Besides perhaps Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, American War by journalist Omar El Akkad is the best debut war novel this reviewer has read. It captures with remarkable precision the meaning and implications of war and gives a full, deep, and true expression of the personal tragedies that war causes.
The context of El Akkad’s story is as follows. America is undergoing a second civil war. The casus belli of this one is the federal government’s attempt to prohibit the further use of fossil fuels. The Free Southern State—composed of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—announced its secession from the Union after a series of botched negotiations, a political assassination, and a frenzied protest turned into a massacre. (Until it was annexed by Mexican forces, Texas was also part of the Free Southern State.) Immigrant tunnels run between the North and the South, and rebel groups, unsatisfied with their own side’s tenacity and devotion, run rampant.
The Southern groups are much more bark than bite and lose pretty much every battle they engage in—not for lack of heroism or discipline but simply because their technological means are far inferior to those of the North. The Northern militias function as a paramilitary wing of the Union army, performing monstrosities that the federal government would like to see done but is unwilling to sanctify as official acts. Unmanned drones were once the North’s most effective weapon, but a band of Southern rebels blew up the server farm that controlled them. Now they roam the skies, berserk and missionless—birds of ill omen that are difficult to see, and thus to shoot down, but easy to hear once it’s too late. The North has also made use of its biological weapons, releasing a deadly virus on South Carolina before cutting it off from the other secessionist states.
The environment has also inflicted itself on the country. The sea levels have risen, and now large slices of America’s coastal regions are under water. State and local governments made efforts to prevent those living in these areas from having to migrate inland, but the only solutions they could come up with were temporary: “Building hundreds of miles of seawalls, levees, raised causeways, and even, toward the end, floating towns. It was still early days then, and the oceans had not yet devoured the optimistic notion that with enough concrete and dirt and pride and money the low country could be saved.” Folks still live in these areas, which in peacetime it would be illegal even to wander into. They survive off raising livestock, running favors for either side of the war, or working in sweatshops. Louisiana, where El Akkad’s story begins, was one of the states most affected by the climate change: “The once glorious city of New Orleans became a well within the walls of its levees. The baptismal rites of a new America.”
It’s in this new America that we meet the Chestnut family. The parents are Benjamin and Martina. Neither is particularly interested in the politics of the civil war. Benjamin can’t find consistent work in their small western Louisiana town and is trying to smuggle himself into the North for better job prospects. Martina doesn’t understand the federal government’s insistence on national unity and wishes they’d just let the Free Southern State succeed: “Let the Southerners keep their outdated fuel, she thought, until they’ve pulled every last drop of it from the beaten ground.” As she sees it, the environmental damage is done—prohibition won’t reverse the catastrophes of drowned islands and heat-smothered crops.
Benjamin and Martina have three children: Simon, Dana, and Sarat. Sarat is the youngest of three; she is also the story’s protagonist. When we meet her as a child she is happy. Although her family undergoes material hardships, all the children have the easy conscience that comes along with a comfortable home life. Her parents simply wish for their family to be left alone—to be granted a little peace while those who claim to be fighting on behalf of their best interests clash with those who claim to be fighting on behalf of their liberties.
But in wartime, any peace, however small, is difficult and transitory, so it isn’t long before the Chestnuts’ is abruptly taken from them. Benjamin is killed by a Southern suicide bomber while registering for a worker’s permit in the Mississippi statehouse. Martina demands a martyr’s compensation from the rebel group responsible for orchestrating the attack but receives the following cold reply from the group’s commander: “My men kill Northerners and traitors … Which one of those was your husband?” Concerned that fighting in east Texas will soon spill over into Louisiana, Martina relocates herself and her three children to a refugee camp—Camp Patience—that leans against the fortified border of Tennessee.
It’s here that the Chestnut children spend their formative years. Simon joins a Virginia militia sympathetic to the secessionist cause; Dana, thanks to her natural beauty, becomes the face of the refugee crisis for Northern war reporters; and Sarat catches the attention of a rebel recruiter named Albert Gaines. Gaines has connections in the Bouazizi Empire (an Arabic superstate “stretching from the Gibraltar Pass in the state of Morocco all the way to the edges of the Black and Caspian Seas” and named after the Tunisian street vendor whose suicide was one of the symbolic sparks of the “Arab Awakening”) who are interested in prolonging the civil war for as long as possible. “He’s teaching me all kinds of stuff they won’t,” Sarat says about Gaines to a friend, “Like all about [the Blues]. About all the things they’ve done to us over the years.” We later discover that Gaines makes different appeals to different recruits depending on what he thinks will work best in winning them over: their duty to protect their family, or their religious obligation to fight against the godless enemy, or the political and moral righteousness of the Southern cause. But for Sarat, “the course of life recruited” her, and thus all Gaines has to do is give her tribulations the appropriate narrative structure—specifically, that the North was not only autocratic, but evil.
Even the most ready flame requires a proper brush to spread through. One evening, after a bad flood, one of the Union militias enters Camp Patience to retaliate against Simon’s group for stealing supplies and murdering a Northerner. They kill the entire group besides Simon (who’s shot in the head but survives, albeit with brain damage—afterward, he’s known in the South as “The Miracle Boy of Patience”). The Union militia pillages through the camp, killing refugees at random. Sarat overhears one of the militiamen telling another, “They said there’s no rules before sunrise. It’s all ours till then.” Sarat hides Dana in one of the Red Crescent’s administrative buildings that Gaines gave her keys to. She goes looking for their mother but finds only an abandoned campsite: “Outside, by the tent’s broken door, [Sarat] saw lines in the dirt. Wide swaths, like the beginnings of infant canals. Without following the trails, she knew where they would lead. In the instance, not far away, smoldered the blackened remains of a large and dying fire.” As the massacre is ending, Sarat catches one of the militiamen alone and with his back to her. She sneaks up behind him and cuts his throat.
Years later Sarat becomes a sniper for Gaines and ends up assassinating a well-known Northern general. This radicalizes the Union, which in response unleashes a bloody and vengeful anti-terrorism campaign on the South, rounding up anyone suspected of rebellious activities or of providing material aid to rebel groups. Sarat is captured and sent to a naval base similar to Guantanamo, where she is tortured for years without being charged with a crime or even informed of what she’s been accused of. Then one day she’s told she’s being released—that the war is over and that all she has to do to go home is sign some forms conceding that the federal government was acting in “good faith” when they detained her. Broken by her experiences of being tortured, she lunges to sign the papers before even being told what they say.
At this point, the only thing that holds Sarat together is her hatred of the North. She goes to Georgia and uses the last of her connections with the rebel groups and the Bouazizi Empire to sneak a virus (one even deadlier and faster-spreading than the one the North used on South Carolina) into the Union capital of Columbus, Ohio, during the Reunification Day celebration. She succeeds, killing herself and millions of others in the process.
Why spend so much time summarizing the novel’s plot? Because Sarat comes out of the plot, and Sarat is the most important thing in American War.
Sarat begins as one thing and ends as another. She is not born a villain but becomes one through her circumstances. (Just by following along, one could almost miss the fact that Sarat ends up being one of the most horrendous mass murderers of all time.) But is it just circumstances? After all, throughout the novel we are constantly made aware of the faulty premises motivating her actions. For example, she tells Dana they can’t run away from Camp Patience yet, not while their people waste away as refugees. It’s a sentiment Dana mocks: “Our people? In this camp, are you kidding me? … Ain’t nobody in this camp our people. Only thing we got in common is we all on the losing side of the same war.” Later, made bitter by the inter-rebel infighting and the bureaucratic inertia of the Free Southern State, Sarat lampoons average Southerners for their lack of commitment and solidarity with those doing the actual fighting. She thinks her speech denouncing such apathy and ingratitude has aroused the political passions of a nearby group of river workers, but it turns out they’re just cheering because the ships that were being stopped and searched by the Union coast guard have finally started moving again. In another case, Gaines asks Sarat if she would fight for the South even if she were certain they were in the wrong. She says she would never betray her people.
This sort of communal fidelity is admirable in books but stupefying in real life. The flesh-and-blood person who is so devoted to a particular people just because they happen to be from a particular place is usually narrow-minded, spiteful, or mad. The first is caused by an exaggerated sense of truth, the second by an exaggerated sense of justice, and the third by an exaggerated sense of both. By the end of the novel Sarat is no longer interested in either truth or justice (“Fuck the South and everything it stands for”). Her desire for revenge has consumed both. The despair that was once a motivation for her actions now exists detached from any realistic ends. Her tragic destruction is like those in the best Greek myths, Shakespeare plays, and American letters. Avoidable circumstances become inevitable ones as a minor character flaw festers until there is no character left, only the flaw. Icarus, Othello, and Gatsby are the literary company Sarat keeps.
No doubt some readers will be annoyed, or even turned off, by the judgments found in American War. As a reporter, El Akkad has covered everything from recent climate disasters along the Gulf Coast to military trials for Guantanamo prisoners to the mass protests in Cairo during the Arab Awakening, and this intimate knowledge of current events has left him with opinions about each of them—opinions that take no special exegetical work to discover when reading the novel. Clearly El Akkad is concerned about climate change, our never-ending War on Terror, and what the global role of the Middle East will be in the future. In his story, America is divided against itself, bearing the worst of climate change, riddled with refugee camps, meddled with by foreign governments, and subject to the same anti-terrorism cruelties it now inflicts on others. One catches in El Akkad the occasional verbal smirk about this imperial fall from grace, such as when he has one of Gaines’s Bouazizi connections say, “I remember when it was still your guns and our blood,” or when he has the president of the Bouazizi Empire mouth platitudes about “liberty, democracy, and self-determination” to an American university audience, even as he undermines those very principles in order to extend their country’s civil war.
There is also a temptation toward relativism in the story. “The universal slogan of war, [Sarat’d] learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.” But perhaps we would have done differently if we were convinced the side we happen to be born on was wrong either in its principles or in its interests. Sarat’s fidelity to “her people” is noble only in a world where means are just irrespective of the ends they seek to achieve. Linking the plight of Muslims in the War on Terror with that of El Akkad’s fictional Southerners is an interesting and important connection. However, one of its shortcomings is this failure to recognize the strange relationship between means and ends. One can draw a certain moral comfort from always siding with the losers or with holding fast to set of theoretical virtues regardless of the concrete actuality, but to do either will be at the expense of nuance and self-analysis.
It is not politics but revenge that fuels Sarat. She hates Northerners for what they did to her and her family. This is her reason for fighting, and this is the case even after Gaines teaches her all about Northern atrocities and the value of self-determination. Others of course join the Southern rebellion because they agree with its ideological precepts (e.g., that the states have every right to reject the federal government’s fuel prohibition). Others join more because of honor or religion or power-hunger. Then there are those who join merely because they feel their lives back home were essentially meaningless. El Akkad describes a group of these type of rebels as they’re about to confront a vanguard of Union troops, “They were, to a man, untrained and ill-equipped, and ahead of them to the west lay certain death at the hands of a superior army. But behind them, in the dead-end towns where they were born, lay a slower kind of death—death at the hands of poverty and boredom and decay.”
It takes a rare talent as a writer to be able to apprehend both the moral qualities of individuals as well as the social conditions that provoke certain of those qualities over others. A lesser writer fumbles both without realizing he or she is juggling either. El Akkad is one of these rare talents, and American War is a great book. Unfortunately, whether and why it’s remembered will depend a good deal on how prophetic its drama of a second civil war turns out to be.