Before he arrived in Iraq, David Abrams expected to be shaking sand out of his underwear and taking showers maybe once a week.
Then his plane delivered him in Baghdad, and he saw his new office, a forward operating base. A FOB is a secured position where soldiers support the military’s tactical operations, doing the paperwork, fixing the vehicles, cooking the food and sorting the mail of war.
“We pull up in front of this huge, corrugated-steel building and walk in,” said Abrams, of Butte. “It’s air conditioned, and it’s full of cubicles. People are trading jokes on the computers. It’s basically a regular office setting that you’d find anywhere in the States.”
War would not be what he expected, and the seed of Abrams’ comic war novel, “Fobbit,” was planted. It was nourished by Abrams’ sense of disconnect, and irony, as he settled into the “IBM hive” of cubicles located in a battlefield.
Abrams will read from his book, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, on Saturday in Spokane as part of the Get Lit! literary festival. He’ll also teach a fiction-writing workshop.
Abrams, 17 years in as an active-duty Army journalist before his deployment to Iraq, would serve a year in the FOB. He’d entered the Army already a poet and short story writer, he said, viewing the world in images and sentences and paragraphs.
He applied that same lens to the FOB, where he worked on a public affairs team. Every day after work, he returned to his trailer, opened his computer and wrote what he’d witnessed and felt that day.
Toward the end of his tour of duty, scenes and snatches of conversation had started falling into place and forming a story.
“Fobbit” takes readers into Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph, where grunts engage in intimacies in Porta-Pottys and watch NASCAR and eat Ding Dongs and where military strategy is not foremost on many minds. The book begins: “They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.”
Any criticisms of Fobbits are self-directed, too, Abrams said. His job at the FOB was to write press releases and answer questions for reporters seeking more information about soldiers’ deaths or weapon caches or insurgent roundups. Abrams also wrote about the military’s nation-building efforts in Iraq, such as work to fix or build schools or sewer lines.
Fobbits are needed to keep the war machine oiled, he said: “They’re really the unsung heroes. I don’t know if I’d call them heroes. But they’re the unsung portion of the military that doesn’t really get a lot of attention.”
There’s a class hierarchy in a FOB, he said, with those who venture “outside the wire” – facing greater risk of injury or death – occupying the upper echelon.
Abrams stayed mostly inside the wire.
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” he said, “because I feel a lot of guilt about that and a lot of regret. I wish I had gone out more than I did. I could have made opportunities for myself. But at the same time, I was really, really busy.”
Abrams worked 14-hour shifts. He and other support soldiers carried out decisions made by the long chain of command outranking them, he said. There was always more work to do than could be done.
“The circumstances are extremely difficult in a headquarters building,” Abrams said. “They’re just a different kind. They’re the mental and the psychological pressures and stresses that people out patrolling the streets never really get, to that degree.”
“Fobbit” is a satire “as funny, disturbing, heartbreaking and ridiculous as war itself,” New York Times reviewer Christian Bauman wrote.
By the time it came out in 2012, Abrams said, Americans had been reading nearly a decade of depressing headlines about Iraq. He asked himself whether it was OK to write a funny book about it.
(In deciding it was, he considered America’s legacy of humor during wartime: “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller’s satirical novel about World War II, and, on TV, “M.A.S.H.” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”)
He also considered reactions from people in the military.
Ultimately, he strove to stay true to the story appearing on the page, concerning himself with his characters’ feelings and motivations.
After publication, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan emailed to say Abrams – who retired from the Army in 2008 after a 20-year career – had gotten the story so right he was reading it aloud to his fellow soldiers.
A woman approached him after a reading in Billings and told him the book helped her understand her son’s experience in the military, which had provided few details about his death.
“She was floundering, trying to understand what it was like for him over there,” Abrams said. “Not to sound too self-important, but that’s kind of what I was going for when I wrote the book, to show people there’s another side of the military that they may not be familiar with.”