Where’s Yossarian When You Need Him?

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Title: Fobbit

Rating: 3 Stars

A friend of mine, who like me, enjoys reading, has asked an interesting question. Where is the quality Iraq War literature?

It is a good question. I’ve read a couple of novels about the Iraq War now. They’re not horrible, but they certainly aren’t making profound statements about the drama or absurdness of war.

One theory that she’s proposed has to do with the fact that the draft has been abolished. For better or for worse, a draft ensured that a certain amount of diversity was going to be present in the troops. The draft was bound to dragoon some set of Hellers, Mailers, Vonneguts, and O’Briens into the military, where they can use their powers of observation and literary talents into creating profound statements on war.

Of course, in counter to that argument, one of the great Civil War novels is The Red Badge of Courage. Most who read it at the time assumed that it was written by an army veteran. In fact, Stephen Crane wasn’t even born when the war ended. At the time that he wrote it, he’d never even seen battle.

So, who knows. Maybe the great Iraq War novel is being written as I write this and I’ll be amazed in a year or two or five. Or maybe there’s just something inherent to this specific war that precludes it from grand statements.

Fobbit, by Abrams, is certainly going for the Catch-22 absurdist angle. A Fobbit is a soldier stationed at an army Forward Operating Base that not only has no interest in seeing combat but actively seeks to avoid it. Their daily battle is fought with Powerpoint, not bullets. Abrams paints the life of the Fobbit as basically that of a menial employee working for an unimaginably huge bureaucracy, with the (very low) probability of literally dying on the job via mortar shot.

Staff Sergeant Gooding works in Public Affairs. His job is to crank out public announcements that he knows that no one will ever use. He writes a draft. It goes through multiple drafts and multiple approvals. When it finally is released, the news organizations have already done their own reporting and the story is long dead.

His superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Harklewood, is a career officer who has certainly reached his level of incompetence. He literally trembles in the presence of superior officers. In times of stress, he’s prone to nose bleeds. Both his commanding officers and his staff routinely treat him with barely concealed contempt.

Captain Shrinkle starts off not as a Fobbit. He’s a captain of an infantry company that regularly goes out on patrol. Unfortunately, times of stress leaves him completely indecisive. This indecision nearly leads to a successful suicide bomber. Resolving to be more decisive, he next shoots and kills an innocent mentally handicapped Iraqi. He then destroys an army fuel tank and accidentally fries yet another innocent Iraqi. His commanding officer has seen enough and pulls him off active duty and places him in charge of the tiny fitness center on the base, where his main job is handing out towels. Shrinkle is now officially a Fobbit. At first, he resists, but becomes resigned to his fate and becomes ultimately the biggest Fobbit of them all.

This is probably not the picture that the army wants the world to see. Leaders are more worried about looking to their superiors than they are to leading. Care packages sent from well meaning organizations back home are hoarded. Slipshod incompetence is everywhere. Soldiers are so far removed from action that really the one reason why they know that they’re at war is the extreme heat that they have to suffer through.

As weird as it might seem to say, considering the subject matter, the novel is fine as a lighthearted, comedic read. There are humorous situations and Abrams milks them pretty effectively. It would actually be a pretty enjoyable beach read.

However, it pretty clearly is trying to occupy the same space as Catch-22, but it simply has nowhere near the hopeless Kafkaesque depth of that novel.

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