Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Fobbit

by David Abrams

Fobbit is hilarious, but the subject matter is deadly serious. It is the rare writer–indeed, the rare person–who can step outside of himself and see with cold clarity the humor and pathos of his situation and then bring the reader to the same understanding. David Abrams is such a writer.” —Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date September 04, 2012
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2032-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date September 04, 2012
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9408-4
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

Fobbit ‘fä-b t, noun. Definition: A U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003–2011). Pejorative.

Fobbit is a darkly ironic novel of the Iraq war that marks the debut of a new voice in literary fiction. Based on the author’s own experiences serving in Iraq and the diary he kept there, Fobbit takes us into the cha­otic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating Base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield–where the grunts eat and sleep between missions, and where a lot of Army employees have what looks suspiciously like an office job. The FOB contains all the comforts of home, including Starbucks and Burger King, but there’s also the unfortunate possibility that a mortar might hit you while you’re drinking your Frappucino.

A lot of what goes on at the FOB doesn’t exactly fit the image of war that the army and the government feed us: male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta-Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and most of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy. The book follows dyed-in-the-wool Fobbit Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, who works for the army public affairs office and spends his days tap­ping out press releases to try to turn the latest roadside bombing or army blunder into something that the American public can read about while eating their breakfast cereal.

Like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit fuses pathos with dark humor to cre­ate a brilliantly witty and profound work about the ugly and banal truth of life in the modern-day war zone.

Praise

Fobbit is fast, razor sharp, and seven kinds of hilarious. It deserves a place alongside Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 as one of our great comic novels about the absurdity of war.” —Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here

“A harrowing satire of the Iraq War and an instant classic. . . . [Abrams] brings great authority and verisimilitude to his depictions of these attempts to shape the perceptions of the conflict. Abrams’s prose is spot-on and often deadpan funny . . . This novel nails the comedy and the pathos, the boredom and the dread, crafting the Iraq War’s answer to Catch-22.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“I applaud David Abrams for sticking to his vision and writing the satire he wanted to write instead of adding to the crowded shelf of war memoirs. In Fobbit, he has written a very funny book, as funny, disturbing, heartbreaking and ridiculous as war itself.” —Christian Bauman, New York Times Book Review

“Akin to Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit uses pathos and dark humor to present the ugly and banal truth of life in the modern-day war zone. . . . David Abrams [has] set fire to the truth in order to tell it.” —Doug Bradley, Huffington Post

“Abrams has a definite comic talent and a lively turn of phrase. The set-pieces are well done . . . and the dialogue zings back and forth cheerily enough. Abrams is a good writer, in other words. . . . Much of the most interesting material in Fobbit is the stuff that reads like reportage or memoir.” —The Guardian

Fobbit blends fiction and journalism, an apt reflection of literary influences combined with [Abrams’s] experience in an Army public affairs team. . . . Though absurd, these Dickensian characters are all so skillfully wrought that we quickly accept their idiosyncrasies. . . . What’s most intriguing about this work is that, at its center, it is both a clever study in anxiety and an unsettling expose of how the military tells its truths. Fobbit traces how “the Army story” is crafted, the dead washed of their blood, words scrutinized, and success applied to disasters.” —Benjamin Busch, The Washington Post

“A unique behind-the-wire glimpse at life in the FOB and the process of ‘spinning’ a war for public consumption. A funny, hard-edged satire about recent history and modern war-making.” —Library Journal

“A retired veteran whose 20-year career in the Army included a 2005 tour in Baghdad, Abrams is comfortable and convincing locating the action in Iraq. . . . Fobbit is a vicious skewering of this surprisingly large military subculture of war avoidance.” —Jim Frederick, TIME

“An impressive Iraq war satire. . . .[Abrams has] a genuine sense of humor . . . and a productive sense of irony to go with it. Fobbit is an impressive debut and holds out promise for more good things to come.” —Nicholas Basbanes, Los Angeles Times

Fobbit seems less interested in what Iraq was like than in where it went wrong. . . . Abrams wants to reveal the comedy and absurdity of these cubicled soldiers—and, through them, of the entire conflict. . . . when it comes to war literature, a comic novel will always do a better job with the big picture. This is the first thing to take from Fobbit.” —Craig Fehrman, San Francisco Chronicle

“A satire of comfortably numb life during wartime . . . . [Abrams] merely has to lightly fictionalize his observations to point out the absurdities of American occupation.” —The Daily Beast

“A satire of comfortably numb life during wartime. . . . Abrams spent 20 years in the Army, including a tour of Iraq, and he merely has to lightly fictionalize his observations to point out the absurdities of American occupation.” —Newsweek

“The insanity is linguistic, and Abrams’s dark humor about lying through language would appeal to George Orwell. . . . He is not mocking soldiers. His targets are stateside, residing in naive government or civilian expectations about ground conditions in Baghdad (and elsewhere) two years after Saddam’s overthrow. . . . Fobbit invites us to laugh over our collective foolishness–foolishness that sometimes includes deaths. That’s the toughest, most painful laughter of all.” —O. Alan Weltzien, Great Falls Tribune

“The author describes Fobbit as an ‘anti-stupidity’ novel, not an anti-war novel, and with 20 years’ service he has the evidence and flair to write the former. . . . Fobbit is bliss.” —J. Ford Huffman, Military Times

“Like an Office-style satire that happens to be set on a military base in an active war zone. Its villains aren’t suicide bombers but hectoring senior officers who make impossible demands.” —Slate.com

“[Fobbit] gives such full-blooded life to the soldiers whose ‘pale, gooey center’ is so antithetical to battlefield heroism that he propels the word into the everyday by the force of his narrative. . . . As mission builds upon mission, lie upon lie, Fobbit builds to its exclamation by terror and by tedium and by laughter. . . . Fobbit makes a sordid music of screams—and makes its mark on Iraq war literature.” —Joel Turnipseed, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Fobbit stakes its own strong claim to membership in the great American war novel tradition, satirical division . . . While Abrams plays up the comic inanity of the Fobbits’ maneuvers, the violent horrors of the Iraq war are never out of mind, and his set pieces involving soldiers who investigate possible terrorism in progress are chilling. Everything in this book seems completely plausible, to Abrams’ credit, and, perhaps, out national chagrin.” —Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“David Abrams’s Fobbit is an unforgettable and vivid satire of the Iraq war. By turns humorous and heartbreaking, but always smart, this is one of the year’s finest literary debuts.” —Largehearted Boy

Fobbit deserves a wide non-military audience. . . . Abrams, an Iraq war veteran himself, is able to portray not just the pointlessness and stupidity of the occupation but also its absurdity. . . . Fobbit is two things in one—a scathing, deeply felt diatribe against military disasters large and small, and an often-hilarious examination of very human, very weak characters living next door to a combat zone. The good news is that you only have to buy one copy, and you should waste no time in doing so.” —Curtis Edmonds, Bookreporter.com

Fobbit deserves a wide non-military audience. . . . Abrams, an Iraq war veteran himself, is able to portray not just the pointlessness and stupidity of the occupation but also its absurdity. . . . Fobbit is two things in one—a scathing, deeply felt diatribe against military disasters large and small, and an often-hilarious examination of very human, very weak characters living next door to a combat zone.” —20 Something Reads

“Alternatingly hilarious and heart-attack serious. . . . I loved this book. . . . Highly recommended.” —New Dork Review of Books

“Abrams shows these men and women in their natural habitats, stuck somewhere halfway between the actual violence of war and the goofy excess of American culture.” —Scott Beauchamp, Book Riot

Fobbit is a tale of the Iraq war that manages to be as dark as it is funny, which is to say considerably. . . . [Abrams has] written a book that makes you laugh and makes you wince, often at the same time, all the while staying true to its message: that people are foolish on many levels, sometimes fatally so, but they are all motivated by the same basic needs, desires, and fears. Many of his characters are absurd . . . but they’re not caricatures, and Abrams never yields to cruelty. . . . There are no heroes here, but no villains either. Each character fights his own war, and nobody wins.” —Lisa Peet, The Millions

“With masterful wit and satire, Abrams describes this life of alphabet-soup acronyms, handwringing junior officers and the frustrating bureaucracy of orchestrating a war from a desk. The way novelist Richard Hooker introduced M.A.S.H. to the American culture four decades ago, Abrams is likely to make the fobbit part of the American consciousness. . . . If Vonnegut and Heller were the undisputed chroniclers of the madness of World War II, Abrams should be considered the resounding new voice of the Iraq War.” —John Grant Emeigh, Montana Standard

“Sardonic and poignant. Funny and bitter. Ribald and profane.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Abrams’s tale is powerful stuff.” —Valerie Ryan, Shelf Awareness

“You might not expect an Iraq War novel to be funny, but I laughed–more than once–as I read this one. I cringed, too. There’s simply so much to this book.” —Erika Dreifus, Fiction Writers Review

Fobbit tackles many of the Iraq War’s absurd contradictions. . . . Abrams perfectly captures a wartime soldier’s enthusiastic cynicism and gleeful bitterness.” —Nathan S. Webster, War on Terror News

“First-novelist Abrams punches up the grittiness of war with the dark, cynical humor that comes from living it . . . crafting images that will haunt readers long after they pry their grip from the book. Think M.A.S.H. in Iraq.” —Booklist

Fobbit, an Iraq-war comedy, is that rarest of good things: the book you least expect, and most want. It is everything that terrible conflict was not: beautifully planned and perfectly executed; funny and smart and lyrical; a triumph. David Abrams has taken up Joe Heller’s mantle–or not mantle; more like his Groucho nose and his whoopee cushion–and so his debut marks the arrival of a massive talent.” —Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and Half a Life

“With a gimlet eye and humor as dry as a desert sandstorm, Abrams captures the absurdist angle of the Iraq war. A direct counterpoint to hero-worshipping ‘shoot ’em up’ combat narratives, Fobbit proves that wit is as lethal a weapon as any Army-issue M16 or .50 cal.” —Lily Burana, author of I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles

“Wavy Gravy once said, ‘Without a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny.’ Fobbit is hilarious, but the subject matter is deadly serious. The protagonist is a ‘fobbit,’ the term used by the grunts for the non-combatants ensconced inside well-protected forward operating bases, oases of junk food, air-conditioning, and all the comforts of home. But throughout the book, the fobbits are shadowed by the presence of the infantry who live in horrible conditions and are the smelly, dirty, haggard reminders that there is a real war going on just outside the gates. This is a remarkable book because it was written by a man who served as a member of an army public relations team in Iraq, i.e. a fobbit himself. It is the rare writer–indeed, the rare person–who can step outside of himself and see with cold clarity the humor and pathos of his situation and then bring the reader to the same understanding. David Abrams is such a writer.” —Karl Marlantes

Fobbit is fast, razor sharp, and seven kinds of hilarious. Thank you, Mr. Abrams, for the much needed salve–it feels good to finally laugh about Iraq. It deserves a place alongside Slaughterhouse Five and Catch-22 as one of our great comic novels about the absurdity of war.” —Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here

“Stories in and around war rely on irony to convey this unnatural human behavior; but in this appalling comedy the indifference of participants not actually being shot at or blown up–their headlong pursuit of folly–raises the immorality of war to white heat. This delightful, readable, believable and useful book made me furious!” —Tom McGuane

Fobbit is a searing view of life on a Forward Operating Base in Iraq and the constant contradictions faced by U.S. soldiers who are told to kick down a door one minute and win ‘hearts and minds’ the next. Funny and evocative, with great glimpses of soldier-speak and deployment day to day life, each laugh in the novel is accompanied with a troubling insight into the different types of battles that our soldiers encounter on a non-traditional battlefield.” —Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone

Fobbit should be required reading for America. Hilarious and tragic, it’s as if Louis C.K. and Lewis Black provided commentary to The Hurt Locker. I read the novel mesmerized, and found myself thinking ‘Please tell me none of this is autobiographical’ on just about every page. There will be innumerable comparisons to Catch-22, but Fobbit, believe me, stands on its own.” —George Singleton, author of Stray Decorum

“A darkly funny chronicle of the Iraq War, Fobbit explores the modern military machine with searing resolve. Contemporary warfare is often as absurd as it is ugly, a truth that gives Fobbit and its unforgettable cast of characters both depth and nuance. Ironic and brash, and loud and proud, Fobbit promises to be a celebrated harbinger of things to come, both for Abrams and for war literature set in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a book that speaks to the power of fiction–a war story too profane and profound for the newspapers and the nightly news. Want to think, laugh and cry, all at the same time? Read this novel.” —Matt Gallagher, author of Kaboom

“The first major work of fiction about America’s war for Iraq.” —Aaron Gwyn, author of Dog on the Cross and The World Beneath

Awards

One of Barnes & Noble’s Best Books of 2012
One of Amazon’s Top 100 Books of the Year
One of Publishers Weekly‘s Top 10 Literary Fiction picks for the Fall
Daily Beast‘s 2012 Best Books on Today’s Wars by Veterans
Library Journal: Fabulous Fall Firsts of 2012
A B&N Discover Great New Writers Selection
A September 2012 Indie Next Pick
A New York Times Notable Book of 2012
St Louis Post-Dispatch 50 Favorite Books of 2012
Paste Magazine Best Books of 2012
One of Kirkus Reviews‘s “10 Great Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud”
2012 Montana Book Award Honor Book
Finalist for Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
Millions Notables of 2012
January Magazine “Best Books of 2012”

Excerpt

GOODING

They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph. If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.

Like the shy, hairy-footed hobbits of Tolkien’s world, they were reluctant to go beyond their shire, bristling with rolls of concertina wire at the borders of the FOB. After all, there were goblins in turbans out there! Or so they convinced themselves.

Supply clerks, motor pool mechanics, cooks, mail sorters, lawyers, trombone players, logisticians: Fobbits, one and all. They didn’t give a shit about appearances.

They were all about making it out of Iraq in one piece.

Of all the Fobbits in the U.S. military task force headquarters at the western edge of Baghdad, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. was the Fobbitiest. With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier. The smell of something sweet radiated off his skin–as if he bathed in gingerbread.
Gooding worked in the public affairs office of the Seventh Armored Division, headquartered in one of Saddam Hussein’s marbled palaces. His PAO days were filled with sifting through reports of Significant Activities and then writing press releases about what he had found. His job was to turn the bomb attacks, the sniper kills, the sucking chest wounds, and the dismemberments into something palatable–ideally, something patriotic–that the American public could stomach as they browsed the morning newspaper with their toast and eggs. No one wanted to read: “A soldier was vaporized when his patrol hit an Improvised Explosive Device, his flesh thrown into a nearby tree where it draped like Spanish moss.” But the generals and colonels of the Seventh Armored Division all agreed that the folks back home would appreciate hearing: “A soldier paid the ultimate sacrifice while carrying out his duties in Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Gooding’s weapons were words, his sentences were missiles.

As a Fobbit, Chance Gooding Jr. saw the war through a telescope, the bloody snarl of combat remained at a safe, sanitized distance from his air-conditioned cubicle. And yet, here he was on a FOB at the edge of Baghdad, geographically central to gunfire. To paraphrase the New Testament, he was in the war but he was not of the war.

On the day a soldier was roasted in the fire of an IED in al-Karkh and then, in a separate attack, a suicide bomber rammed into the back of an Abrams tank, Gooding’s deployment clock was at 183 days with another 182 days to go (plus or minus 60 days, depending on extension orders, which could come from the Pentagon at any minute, triggering an increase in suicide attempts, raids on the stash of contraband vodka concealed behind the false wall of a certain NCO’s wall locker, and furious bouts of masturbation). Halfway there. The tipping point. The downhill slide.

Staff Sergeant Gooding was a career soldier with ten-plus years in Uncle Sam’s Army, but this was the first time he’d set foot on the soil of a combat zone. Like the majority of Fobbits, this filled him with equal parts dread and annoyance–fear of being killed at any moment, yes; but also irritation at the fact that he was now on what felt like a yearlong camping trip with all the comforts of home (flush toilets, cable TV, sand-free bedsheets) stripped away. Going to war could be a real pain in the ass.

The infantry grunts–the ones in the wrinkled desert camouflage uniforms, the ones with worry and fear knotting the tight landscape of their foreheads–had nothing but scorn for soldiers like Gooding. To be a “Fobbit” or “Fobber” or “Fob Dog” was the same as calling someone a dickless, lily-livered desk jockey back in the States. In another war, REMF was the preferred term . . . but now, in this modern asymmetric theater of operations, there was no “rear” echelon elite sitting in their motherfucking safe-from-harm shelter.

But, hey, that was okay by them. The Fobbits told themselves, broken-record style, they Just. Did Not. Give. A Shit.

They were all Fobbits, everyone who worked in this ­palace–with the exception of a few foolhardy officers gunning for promotion who grabbed every opportunity to ride on patrols to water treatment plants, school renovations, and neighborhood council meetings in the Baghdad suburbs. Those officers didn’t really count–they maintained a desk at Task Force Baghdad Headquarters, but you could hardly call them Fobbits. They were ghosts, gone outside the wire more often than not (and making damn sure everyone saw them depart, slurping loud from travel mugs of coffee, uniforms clinking and whickering, a patchwork of 550 cord and carabiners and duct tape).

Everyone else? Solid-to-the-core Fobbits who kept a wary distance from the door-kickers when they came into the chow hall smelling of sweat, road dust, and, occasionally, blood.

Let the door-kickers ride around Baghdad in their armor-skinned Humvees getting pelted with rocks from pissed-off hajjis. Let them dodge the roadside bombs that ripped limbs from sockets and spread guts like fiery paste across the pavement. As for Fobbits? No thanks! They were just fine with their three hots and a cot. The Fobbit life is the life for me, they’d singsong to each other with sly winks.

“Don’t wanna be no bullet sponge,” said Private First Class Simon Semple.

“Oh, hell, no,” agreed Private First Class Allison Andersen. She stuck her forefinger in her mouth and sucked with cheek-collapsing vigor because she was, at the time, eating a Ding Dong cupcake and the broiling Baghdad heat had melted the frosting onto her hand, the corners of her lips, and the tip of her chin. She was back in the cool oasis of the palace now but her skin still throbbed from the 110-degree temperatures outside, which she’d had to endure on the half-mile walk between the dining facility and headquarters. The heat was a bitch and she wondered again why they couldn’t just build a tunnel between the two places. For that matter, they should just dig tunnels everywhere, make this whole FOB a network of connected passageways so they could go around like moles and not come up until after the sun went down.

Pfc Semple watched Pfc Andersen suck the Ding Dong off her finger and felt the stirrings of a hard-on. Damn that girl!

Semple and Andersen had twice engaged in against-­regulation, punishable by Uniform Code of Military Justice sex: once in a Porta-Potty in a remote corner of the FOB, sloshing the toilet to and fro and mashing their lips together to stifle their orgasms; the second time on guard duty shortly after midnight when the moon was waning and no one could see them thumping around the guard shack at the opening in the coils of concertina wire around the motor pool. That time hadn’t really counted, though–it was coitus interruptus because insurgents picked that particular night to send four mortars raining down on the FOB and the two horny privates quickly disengaged, clapped their Kevlars back on their heads, grabbed their M16s, and sought shelter in a concrete bunker thinking, oh, sweet Jesus this was the fucking end, not just the end of fucking. But then the mortars stopped, the all-clear siren blew, and the privates stood up, brushed themselves off, and, too embarrassed to look each other in the eye, finished their guard duty in silence.

Semple and Andersen worked in the division’s G-1 Casualty Section and were in charge of cataloguing the dead. They sat at their desks in headquarters and waited for e-mails to pop into their in-boxes, announcing the serious injury or death of another soldier who’d been scythed by the Grim Reaper while out on patrol. The reports came to them in capital letters, shouting in military jargon:

SOLDIER ON MOUNTED PATROL TRAVELING IN VICINITY OF AL-KARKH WATER TREATMENT PLANT FLAGGED DOWN BY IRAQI CITIZEN CLAIMING AN IED 200 METERS AHEAD. SSG HARDING AND TWO OTHER MEMBERS OF THE PATROL DISMOUNTED M1114 TO SEARCH FOR IED EVIDENCE. TWO ADDITIONAL SOLDIERS SEARCHED ADJACENT FIELDS FOR WIRES, BAGS OF GARBAGE, ANIMAL CORPSES, ETC. INDICATING LOCATION OF IED. SSG HARDING ALSO WALKED FORWARD, BUT REMAINED ON THE ROAD. IED WAS ONLY 30 METERS AHEAD OF SOLDIERS. AS TEAM MOVED FORWARD, IED EXPLODED, CAUSING IMMEDIATE AMPUTATION OF SSG HARDING’s FOUR LIMBS. FRAGMENTS OF IED ALSO PENETRATED SSG HARDING’s HELMET, RESULTING IN MASSIVE HEAD INJURY AND SUBSEQUENT DEATH. UNIT CONDUCTED IMMEDIATE CORDON AND SEARCH FOLLOWING THE ATTACK TO FIND RESPONSIBLE PARTY OR PARTIES AND DETAINED FOR FURTHER QUESTIONING ONE POSSIBLE WITNESS, THE INDIVIDUAL WHO ORIGINALLY WARNED THEM ABOUT THE IED.

When the e-mails with their wounds and smoldering body parts arrived in their in-boxes, it was up to Semple and Andersen to place a call to the Medical Treatment Facility that had received the casualty and verify a U.S. military doctor had officially determined the body was indeed dead. Until a doctor put his stethoscope on that blackened, suppurating chest and gave a tight, nauseous nod, it didn’t matter who was weeping and wailing over the corpse of Staff Sergeant Harding–not his loyal and sickened soldiers, not his commanding officer, not his mother, not even the Great White Bwana himself briefly pausing in the Oval Office to brush away a simpatico tear. Without the doctor’s nod, he wasn’t officially dead. And he needed to be officially dead before G-1 Casualty could enter him into the system and begin the transatlantic next-of-kin notification process, which ended with a chaplain and a casualty assistance officer, both of their necks tight and sweating against the collars of their starched dress uniform shirts, standing in the doorway of a home in Hinesville, Georgia, the sun having just swapped places with the moon, a porch swing knocking against the side of the house in the soft evening breeze, the crickets rubbing their legs together and bursting forth in symphonic prelude, the casualty assistance officer clearing his throat and starting his rehearsed speech: “Ma’am, I regret to inform you . . .”

Until then, there was nothing they could do except finish their cupcakes, wipe their fingers, and go back to playing computer solitaire (Semple) and leafing through the pages of an old People magazine (Andersen). Tom Cruise was, after all, in the midst of a very passionate, very weird affair with doe-eyed Katie Holmes. And then there was that vegetable girl, Terri Somebody-or-Other, who nobody had thought to ask before she went into a coma whether or not she would want her plug to be pulled. And Jesus, what was up with Michael Jackson going to court in pajamas? Day-um. America sure was a funny place to look at when you got far enough away, thought Private First Class Andersen.

Hovering unseen at the edge of the G-1 cubicle, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding watched the two privates toss a cupcake back and forth across the cubicle and thought, Oh, man, this isn’t going to be easy. He needed a word, a simple little word.

Confirmed.

That’s all. Just those two syllables.

His life, at this very moment, depended on it. If, that is, you could call press releases a matter of life and death. Which, at this point in time, he did.

Gooding cleared his throat. “Semple,” he said.

The private turned his head, saw the sergeant standing there, and quickly minimized the solitaire screen.

“Hello, Public Affairs,” he said.

“What can Casualty do for you this fine afternoon?”

“Same old, same old, Semple. Need to know if you have doctor’s confirmation of the latest one–the guy from Second Brigade. The press release is done and ready to send out to the media. I’m just waiting on you guys to give me the go-ahead.”

“Sorry, Sar’nt.” Semple shook his head.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Server’s down,” Andersen said, riffling the pages of People a couple of inches from her throat. As if that would cool her skin. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on ice cubes, Antarctica, a guy from Alaska she once dated.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Gooding said.

“Wish we was,” Semple said.

“It was fine when I left my cubicle on the other side of the palace.”

“Don’t know what to tell you, Sar’nt. Sandstorm must have come along in the time it took you to walk from there to here. Maybe a mortar hit. Whatever. We’re dead in the water right now.”

Gooding gritted his teeth. Dead. Dying. Done for. By now, death was a way of life for him, a prescribed job skill he performed with automatic finger taps and wrist lifts across his keyboard. Death was just one of the commodities he traded on a daily basis.

It hadn’t always been this way. He could still remember a time, at the start of this deployment, when he’d been a death virgin, cherry unpopped by all the casualty reports and photos of roadside bombings. Long before the Butcher Shop of Baghdad had dulled him to cynicism.

Once, when he was still down in Kuwait, waiting to deploy north to Iraq and join the rest of the division, which had already been in-country for three weeks, a captain from the G-2 Intelligence Section walked up to him in the makeshift Tactical Operations Center and asked, “You PAO?”

Gooding had looked up from the Dickens novel he was reading, then quickly got to his feet, heart pounding. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Thought you should know we just got word from up north. Division took some fatalities earlier this afternoon. A vehicle out on patrol rolled over into a canal in south Baghdad. Two dead on impact. Another one trapped in the wreckage. Two other soldiers jumped in to rescue the vehicle crew but they got swept away. Monsoon season up there is a bitch, apparently. Anyway, last I heard, we’ve got three dead and two missing.”

Gooding had dog-eared a page of A Tale of Two Cities with trembling fingers and said in a hoarse voice, “Thanks, ma’am. I appreciate you letting me know.”

Back then, he’d slumped against the wall, reeling from his first deaths as a public affairs soldier serving in his first war. He pictured the Humvee tipping, tumbling into the water, the two soldiers on the bank shouting, acting on instinct, jumping into the water, misjudging the current, and getting sucked down into the muddy swirl of the Euphrates (in his mind, the canal had become the mighty Euphrates), their mouths trying to snatch air but filling instead with dirty water. He pictured those two soldiers flailing against the pull of the water, soon losing all strength as their lungs filled with the Euphrates, and their limp bodies floating downstream. He had thought about their personnel files quickly being pulled from the division’s records and labeled “Killed In Action,” their ghosts quietly falling out of company formations, their names laser-etched on a memorial plaque back in Georgia.

Not many days and three U.S. KIAs later, Gooding had written in his diary:

February 13: This is how a death is announced. In the midst of the hum and buzz of idle boredom in the Division Tactical Operations Center, you hear one officer, bent over the back pages of The Stars and Stripes, ask another, “What did you get for 17 Across?” Two people are arguing about which Matrix movie was the best. Another soldier in his early twenties is surfing the Internet looking at engagement rings and wondering aloud what difference a half carat made in the quality and price and–most importantly–a chick’s response to the bling.

Then, like a blade swishing through the air comes a sudden sharp voice from the other side of the room, cutting through the growl-buzz of the generator and the fist-thump of wind against the tent walls. You look over and an NCO is pressing a telephone receiver tighter against his ear and saying, ‘repeat that last transmission. What did you say?” He waves his hand at another NCO to get him a pen, whereupon he scribbles on an index card. Two or three others cluster near him, heads pressed in a tight circle. One head pops up and catches the eye of the battle captain sitting in his leather office chair at the front of the room. He rises from the chair–he’d been watching a NASCAR race on the TV–and walks over to the growing knot of huddled heads.

At this point, something like cold fear creeps around your heart like icy vines. The information on the index card is read back into the phone for confirmation, then the battle captain grabs the card and strides to the front of the room, yelling, “ATTENTION IN THE DTOC! ATTENTION IN THE DTOC!”

All sound and motion in the tent stops. Someone mutes the NASCAR race. The battle captain reads from the index card: “We have reports of one IED in the vicinity of Scania along the convoy route. One KIA. Battle-damage assessment still being made. That is all.” He reads it as carefully and dispassionately as someone quoting stock market prices, then he turns and writes the information on a large sheet of paper taped to the wall at the front of the room where all significant activities–the loss of an M16, the arrival/departure of a convoy, the publication of an operations order–are recorded.

As you watch him write with the magic marker, the conversation-buzz of the room gradually returns to its former volume. Some drop their heads in sorrow, shaking them back and forth as if that will counteract the loss and bring the KIA back to life, or at least change his status to WIA. But the magic marker ink is permanent, seared there by the heat of an IED blast. No wounds can be reversed. The battle captain returns to his leather chair. A couple of officers return to their crossword puzzle. Someone turns up the volume on the TV and the NASCAR race resumes.

But now, five months later, death was a matter of course, one more task in a day already filled with a heavy workload. Gooding could type his KIA press releases blindfolded. If, that is, he could get these two cupcake-smeared clerks in G-1 to cooperate and give him the nod.

Gooding ground his teeth. CNN was breathing down his neck, calling every ten minutes to ask about the explosion half the people in al-Karkh saw and nearly everyone heard, the deep thud rippling through the neighborhoods, the smoke pluming like a gray finger. The producers had called an hour ago and said they already had a cameraman on the site who was telling them there were U.S. casualties. The rest of the meat-wagon media were right on CNN’s heels. By the time he walked back to his cubicle, Gooding could expect to see three or four e-mails in his in-box from the New York Times, NBC, and Reuters. They wanted details. They had deadlines. They needed confirmation of death.

“Not much we can do right now, Sar’nt,” said Semple, clicking uselessly at his e-mail in-box. “Dust storm’s fucking up the whole computer network from here to Basra.”

“CNN just announced this guy’s death and they have footage of a body wearing a U.S. uniform being hauled from the blast site on a stretcher.”

“You know the drill, Sar’nt,” Semple said. “He ain’t dead until we get the e-mail from the docs at Camp Bucca saying he’s dead.”

“And you can’t pick up the phone and call?”

“C’mon, Sar’nt. You know it has to be official and in writing. We can’t go vocal on casualty confirmation.”

Semple looked at Andersen to see if she’d agree with him and get this sergeant off their ass. She had stopped sucking her fingers and was now picking at a piece of dried lunch caught on the ample breast of her DCUs. She scraped her nail back and forth right where the nipple would be beneath the uniform, the brown T-shirt, and the bra. Sweet Jesus have mercy!

When he had the chance, Semple was going to tell her about a new Porta-Potty he’d seen by the chapel where no one went except Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. He was going to make his invitation smooth as chocolate milk and maybe she’d reconsider her previous reluctance for toilet sex.
For now, he couldn’t say anything because the sergeant from PAO was still standing there.

“So,” Gooding said, “even though you know he’s dead and I know he’s dead and by now his momma probably knows he’s dead, the dude’s not really dead, is that what you’re telling me?”

Semple leveled a flat gaze at Gooding and clicked at his equally dead in-box. “He ain’t officially dead yet.”

“What about unofficially?”

“Unofficially, yeah. He’s road meat. But if anyone asks, you didn’t hear it from me.”

Gooding was already gone. He’d spun on his heel and started speedwalking back to his cubicle by the time the word meat had fallen off Semple’s lips. “Day-um,” Andersen said.

“Ole sarge needs to slow hisself down,” Semple said.

“Guy’s gonna have a heart attack if he starts taking this shit too seriously.”

“Yeah. He needs to pace himself. We still got another six months to go in this shit hole.”

“Ticktock, ticktock.”

“Why you always gotta bring up the deployment clock, huh?”

“What else we gonna talk about?” Semple asked. “It’s all one big fuckin” Groundhog Day anyway, so what does it matter?”

“It matters. I’m sick of this shit already.”

Semple snorted. “Your words: pace yourself.”

“Whatever.” Andersen brushed off her breast with wide, hard strokes to dislodge the crumbs, then picked up her People and moved on to Brad Pitt. Semple watched her, crossing his legs to hide his hardness.

“Hey,” he said and Andersen looked up from the magazine. The words Porta-Potty were there on the tip of his tongue, but what he said instead was, “Check the server again.”

Andersen clicked her in-box. “Well, lookee here. It’s back up. Whaddaya think? Should we call him back?”
Semple grinned. “Naw. Let him sweat it out for a little bit longer. Pass me that other cupcake, will ya?”