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 venture beyond their Shire, bristled with rolls of concertina wire at the borders of the FOB. After all, there were Orcs 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, a pale-green pallor from fluorescent lights, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M-16 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 7th 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 found there. His job was to turn the bomb attacks, the sniper kills, the sucking chest wounds, and the dismemberments into something palatable—ideally, something patriotic—which 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 7th Armored Division all agreed, 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 he was now on what felt like a year-long 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 doorkickers when they came into the chow hall smelling of sweat, road dust and, occasionally, blood.
Let the doorkickers ride around Baghdad in their armor-skinned humvees getting pelted with rocks from pissed-off hajjis. Let them dodge the roadside bombs which 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.