With sabre-rattling by politicians in the air, it's a good time to be reminded what war is like for those who actually go fight it.
David Abrams' new novel, Brave Deeds, is a mordantly funny and harrowing closeup of that experience. Abrams served in the U.S. Army for 20 years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He set his first novel there, titling it Fobbit, a pejorative term for soldiers who avoid combat by never leaving the forward operating base, or FOB. (Abrams was a real-life fobbit, assigned to a public relations unit.)
In Brave Deeds, he sends his characters out of the relative safety of the FOB and onto the perilous streets of Baghdad — but not on any official mission.
The six soldiers — Arrow, Cheever, Drew, Fish, Park and O — have gone AWOL to cross the city to attend the memorial service for their sergeant, who was killed by a car bomb. The book effectively employs an unusual narrative method: first-person plural, a collective voice that includes all six soldiers.
"We double-time across Baghdad on our twelve feet," Abrams writes, "a mutant dozen-legged beetle dashing from rock to rock, confident in its shell but always careful of the soft belly beneath. We are six men moving single file along the alleys, the edges of roads, the maze of beige buildings. We keep moving: ducking and dodging and cursing and sprinting. We wonder how it could have gone so wrong so fast."
The journey begins as almost a lark, albeit a somber one. But a seventh man, the unit's medic, decides not to go; then their purloined Humvee breaks down. In their rush to abandon it, knowing how vulnerable they will be to attack once Iraqis in the neighborhood notice, they forget to bring their radio and map.
So they make their way on foot, guessing at the route and unable to call for support, through the baffling, hostile neighborhoods of Baghdad, under the eyes of unseen snipers and a burning sun: "We are on the way to FOB Saro to attend the memorial service for Sergeant Rafe Morgan and we are determined to make it there before sundown, alive, intact, all twelve arms and legs still attached."
The novel's narrative alternates between their risky, increasingly tense trip through the city and third-person flashbacks that give the reader glimpses into individual soldiers' lives. In those flashbacks, we learn secrets that are shameful or heartbreaking or both — childhood neglect, racism, infidelity and divorce, even murder.
In the book's present, we see amazing courage, skill and unshakable bonds among the men, even those who might not like each other much. No thought is given to the political reasons for the war; they fight for each other.
Not that they would put it so sentimentally. One of the strengths of Brave Deeds is its self-deprecating, sardonic humor, reminiscent of such classic war novels as Catch-22. There's a scathingly funny description of an on-base "Fun Nights" concert the soldiers attend by a D-list country group. The singers pluck Park, who is Korean-American and a deeply angry man, from the audience for a sing-along of God Bless the USA on stage.
"We were all so sick of God Bless the USA by that point," Abrams writes, "a little puke came up in the back of our mouths every time we heard the first words of the swampy, patriotic treacle. If we ever saw Lee Greenwood walking down the street, we'd kick the ever-lovin' red-white-and-blue s--- out of him." The sing-along doesn't end well.
Park also gets the dark punch line after the soldiers find and secure a bomb factory. (They can't ignore a threat just because they're AWOL.)
"Inside the house, Fish goes through a cardboard box. He holds up a pastel-pink Beanie Baby, a unicorn. There's a knife slit through its belly. 'What do you suppose —'
" 'Grenade delivery system,' Park says. ... 'Here, kid. Here's a present for you. Go show your mom and dad. They'll be so surprised.' "
Among the war's dangers, which he renders with hold-your-breath vividness, Abrams finds deeply human moments, like Morgan's friendship with their teenage Iraqi translator and his adoption of a stray dog with tuxedo markings they dub James Bond.
He also reveals, slowly, over the course of the journey, the full story of how and why Morgan died. At the start, it's just one more horror of war: "We were there that day, that most horrible day on our calendar of awful. We don't like to think of our Sergeant Morgan like that — the obscene pieces of him flying through the bomb-bloom air." By the end we understand why his men risk their lives to pay their respects to a pair of empty boots.
Brave Deeds does what the most memorable books about war always do: honor the valor and sacrifice of soldiers while facing unflinchingly how little the rest of the world may value them. Abrams' soldiers must find their own meaning, and in a city full of death, they fight for life.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.