Iraq War novelist has local roots

David Abrams’ satirical novel about the Iraq War is drawing comparisons to two other satirical military classics — “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22.”  

His book is called “Fobbit,” a fictional account based on his experience as a public affairs officer during the Iraq War. He was stationed for a year at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, within sight of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.

Livingston connection
But decades before he became a famous writer, Abrams was a recent college graduate, freshly minted from the University of Oregon with a degree in English and an interest in journalism.

His first job at a daily newspaper was at The Livingston Enterprise. Abrams worked for the paper for about a year as a news editor in 1988. He enjoyed living in Livingston and says The Enterprise taught him journalism skills he would use the rest of his career.

“I really credit The Enterprise for boosting my morale and self-confidence and skills,” Abrams said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Abrams and his wife lived in Livingston only for about a year. Soon, with a baby on the way and student loan debts to pay, Abrams realized he would need to earn more money.

So he joined the Army. He reported for duty and took the enlistment oath in Butte.

“Livingston was one of my last contacts with the outside world,” Abrams joked.
In  2005, 17 years into his Army career, Abrams was deployed to Camp Liberty, on the western edge of Baghdad, to work as a public affairs officer. Camp Liberty’s location, between Abu Ghraib and the airport, was perhaps symbolic, he said.
“We were halfway between being trapped to flying away,” which could be taken as a metaphor for the American presence in Iraq, Abrams said.

Abrams worked in what Army lingo calls an FOB, or Forward Operating Base. Soldiers stationed there ventured out of the compound — “outside the wire” — on a nearly daily basis.

But there were noncombat positions as well, such as Abrams’ job in media relations. In that capacity, he spent six and a half days a week in front of computer screen and on the phone with news organizations.         A “fobbit” is an enlisted person such as Abrams, who stayed inside the wire, enjoying daily hot showers, a well-stocked PX and even on-site Starbucks and Burger King restaurants.

The combat troops considered fobbits soft. Fobbit is a derogatory term, rhyming with “hobbit,” the fictional characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” fantasy series known for their love of comfort and good meals.
He went out only once ­— “to my chagrin and regret,” Abrams said — to coordinate a media event three days after his arrival.

The book
Partly to keep his sanity and partly because he was already thinking of writing a book about his experiences, Abrams kept a daily journal in Iraq.

He sent excerpts to a blog called Emerging Writers Network. It’s mostly read by other authors, but Abrams’ now-agent, Nat Sobel, saw it and liked Abrams’ work and got in touch with him.

“I was in-country when I got an agent —  it’s a thrill when a literary agent comes knocking on your door. It was a definite highlight of a combat tour,” Abrams laughed.

Sobel told him there was an Iraq war memoir “glut,” so he suggested Abrams write a novel.

In 2006, Abrams came home and worked his last two years in the Army at the Pentagon.

He retired in 2008 and landed a public affairs position with the Bureau of Land Management in Butte, the town where he had mustered into the Army.

“It was totally full circle,” he laughed.

He said Butte looks a little rough around the edges.

“But since I moved here, I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he said.

Response to the book
“Fobbit” satirizes Army characters in his book — there’s an incompetent but “gung-ho” officer, Captain Abe Shrinkle, and Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., the public affairs officer who “must juggle the demands of phone calls from CNN, compile reports of daily body counts, and placate a boss prone to nosebleeds,” Abrams writes on his agent’s website.

The book is fiction but “true in spirit,” Abrams said.

Asked if he was receiving criticism for writing what could be perceived as an “anti-war” novel.
“I’m not hearing that,” Abrams said. “But people will bring to (their reading of “Fobbit”) their own beliefs and biases and perceptions.”
He paused for a moment.

“But that’s what I went over there to fight for, that’s what I took the oath for” — the right to publish things other people may disagree with, he said.

“I think what I’m criticizing is the whole military bureaucracy  ­— the fatty layers — that are required to fight a war. There are frustrations. Even in the Revolutionary War, there were frustrations,” he said.
But there are also “triumphs and successes,” he said.
“I toed the party line and carried out my duties happily, which I took an oath to do,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a mind of my own.”

But he’s also heard that the “boots on the ground” are reading “Fobbit” and enjoying it.

“I’ve heard they read it in the combat zone and laugh out loud,” he said.

Abrams will be in Livingston Wednesday, Sept. 26, reading from “Fobbit” at Elk River Books at 7 p.m. The presentation is free and open to the public.