I’ve recently finished reading two books back-to-back that came out last year about the Iraq war. While there are some slight similarities, they are also significantly different. Both I think are essential reads, particularly if you have any interest in reading about how this seemingly endless conflict has been experienced by the unfortunate people who have had to do the dirty work there. They are excellent individually, but taken together they create a picture that I think every American should experience.
Fobbit by David Abrams
Dave is a local guy (well, “local” in Western geography meaning living within a couple hours drive) that I have come to know after a couple years of meet-ups at the Montana Festival of the Book. A 20-year veteran of the Army, and a Fobbit (i.e. a non-combat soldier who never leaves the Forward Operating Base) himself in Iraq, he drew on his own experiences to write this darkly humorous book. In fact, if memory serves, I believe he got the deal for it based on blog posts he was writing while he was in the middle of his tour there. The guy can write, and he does humor well, which I think is incredibly difficult.
Fobbit doesn’t tell a “story” per se; it really doesn’t have much of a plot. It has a cast of characters who live and work in Forward Operating Base Triumph, and the book just shows them going about their lives in the midst of a terrible war. The humor is at its best when it is subtle and wry, and there is plenty of it. It’s a kind of satire, I suppose, but it is also deadly serious. The bureaucracy that takes place, the barriers that keep anything meaningful from actually being accomplished, and all the tribulations and frustrations these people face that none of us would otherwise know about are fascinating. You will find yourself laughing, even as you shake your head and wonder at the massive idiocy that runs rampant through our military machine.
This book comes highly recommended from me. Dave also keeps an excellent literary blog called The Quivering Pen, which should definitely be in your RSS feed reader of choice.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
This one is also something of a satire. It is about the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad, a unit whose violent exploits in a dramatic firefight were caught on camera, catapulting them into the national limelight as heroes and celebrities. They are brought back to the USA for a triumphant whirlwind tour, which culminates in their being part of the halftime show at a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys football game. Along the way, everyone the encounter seems to be trying to make use of them for their own various agendas.
This is a fantastic book. It was up for the National Book Award (which was won by Louise Erdrich’s The Round House), and deservedly so. Reading this one left me pissed off on so many levels. I was ashamed at what our culture has become (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached,” our main character, Billy Lynn, reflects), how the rich control everything, and how much ignorance we cloak ourselves in as we trundle along in our daily lives. For all the troop support we trumpet, and how we throw around the words “hero” and such, we could certainly stop it all from happening if we really wanted to. And Fountain does a fantastic job of not pointing fingers, but instead holding up a mirror for us to look.
For example, this is an excerpt, where Norman Oglesby, the fictional owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is giving a speech in front of a pack of media before the game, ostensibly introducing the Bravos to them. He says:
To all those who argue this war is a mistake, I’d like to point out that we’ve removed from power one of history’s most ruthless and belligerent tyrants. A man who cold-bloodedly murdered thousands of his own people. Who built palaces for his personal pleasure while schools decayed and his country’s health care system collapsed. Who maintained one of the world’s most expensive armies while he allowed his nation’s infrastructure to crumble. Who channeled resources to his cronies and political allies, allowing them to siphon off much of the country’s wealth for their own personal gain. So I would ask all those who oppose the war, would the world be a better place today with Saddam Hussein in power? Because what is America for, if to to fight this kind of tyranny, to promote freedom and democracy and give the people of the world a chance to determine their own fate? This has always been America’s mission, and it’s what makes us the greatest nation on earth.
If you miss the irony here, I really can’t help you.
This book shows how the troops get jacked around. It shows how all of us get jacked around, in fact, and how we allow it to happen.
It came highly recommended to me, and I pass along that recommendation. Others may disagree, but I find this book — both of them — essential reading.