Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

April 26, 2017

The year is 2075. The United States, its shorelines eaten away by mega-hurricanes and rising seas, has splintered apart. Mexico has reclaimed large swathes of the southwest. The capital has relocated from Washington DC to Columbus, Ohio. And the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, enraged by a governmental ban on fossil fuels, have seceded into a Free Southern State.

This devastated landscape, and the catastrophic Second Civil War that ensues, is the subject of Omar El Akkad’s pitch-black debut novel, American War. At the center of the story is Sarat Chestnut, who is a young girl when the war breaks out but gradually comes to play a decisive role in its outcome. The narrative tracks Sarat and her family as violence drives them from their home in Louisiana—not far from the submerged New Orleans, “a well within the walls of its levees”—to a ravaged refugee camp, and from there to Georgia, where foreign ships unload food, blankets, and weapons for the Southern resistance.

As the war stalks the Chestnuts across the bombed-out wreckage of the South (“the Red”), Sarat becomes increasingly radicalized, consumed by desire for vengeance against the North (“the Blue”). But as the novel warns us early on, this is not really a story about war—at least not in the traditional sense. Holding true to the old adage that war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, the bulk of American War’s narrative occurs in the moments between the violence, deriving its power from the physical and emotional ruin left in its wake. El Akkad excels at these moments, his characters’ attempts to maintain normality in the midst of unfolding horror. Women gather in a tent to play cards, trying to ignore the trash-strewn refugee camp around them. Children exploring the banks of a muddy river stumble across a box of landmines. Widows gather and pray around the bedside of a boy who has miraculously survived a gunshot to the head. Violence flickers around the edges of these scenes like lightning. It erupts only sporadically, and even then is swift, half-seen. A brutal massacre is obscured by the cover of night; an assassination is glimpsed through the scope of a rifle. But the aftermath is stark and smoldering, leeching into every inch of Sarat’s life and driving her toward a devastating retribution. By the time the novel climaxes with a bracing, visceral sequence set in a Guantanamo-esque prison, El Akkad’s point is clear. There is no better way to push a person into the arms of extremism than to label her an enemy—and then shape her life by the contours of war.

El Akkad is an Egyptian-Qatari-Canadian journalist who cut his teeth reporting on some of the biggest events of the last two decades, including the Arab Spring and the invasion of Afghanistan. His journalistic chops serve him well here, allowing him to paint a bleak vision of the American South with depth and credibility. And what at first seems dizzyingly high-concept starts to sound more familiar the closer you look. Drones hum overhead, bombing civilians at random. Aid relief arrives from an overseas superpower. The Southern resistance has split into multiple rebel groups, who spend as much time fighting each other as they do the government. And one character suggests that America’s splintering was perhaps inevitable: its various areas were so different that it was like “a single country fashioned from many different countries,” as if “long ago some disinterested or opportunistic party had drawn lines on a map where previously there were none.” Sound like anywhere else we know?

Much of the novel thus reads like an indictment of American apathy toward the damage wreaked across the Middle East. “Perhaps the longing for safety was itself just another kind of violence,” Sarat muses at one point. “A violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety…but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?” The cold plausibility of El Akkad’s scenario is a direct rebuttal to American exceptionalism. Yes, American War asserts. It could happen here.

The depth of El Akkad’s world-building helps power the book through its broad, decades-spanning plot, which drags at times and bumps against contrivances in others. But the novel still left me with questions. Sarat, for example, is mixed race, a detail noted several times; her father is Hispanic and her mother is black. At no point, however, does El Akkad explore what this means for Sarat, as a woman in the South—or, more broadly, the role of race in this deeply divided America. Granted, not every book with a person of color at its center needs to be about race, and American War has other things on its mind. Still, to so completely avoid race in a deeply political novel set in the heart of the American South—a novel whose very premise is an explicit callback to the Civil War—is a curious choice. The legacy of slavery, segregation, and the Civil War form the very cultural heritage of the South; the tension between blacks and whites is so tangible that James McBride has dubbed it a “buzz,” the “speed of so much history passing between them.” As much as I would like to, I struggle to imagine an America where fossil fuels are still an issue, but racial disparity is not.

This isn’t calamitous for the book, and I enjoyed American War regardless. But as someone born and raised south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I often felt distant from a setting that should’ve been eerily familiar. El Akkad has a good ear for Southern cadences, and he gets the importance of family right. But in addition to race, other parts of the Southern landscape are largely absent, like the prominence of religion or the bone-deep pride in tradition and place. For a novel so concerned with ideological divides, this feels like a missed opportunity, sacrificing the fraught complexities of the contemporary South in favor of political allegory. El Akkad has given the southern states of American War a richly developed mythology, to be sure. It just happens to feel completely divorced from the four hundred years of history that have made the South what it is today.

But maybe that’s the point. By the end of the novel, America is in ruins. Sarat has become a shell of her former self, consumed by the pain and damage wrought upon her and her family. There’s little resemblance between her broken figure in the final pages and the child playing by the banks of the Mississippi Sea in the beginning. Like Aleppo, like Baghdad, like Mosul and Kabul, war has stripped her identity from her, taken the good and the bad. In its place is only a crater: a burned-out husk of what once was and what might’ve been.

Publication date: April 4, 2017

Publisher: Knopf

Reviewed by Will Preston


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