Apr 17, 2017
On American War, Omar El Akkad’s Tale of the Second American Civil War
Omar El Akkad’s fiction debut, American War (April, Knopf), envisions a second American Civil War, waged 2074 to 2093, again between South and North. The effects of global climate change have induced a mass-move inland as the coasts are lost to rising seas and frequent, massively destructive storms. The Southerners wish to continue to use fossil fuels, as the rest of the world moves on to cleaner energy sources, and wish to leave the Union and form the Free Southern State.
Akkad could have perhaps allotted himself an easier, if less interesting task had he set the book in the North, on the side of the righteous idealists, following protagonists on the “right side” of this would-be history. But the choice to create fierce Southern characters pitted against the murderous and unyielding idealism of the North feels intentional. Because of it, this book’s liberal audience will not slip into the easy catharsis of political rightness. Its central plot is appropriately messy and brutal, the war’s casualties not easily ignored or broadly categorized (read: “deplorables”).
This is the story of Sarat Chestnut, as told by her nephew, Benjamin, though it isn’t apparent until late in the book that he is the narrator. From the beginning, Sarat feels mythic. She names herself—née Sara T. Chestnut, a blurring of her first name and middle initial by a teacher let Sarat hear her name anew. Rather than the “impotent exhale” of Sara, she chose the “bite” of Sarat. She has a twin, Dana, who is typically feminine, and interested in everything Sarat is not—lipstick, boys, fitting in. Young Sarat does experiments with honey on her parents’ porch, and revels in the mysteries of the land around her. Once her family has been moved to the Southern refugee encampment, Camp Patience, adolescent Sarat becomes ever more daring, an unfurling of herself that leaves her on one occasion literally covered in shit.
She grows to be monolithic—6’5”, strong, brave—and doesn’t live long in her pubescent body before exploitation of it by others begins. At Camp Patience, she undergoes a transformation—she shaves off her hair, and dons men’s clothes. Shortly thereafter, a teacher finds her. Albert Gaines feels lifted straight from the 1860’s Confederate South. Always impeccably dressed, he gives her previously untasted delicacies such as honeyed toast, caviar; teaches her geography; exposes her to history; and guides her to skilled marksmanship. Eventually, his teaching will be her downfall.
The major events of the war are two chemical attacks: one in the South, which causes the quarantine of the entire state of South Carolina, and one in the North, released at the Reunification Ceremony. Though this is a book ostensibly about a physical war, the victor is not important, nor why any one person chose to fight for either side. It is those ideals—and what they do to the people who don’t own them, but are swept up in their movements all the same— paired with the luck (or lack thereof) of birth day and place that Akkad wants noticed. As such, Sarat’s life, begun shortly before the war, proceeds in tandem with the war itself. “Everyone,” says a character late in the narrative, “fights an American War.” Everyone fights this war of ideas, whether with voices or gunshots, peaceful protests or coups, anti-capitalist separation or consumerism.
References throughout the book make it clear that the Northern image of the South is one of a people that obstinately refuses to adapt and move forward. It’s of ancient muscle cars, unrelenting fossil fuel consumption, and overall backwardness. But the Chestnuts, before their move to the camp, live as their neighbors do, subsisting by gathering rain water, caring for their chickens, and maintaining their solar panels. The family cooks and showers outside their small shipping container home, and the children find entertainment in the land. Their subsistence is the opposite of decadent nostalgia; they are citizens living the impact of decisions not theirs.
These themes are especially prescient considering the 2016 presidential election, and the many ideological splits that have taken place between Clinton and Trump voters (or their #NeverClinton, #BernieOrBust, and #NeverTrump counterparts). We are in an era of rampant labeling and cordoning off. We give up on one another based on which ideological camps the other belongs to, and group tensions only seem to be escalating. As noted at the start of this essay, this is not a book one should read for comfort.
We are globalized. When does a nation ever act alone, or without thought to the other countries its actions will impact? The fictional world in American War deals in this reality. There are the “newborn superpowers” sending aid to beleaguered, war-torn America: China and the Bouazizi Empire, “the latter of which, only a few decades earlier, was nothing more than a collection of failed and failing nations spread across the Middle East and North Africa.” Power and ideals are mutable, and people are too often sacrificed for one or both.
American War begs many questions: What will become of us if we don’t learn to talk to each other? If we don’t discern livable differences from intolerable ones? If our leaders can’t find ways to move forward without vilifying some and indemnifying others? If we can’t agree about the reality of climate change and the impending end of civilization as we know it that it implies?
It’s not the novelist’s job to present the answers. The book reminds us of the dangers of nostalgia, of sacrificing people in the name of ideals and progress, and it flips experience in important ways—American refugees, in need of foreign aid, for instance, is a poignant possibility to consider. War is always personal for those involved. By putting these realities in an American context, they become familiar, less easily denied or dehumanized.