David Abrams was sent to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division in 2005 – his first deployment in a combat zone. A writer, an author and a life-long reader, David believes books saved his life.
"There were at least two incidents when enemy mortars landed in our camp, not far from the trailer where I lived," recalls David, a Master Sergeant in public affairs, who is now stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia. "In both cases, I was holed up reading - the first time I was deep into Don Quixote; the second mortar attack found me engrossed in Jarhead by Anthony Swofford.
"I could very well have been wandering around the camp at the time of the attack, walking to the post exchange (a military-operated general store found at most bases) or jogging around the man-made lake Saddam Hussein had dug near his palace there on the camp. Instead, I chose to stay inside with my books - my comforts and mainstays. In that first attack, which landed in the courtyard of the post exchange, one soldier was killed and 16 others were injured. So, I guess you could say Cervantes really did save my ass."
An 18-year Army veteran, David has devoted himself to literature. His short stories have been published in Esquire, The Greensboro Review and other literary quarterlies. One story, 'Providence,' was included as '100 Other Distinguished Stories of 1998' in the 1999 Best American Stories, edited by Amy Tan. He has also reviewed books for January Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and Long Island Press. He is currently working on a novel "loosely" based on his experiences in Iraq.
Determined to ensure that he would never be short of a book to read on his Iraqi tour of duty, he selected around 70 books - from Wodehouse to Hemingway to Dickens to Atwood – and sent to them to Iraq by boat via Kuwait. He even made a note of which ones would be read first.
"This was my first deployment to a combat zone, so I didn't know what to expect. I assumed I would have lots of 'down time,"' said David, who has a B.A. in English from the University of Oregon and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska – a qualification earned while stationed in Alaska. "As it turns out, I got increasingly busy at my job, to the point where I was lucky if I only worked a 13-hour day, seven days a week - my reading time kept getting slimmer and slimmer.
"Tucked away in the pockets of my uniform as I boarded the plane with my M-16 and rucksack, I carried Robinson Crusoe, Barnaby Rudge, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms and Catch-22. I made it a point to read the latter first because I wanted to head into this war with the right attitude."
In the end, David was only able to read about 14 books from his preordained list as he was distracted by books from other sources. After talking about his deployment on literary websites, Readerville and Emerging Writers Network, he was flooded with boxes of books sent by booklovers in the US. Books also came via the Any Soldier website (which sends care packages to soldiers).
"Then there were the Morale, Welfare, Recreation locations around camp where free books could be had for the taking," laughed David. "Oh my God! Free books with no strings attached! That's like offering free porn to a horny guy who's sitting around the house alone on a Friday night. Eventually, I had to buy three more lockers over there in Baghdad in order to store everything I acquired.
"I picked up some personal treasures over there: a Pocket Book paperback of comedian Joey Adams' trashy show biz novel The Curtain Never Falls; a circa 1950s paperback of Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel (with a painting of Garbo on the cover); a 1946 Avon paperback of Sinclair Lewis' The Ghost Patrol; and a gently-loved hardcover edition of As You Were, an anthology of American prose and verse for World War II troops edited by Alexander Woolcott (it was the first of the Viking Portable Library series, evidently). I also gathered a large collection of Louis L'Amours, fell in love with Elmore Leonard, and was buried in an avalanche of hundreds and hundreds of new hardcovers and trade paperbacks from beautiful strangers back here in the United States. It was an embarrassment of riches."
David maintained a journal while in Iraq. Here are several excerpts:
(This entry was written on the eve of flying out from Kuwait to Iraq)
…. "It seems silly to say this, but I worry about those three footlockers of books and their perilous journey along the Iraqi highway of death. In my nightmare thoughts, I imagine a rocket-propelled grenade tearing into the side of the connex (military shipping container) and igniting all my pages. I know it's stupid to worry about things like this when soldiers are getting shot and blown up. But these are the frets of a die-hard bibliophile in a combat zone."
(This entry was written concerning a pile of books)
… "Even in the midst of all my busy-ness, I take time to fulfill one of my latest obsessions - straightening the free-books areas around Division Headquarters. There is a primary area over by the chaplain's cubicle where people are constantly dropping off stacks of paperbacks (Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Mack Bolan the Executioner, Agatha Christie, Louis L'Amour, and all their mass-market pals). There are only three bookcases and lately the books have been stacked on top of one another, lending it a messy appearance. True to my anal-retentive character, it bugs me like a scrap of meat caught between my molars. So, I've been transporting the books, armload by armload, over to another bookshelf in my section of the building which had been empty until I started filling it with the chaplain's area overflow. The great thing is, though, all those books which had lain untouched all those months over in the chaplain's area were now getting picked up and read by people browsing the shelves in my area."
(This entry was written about halfway through David's tour of duty)
… "Reading a book about a war while you're embroiled in the midst of that very same war can be a rather disconcerting thing - like stumbling across your mother's secret diary in her nightstand drawer while you're still a teenager and discovering the parts where she writes about sex with your father. Some things you just don't want to read about until you have some distance from them."
"I just finished reading John Crawford's The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, due to be published at the end of the summer (David's publisher had supplied an advance copy). I suppose it's a competently, sometimes luridly, written account of Crawford's year-and-a-half over here in Baghdad.
"The narrative was a bit choppy and episodic to ever fully engage me, but the details seemed to be pretty authentic. I say 'seemed,' because Crawford's book describes an Iraq far different than mine. He writes of the hard, macho swagger of the infantry whose office space is the land beyond the concertina wire - the hot streets, the flying tracer rounds which light up the night sky in Christmas reds and greens, the herds of dirty goats, the scabby snot-nosed children who are so grateful to receive a Tootsie Roll softened from the warmth of a soldier's pocket. For all their detail, however, there's something a bit too cleanly-written about the dialogue and unfolding of events. Crawford's stories are laced with hyperbole, bordering on folklore - in fact, the final three pages, which come full circle back to the title, made me wonder how much of what I'd just read was really true.
"But no matter how much of what's on the page is a fiction hybrid, the thing that really depressed me is the fact that Crawford was out in the shit and heat of street-level combat, while I sit back here pecking away in my climate-controlled headquarters building. It filled me with a renewed sense of guilt and a little bit of shame over the fact that I've huddled here in the cubicle trenches, never venturing beyond the limits of my routine. I privately joke about getting a Purple Heart for a paper cut, but I continue to feel like a sham. Apart from the sporadic mortar round landing in the post exchange courtyard, the closest I come to war is when the Blackhawks skim low overhead. The approach-and-decline Doppler effect of their blades chopping the air always make me think of 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Full Metal Jacket' and 'M*A*S*H.' The throaty roar of their passage above my hootch (living quarters in a trailer) is about the only physical reminder I have that there are still people like Crawford who are carrying out the business of war less than two miles from where I sit.
"Like I said, it's hard to read about a war while it's still raging on when you lift your eyes from the page. I have no trouble reading about Vietnam (The Things They Carried), World War Two (Catch-22), World War I (All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms) or the American Civil War (The Red Badge of Courage, which is still on my must-read list), but reading about Operation Iraqi Freedom while the post exchange is still stocking fresh souvenir T-shirts on the shelves…well, that makes me anxious and unsettled.
"So, after The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, I needed something which would cleanse my palate, fiction where I could just completely lose myself. I trailed my fingers across the spines of the books on my bookcase and selected The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. It didn't take long to get lost in the Arizona arroyos, to feel the Winchester in my hand as I snuck through the canyons tracking Apaches, to taste the swirling dust as I reined my horse sharply when the whine of a bullet ricocheted off a boulder. Elmore Leonard is good medicine."