Thursday, May 6, 2010

Genesis and Revelation

In the beginning was the war. And the Great White Bwana saw that it was good and justifiable. And he said, "Let there be infantry." And, lo, there was infantry. Also, armor and aviation and artillery. And, oh yes, Fobbits.

This is where I come in. This is where the novel begins.

In all honesty, Fobbit really began in 1988 when I joined the active-duty Army as an enlisted journalist--a career and life-choice I thought I'd never make (something akin to Peyton Manning suddenly deciding to become a seamstress). But that's a longer story for another time....

Nov. 24, 2004: My boss, the 3rd Infantry Division public affairs officer gathers us in a huddle for a pre-deployment briefing. After an hour of going over packing lists and flight manifests and work schedules, he tells us: "You need to know what we're going into over there. You need to be confident in your weapon now. And if you’re not, then you need to get to the next available M-16 range here while you can. Once we’re over there, you'll have very little--if any--time to practice putting rounds downrange. Unless you're actually shooting at the enemy." He paused for dramatic effect. "Make no mistake, you will have the opportunity to fire your weapon in Iraq. You'll also have the opportunity to be shot at. Sure, most of our time will be spent in our office in Baghdad, but there will also be plenty of opportunities for out-of-sector missions where you'll have to go to Mosul or Tikrit or Fallujah. You will be shot at, and you will fire back. We'll make sure you have ample opportunity for adventure on this deployment."

I was a 17-year veteran of the U.S. Army and my deployment cherry had yet to be popped. I'd seen my colleagues come and go to combat zones in Panama, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Bosnia, but the longest amount of time the military had ever pulled me away from my family was a three-week temporary-duty mission to a tiny island off the coast of Africa where the goats outnumbered the humans. Now, I was staring into the gaping black maw of Iraq. The entire country was, to me, formed in the shape of a question mark. I had no idea what to expect--would it be something out of Band of Brothers, full of air-ripping explosions and severed limbs cartwheeling past my head? Or would it be something out of Office Space where I'd spend endless days tapping out reams of press releases in support of the Global War on Terror?

As it turns out, it was somewhere in between.

One thing was certain: I was going into this war as a writer. Men like Hemingway, Mailer, Vonnegut and O'Brien had already gone before me, setting the standard. I cast myself in the role of a modern-day Ernie Pyle, crab-walking from foxhole to foxhole, bumming cigarettes from grunts and capturing their profane lingo as they spun their stories. Never mind the fact that I didn't smoke, I was intent on approaching this deployment in a literary frame of mind, thinking that the next twelve months would surely provide me with enough material for one or two books.

January 2, 2005: Other men are clasping their families around them in desperate bear hugs. I grab the boys and tell them I love them and to follow through with their promise to enroll in college this coming year. I hold my teenage daughter and tell her she will always be my little Princess. I kiss my wife.
     I think I can walk away, but I turn back and give my wife one last hug, like trying to wring the last drop of water from a nearly-dry sponge.
     "Be strong," she tells me. "Don't worry about us."
     "I'll love you to the end of my days...and beyond," I whisper into her hair. Those were my last words to her.
     "War sucks," she says.
     I walk away, turning back only once to wave.

From the start, I kept a journal. What self-respecting writer heading into the unknown void wouldn't keep a journal? I wrote on the plane which hopscotched from Georgia to Germany to Kuwait. I wrote for the two months of hell I spent in Kuwait (lousy food, rancid latrines). I wrote when I finally arrived in Baghdad, trembling like the last leaf of autumn clinging to a tree. I continued to write as I fell into a daily routine at Task Force Baghdad headquarters (eleven-hour shifts, seven days a week, a day off once every two weeks). I wrote at my desk, I wrote in my hootch, I wrote in the backseat of a humvee.

I wrote, I wrote, I wrote.

At the time, none of it was fiction; that would come later. I sent the long journal entries home to my family, in lieu of dropping a postcard in the mail ("Having a great time, wish you were here"). I also shared them with Dan Wickett at The Emerging Writers Network (then just a loose coalition of writers, readers and publishers who talked back and forth over e-mail). Dan very graciously shared some of my journal entries with the group and soon my life was flooded with letters and care packages. I've said it before, but I'll say it again here publicly: as much as anyone else, The Emerging Writers Network got me through that deployment with its unexpected outpouring of support for a pale, unknown, nebbish-y writer on the other side of the globe.

July 20, 2005: As I walk to work at 7:30 this morning, I hear small-arms gunfire to the east, directly in front of me. It sounds exactly like popcorn heating up in a microwave.

I jotted down everything from the menus at the chow hall to what it feels like on an early-morning jog around the forward operating base ("The oxygen is thick in my lungs. The air smells of burning tires. There is a scarf of gray smoke, at least three miles in length, hanging low over the city."). I regularly fed Dan Wickett portions of my journal (calling it Fobber in those early days) and he in turn handed them out to the EWN members.

I got an e-mail from an agent who seemed interested in what I had to say. We corresponded, he encouraged, I ballooned with hope. Then, one day, he wrote: "I've come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public. And, only a modern day Yossarian can be that vehicle. That's you, buddy."

There are moments in our lives when we hear the rusty hinge of a door swing open, the click of a turnstile, the sudden wind-snap of a weathervane. This is how it was for me when I read those words. I was Dorothy stepping from the black-and-white farmhouse into Technicolor Oz.

This, then, was the moment Fobbit was born. I would approach this war with the eye and ear of a novelist.  I would put the war in people's laps through the guise of fiction. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, I would shout to the hard of hearing, and would draw large and startling figures for the almost blind.  I had (and still have) no illusions that I'd be producing the next Catch-22 or The Naked and the Dead. I'm not worthy to touch the hem of the garments of those masterpieces. But maybe, just maybe, I could take everything my head had been absorbing for a year and funnel it into something that looked at the war through a funhouse mirror. And maybe, just maybe, someone somewhere might want to read it someday.


  1. Nice post, but you screwed up the last sentence. Scratch the all the doubting conditionals in that last line, and what's left is the truth.

  2. Brett,

    As you know, Self-Doubt and Anxiety are my middle names (which makes it a little awkward when filling out tax forms). But I appreciate the thought. :)