Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fobbit/The Yellow Birds (Book Review)

I’ve been wondering for some years when we would see a great novel capturing something of the experience of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Journalistic, and some fictional accounts abound, but those that I have read lack something.  Often it seems that there is still more good writing being done about Vietnam than about either of the conflicts in which the U.S. initiated over ten years ago (for example, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, published in 2010).  Perhaps in part this is because the place in or lesson to our culture from these two wars is still so unsettled.  There remain many people with a strong interest in claiming that we won a great moral or civic victory in Iraq, or that we are fighting for something other than a military-industrial complex and our President’s poll numbers in Afghanistan.  Perhaps it is because these wars are raw for those who fought them, and forgettable to the public that signed off on them.

This week, by chance, I read two novels which, a generation from now, I believe will serve as cultural artefacts of Iraq in the way that The Quiet American, Going After Cacciato, A Rumor of War, and The Things they Carried recalled the Vietnam War.  David Abrams Fobbit and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds take very different approaches to the war in Iraq, but capture something potent, in their own way, of the conflicts.

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Fobbit sends up the inanity of the war, the army, and its protocols through the day-to-day lives of a group of soldiers holed up in a Forward Operating Base and their counterparts patrolling the streets of Baghdad.  The book does not have a conventional plot (perhaps mirroring the conduct of the war itself), and unfolds as a series of snapshots from the perspectives of several characters, most of whom are pitiable rather than likeable. 

There is Lt. Col. Vic Duret who is plagued by indecision (he makes his appearance trying to work out how to deal with a suicide bomber who refuses to die) and knows it.  His every attempt to take command draws him deeper into trouble with his superiors and his men, who hold him in contempt.

There is Staff Sergeant Gooding, who mans a Fobbit office, writing press releases which become increasingly colourful as he seeks to satisfy his own literary ambitions, the grammatical demands of his superior, and the propaganda needs of the Pentagon.  A suicide bombing which kills several quaintly-named “Local Nationals” is transformed into the following after hours of meticulous re-drafting: “Dozens of brave Iraqi security forces put months of coalition-backed training to the test today as they responded with lightning-like speed and efficiency to an unwarranted terrorist attack in an al-Karkh neighbourhood around 11 a.m.  Iraqi police and Baghdad emergency response teams were first on the scene after an explosion went off near an Iraqi Army patrol combing houses in the area looking for caches of weapons and insurgent propaganda material in an ongoing effort to defeat the enemies of democracy in the region.  The daring Iraqi security forces immediately cordoned off the area to ensure no Iraqi citizens were killed or injured by potential subsequent blasts.  One U.S. soldier was killed in the attack” (74).

He and his superiors fight their own petty war against directives from above, and Abrams constructs side-splitting e-mail chains in which various representatives of the powers-that-be debate whether to call their opponents “insurgents”, “terrorists”, or “criminals” (162).  Gooding and his team obsess, like the administration they served, over spinning the war, and are over the moon when they find a seemingly-perfect, self-sacrificing, courageous soldier to hand to CNN to an interview.  Their plans unravel when, before they can arrange the interview, the solider in question has his legs blown off by an IED and is sent to Germany.  The Fobbits agonise not over the fate of their hero, but over a missed PR opportunity.  For their nemesis is not the “terrorist” or “insurgent” or “criminal”, but “the New York F****** Times” (360).

They suffer another reverse when the two-thousandth war death (supposed to be cause for celebration) turns out to be the inept Captain Shrinkle, banished to fold towels in the Fobbits’ gym after innumerable battlefield mishaps, who is blown to smithereens while sunbathing at the infamous “Australian Pool”, where he has, in the entrepreneurial spirit of the glory-starved Fobbits, created a new identity as a British archaeologist cleaning up after the Yanks’ mess (332).

The book is full of such farce, and its force comes from its ability to lure readers into having a good laugh at the absurdity of it all before pulling them up short with a scene of jarring violence, or a reminder of the disconnect between a public having its laughs after the fact and the people who were expected to enforce our collective folly on the ground.

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The Yellow Birds is a very different book.  Where Fobbit begins with farce (with soldiers in casualty section trying to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth that allows them to declare a dead soldier dead), Powers’ novel begins with foreboding.  “The war tried to kill us in the spring ... While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation.  It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.  Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plain”.

The novel revolves around the disintegration of a Private Bartle because of an event involving a fellow soldier (Murphy), the contours of which become clear as the novel flicks back and forth between the training camp, Al Tafar in Iraq, and the home-front after Bartle’s war ostensibly draws to a close.  Powers’ characters embody experiences, and are less sympathetic or entertaining as individuals than the Fobbits.  However, this novel captures the agony rather than the absurdity of war. 

The soldiers at Al Tafar desperately devise routines, right down to the banal phrases they toss at one another before going out on patrol.  If they survive long enough, these routines become talismans for safety, which amount to immortality in the parallel world in which they live at Al Tafar.  Their awful, gnawing war, involving endless forays from a camp into fields and alleys becomes sacred for them, although it’s not clear whether it is sacred because it is awful, or awful because it is sacred.  Bartle becomes fixated by the realisation that the death he dreads day and night is impersonal.  “I believe unswervingly”, he reflects, “that when Murph was killed, the dirty knives that stabbed him were addressed ‘To whom it may concern’.  Nothing made us special” (14).

The other central character in Yellow Birds is Sergeant Sterling, who unlike Murphy and Bartle has served in Iraq before.  He warns Murph and Bartle starkly, “People are going to die.  It’s statistics” (39).  He says as much, one suspects, so that we understand, when he blankets a car driven by an old woman—perhaps she is out shopping—with fire. 

Sterling enjoins his men to “find that nasty streak” (42).  “It was their idea ... Don’t forget that.  It’s their idea every time.  They ought to kill themselves instead of us” (42).  The practise of war mirrors the theory, and the politics that send men in their thousands rolling into action and digging feverishly for that “nasty streak”, because finding that fool’s gold is all, Powers seems to be suggesting, that enables them to survive.  The other illusionary comfort is fate, and Powers’ characters develop a secular way of trying to inject fate and destiny into their world.  Murph, Bartle fancies, knew what was coming to him.

Powers’ other unique creation in the novel is the almost stage-like setting: the orchards, the fringes of the town.  It is minimal, and there is a stolid permanence to the ground.  These men’s war is fought o well-trodden ground.  They’ve fought over it often enough that they know all the bends in the road, the walls, “there an upended dumpster we could use for cover”, the orchards, and the clearing before the city.  It’s not unlike the movie set that the war propagandists create on their visit to the camp (“Go ahead.  Pretend we’re not here” (86)), “with the camera crew and the colonel’s half-assed Patton imitation” (88).  Nor is it so dissimilar to the sanguinary trenches which in our historical consciousness supposedly embody a way of war located firmly in the past—when soldiers fight aimlessly over the same ground, gaining a few yards today, losing them tomorrow.

For all the mobility of our push into Iraq, for all the power of the campaign waged to “shock and awe”, that war wasn’t so different from any other.

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In some respects, the two novels embody the two critiques of the war.  Fobbit will hearten liberals who think that it was a war waged in the wrong way, and that if only we had dropped bombs and launched an imperial occupation with better intentions, it would all have turned out all right.  Yellow Birds might make the more disturbing claim that war is by its nature obscene and hellish, and that the consequences are not contingent on good intentions.

Both authors spent time in Iraq, Abrams in 2005, and Powers in 2004 and 2005.  Their books, which came out nine years (has it been so long?) after the U.S. first launched the war of aggression it is now so keen to forget, act as a reminder and a reproach to the nation, best encapsulated in Powers’ novel, when Bartle arrives back in the U.S. and stops at an airport bar. 

‘“Coming from or going to?” the bartender asked.  “Coming from”.  “Which one?”  “Iraq”.  “You going  back after?”  “Don’t think so.  Never know”’ (105).

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David Abrahams.  Fobbit.  A novel.  New York: Black Cat, 2012.

Kevin Powers.  The Yellow Birds.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.

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