novel centers on Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr., who, like Abrams, is a PAO, someone whose job is to issue press releases about American casualties and deal with media inquiries. “With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle,” Gooding is “the poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier”—the “fobbit” of the book’s title, named for the Forward Operating Base, or FOB, where he spends his days. Occasionally Abrams writes scenes outside “the wire” (that is, outside the base), but the book is, at heart, about the bureaucratic inanities of being a desk-bound soldier, one who goes to bed each night in an air-conditioned shipping crate and wakes to the sound of mortar fire.
Photograph by © Lisa Wareham Photography, 2011.
The novel’s humor veers toward slapstick, with Gooding's useless superior officer suffering daily nosebleeds, bumping into walls, and spilling food on his uniform. Abrams recognizes the tradition he's working in, and as if to settle the point, one scene has Gooding reading Catch-22, which he says is “sort of like an owner's manual for this war.” That’s a tough comparison to subject one’s own novel to, and funny as he may be, Abrams doesn’t construct the vertiginous paradoxes of Heller's novel. He fails to seize on the absurd juxtapositions that erupt when a career soldier, engaged in a war of choice, is both cocooned from the devastating violence unleashed by his country's war machine and, indeed, tasked with spinning it for popular consumption. When one PAO suggests obscuring a potentially toxic news story with a Jessica Lynch- or Pat Tillman-like coverup, he's quickly shot down. Truth is too strange for this fiction.
Fobbit is more like an Office-style satire that happens to be set on a military base in an active war zone. Its villains aren't suicide bombers but hectoring senior officers who make impossible demands. As one general writes to Gooding and the other press officers: “There is 'sad news,' there is 'tragic news,' but there is NO 'bad news' coming out of Iraq.” (Fittingly, an incompetent captain who accidentally kills an innocent Iraqi is treated as a pathetic buffoon and quietly reassigned to manage the FOB's gym.) The novel is a kind of fantasy, with most Fobbits wanting to avoid responsibility at all costs. Lt. Col. Harkleroad, Gooding's nose-bleeding commander, writes elaborate, fictitious letters to his Bible-thumping mother in which he paints himself as a hero. For these men, the war is both near and remote, a film in which they are but extras. After Gooding learns about a suicide bombing outside the base, he realizes that he didn't hear it, “but he'd read about it online like it was a dispatch from a war he was watching through opera glasses.”
It’s clear from this scene, and from all these novels, that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he's introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. (That failing could be mitigated were publishers to translate more Iraqi and Afghan literature.) Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk—which, as a document of the mania of the Bush-Cheney years, is a near-masterpiece—is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don't have to think about what we've done over there.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Ecco.
Fobbit by David Abrams. Black Cat.
Hold It 'Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson. Coffee House Press.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review and a columnist for Jewcy. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, the New Republic, and many other publications. He lives in New York.