Review: American War
This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.
American War speculates about a second U.S. Civil War, set a few decades into the future. 2074–2095 to be exact.
It isn’t so much about why they fought a war, though that was interesting. It is about what happens when people give in to war as the solution. Once they blindly embrace the nationalist flag waving, the deep conviction that their side supports a cause noble enough to justify mass murder. Once they become so damaged, the only things that matter are exacting revenge and never, ever surrendering.
How endless cycles of violence begin.
How terrorists are born.
I was excited to find this book. I thought it might allow me to vent feelings of frustration at the current political quagmire in the U.S., but it did not. American War scared the crap out of me. And it made the destruction of a country and a culture very personal; it inflicted the ongoing devastation on people I cared about. It’s not a “war book”, it’s a book about a family caught up in a war.
There are many insightful reviews for this book (at the New York Times and Washington Post, for example), which made me hesitant to chime in. But this was a 5-star book for me, so I wanted to write just a few thoughts. There’s an awful lot to contemplate, as it turns out, too much to cover with just a few thoughts. Nevertheless, if you keep reading, I’ll tell you some of the main reasons this book affected me so deeply (plus steered me down a distracting blind alley), that I had to read it twice.
The story begins after the war is over. An unidentified survivor reminisces about when and why and how the war began, about its major events, like assassinations and plagues. We learn when it ended, or did it? These tidbits are vague enough to be intriguing yet scary as hell.
Then the narrative jumps back a few decades. We meet the Chestnut family and watch the war rip their lives apart.
This time around, fossil fuel is the catalyst for secession. Congress passes the Sustainable Future Act that outlaws the use of fossil fuel, and the South refuses to comply. Rebels smuggle gasoline and flaunt gas-guzzling boats, cars, and generators, even when cheaper, more sophisticated, legal alternatives are readily available.
It said something to own a vehicle that still ran on prohibition fuel; it spoke not only of accumulated wealth, but of connections, of status.
Sarat Chestnut, her twin sister Dana, and her older brother Simon live with their parents in a corrugated steel shipping container in rural southern Louisiana, “down by the Mississippi Sea near Old New Orleans”. The War is in full swing and they are barely hanging on. Jobs are scarce. Communities are abandoned. Government is in chaos. Battles rage around them. The seas have encroached on much of the land where they grew up. New Orleans is underwater.
Further away, the rural heartlands have been invaded by hordes of refugees from the rising waters. The flooded nation’s capital has been relocated to Columbus, Ohio. Florida is now the Florida Sea, and the southern coastal lands are steadily disappearing. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia have formed the Free Southern State, with its capital and a very tenuous government in Atlanta. The states surrounding them are
“Welcome to the Mag,” the driver said to his passengers. “The last real set of balls in the whole of God’s green earth.”
Except for South Carolina, which is under permanent medical quarantine behind a wall. The southwest has been annexed by Mexio. Southern rebels trade illegal fuel that is steadily dwindling in value for supplies from the world’s largest superpowers: China and the Bouazizi Empire (what readers currently know as the separate countries of northern African and the Middle East), who have many agendas driving their assistance.
“You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”
“Come on now”.... “Everyone fights an American war.”
Sarat’s father tries to get a permit to take his family north in search of a job and becomes the victim of a terrorist bombing. So his family ends up in a refugee camp in northern Alabama near the MAG line. Sarat’s brother Simon falls in with the disorganized rebels leading raids across the heavily fortified border. Her petite and pretty twin Dana entertains a long line of suitors. But Sarat is big and burly, has little patience with stupid games, and definitely marches to her own drum. Early in the book, Sarat ponders her dissimilarities with the twin sister she loves deeply but doesn’t understand.
And although she’d been told by her parents that both she and Dana were made of the same flesh, Dana was her father’s girl, with his easygoing wit and sincere smile. Sarat was made of her mother: stubborn, hard, undaunted by calamity. They were twins but they were not alike. Sarat often heard her mother use the word tomboy to describe her. God gave me two children at once, she said, but only girl enough for one.
Sarat is independent, adventurous, smart, and self-reliant. She prowls in and around the sprawling refugee tent city called Camp Patience; she watches everyone, and she learns. She soon catches the eye of a dapperly dressed recruiter who recognizes that spark of potential and sets about nurturing her emotional wounds for his own purposes.
He fed her the old mythology of her people — the South of Spanish moss and palmetto fronds; of magnolia trees dressed up in leaves of History and History’s step-sister Apocrypha; of unmatched generosity and jubilant excess; of whole pigs smoked whole days and of peaches and pecans and key lime pies.
“That’s a shame isn’t it? The first thing they try to take from you is your history.”
“What is the first anesthetic?”
“And if I take your wealth?”
“And if I demolish your home, burn your fields?”
“And if I make it taboo to sympathize with your plight?”
“And if I kill your family?”
“...Hasn’t said a word in two thousand years.”
I’m not going to spoil the long and arduous character journeys — the perseverance through extreme adversity, the abiding bonds of family, the bittersweet triumphs, and the unspeakable horrors that kept my eyes glued to the page when I desperately wanted to look away. The story later switches back to the original point of view, who we realize is Sarat’s nephew, when he is an old man. He’s the only survivor who knows what really happened at the end of the war, and it has weighed heavily.
At intervals, the narrative is supplemented with excerpts from official reports and historical records that detail pivotal events before, during, and after the war. These provide the context to understand how the trials and tribulations of the characters fit into the larger, national and international, perspectives.
In the same vein as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and MaddAddam trilogy (which I reviewed here), much of what’s in this book of speculative fiction is either possible or already happening somewhere in the world, and that is what makes it so completely terrifying. Soaring temperatures; frequent, massive, named storms that wreak destruction; inexorably encroaching waters. Rabid rejection of changes to unsustainable lifestyles. Deliberate, organized incitement of belief systems into fanaticism. Proliferation of technologies we can’t fully protect, predict, or control. The drones that keep flying and obliterating random targets long after the Reds destroy the computers that command them are particularly memorable.
The author, Omar El Akkad, grew up in Egypt and Qatar, then moved to Canada, and now lives near Portland, Oregon. For more than 10 years, he has reported on issues related to the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. He has experienced first-hand both orchestrated and inadvertent effects of ongoing militarized and politicized ideological conflict. He has mined the insights gleaned from those events to create a disturbing study of tribal identity and ceaseless cycles of retribution. He has provided an absolutely chilling portrayal of the crafting of a terrorist. An American terrorist on American soil, borne not of religious fervor but of careful cultivation and brutal mistreatment by those who would use her to further their own causes.
This book explores universal truths about conflict and could, therefore, be set anywhere. At first, this bothered me. I got distracted by the lack of some deeply ingrained elements of Southern culture, which I think would factor into any cause(s) that inspired secession. I didn’t think fossil fuel on its own would be enough. (I grew up in the South. Several scenes in this book were set on a lake where I once lived. I have lots of family and friends there, I visit often, and sometimes when I talk I drawl like I still live there. So my heart had a stake in this story.) As I read, this omission distracted me too much. Did the author not understand Southern culture very well? Or maybe he was hopeful that these issues would be resolved in the next 50 years, and southerners might rally together as one to fight an outside threat to their collective freedoms?
Then I read the book again and decided that stuff doesn’t matter. Despite some frightening parallels with current events in the U.S., as it stands, this story could happen anywhere in the world. The geographies don’t matter. The motivations don’t matter. The cultural ideologies don’t matter. The war tears all that to hell.
People are the same everywhere. The names they give to the ideologies that motivate them might differ, but once they go to war, the human toll is the same. Poisoned earth. Mass graves. Generations of minds poisoned by hatred. Generations of progress wiped out. Generations of bodies and communities and cultures struggling to
...the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same — and yet they were. War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike, but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.
This is a gripping tale. It’s current enough to hook you, exciting enough to keep your attention, and deep enough to trouble you long after you’re done. Several strengths elevate it to the hallowed realms of literary fiction, for me. The eloquent prose, excellent narrative and structure, and powerful character voices. The superb understanding of literary craft. The deft examination of human nature. Literature can be tough for me because it usually addresses difficult themes, and real life often presents its own oversize load, so I venture into literature less often than I’d like to. Or I look for a fantastical element to cushion my discomfort by distancing the distressing elements. There are no dragons or time-traveling British nurses here, but reading American War was worth my visceral discomfort.
As it turned out, my focus on missing cultural traits the first time I read this book kept me from appreciating the classically constructed way that this story unfolds and its profusion of artful phrasing. The transformation of violence and suffering into “an overwhelming relief, the opposite of drowning....”
Here are some of my favorite metaphors. I didn’t notice them the first time I read this book, but they practically bludgeoned me over the head when I reread! (Critics might call them heavy handed, but obvious metaphors make me feel smart, ha ha, so I don’t mind a few sprinkled through my books...)
A bit of ominous foreshadowing in the very first chapter:
Sarat returned to the scene of her morning experiment, poking at the congealed honey thick in the knots of the wood.... It fascinated her, how the thing so readily took the shape of its vessel.... She expected the honey to taste like wood, but it still tasted like itself.
On deliberatively shaping an emergent human weapon:
Sarat retrieved from a sheath in her pocket the small folding knife Gaines had given her. When she first received it the blade was dull, but she had scraped it against the sharpening stone night after night. Now the blade was rough and uneven from being overworked, but Sarat mistook this for sharpness.
On endless cycles of hatred:
On one of our trips to the river I had asked her why the wall was there. She said the people on the other side had been infected with a sickness, and the wall was built to keep them from making others sick. I asked her what kind of sickness. She said the kind where you don’t ever get better, the kind you can’t help but pass on to your children, and they to theirs.
I’ll let you decide:
He said it was about the dirt: in the South there’s a mineral in the ground that turns the dirt red. He said when you’ve leached all the good from the earth, all the nutrients that a seedling needs to grow, the last thing left is the stuff that turns the dirt red.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom slash ominous warnings:
“Listen, because I’m about to tell you the gist of every opinion that’s ever been had.” Sarat leaned forward, as though imparting a great secret. “All these old men want it to be like it was when they were young. But it’ll never be like that again, and they’ll never be young again, no matter what they do. And it’s not just ours that do it. It’s theirs too.”
And I think it’s fair to say, Madam Chairwoman, that no reasonable person genuinely believed that by temporarily setting aside normal protocol and installing a President until the following election, we had somehow forever dismantled the foundations of American democracy.
...in this part of the world, right and wrong ain’t about who wins, or who kills who. In this part of the world, right and wrong ain’t even about right and wrong. It’s about what you do for your own.
They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.
The real insurrectionists never fired a single shot.
American War melds headlines about ongoing struggles around the world, particularly in the Middle East, with current American political, economic, and religious unrest to envision the potentially cataclysmic effects that a new Civil War might have on our nation. Because, in the words of Sinclair Lewis, It Can Happen Here. And some days it seems not only possible but almost inevitable, like that’s what a lot of people are actually cheering and gearing up for.
I wish all the people who feel that way would sit down right now and read this book. Because IMHO, American War not only dazzles and devastates, it indisputably disabuses its readers of the merits of that path.
I heard there’s talk of peace back home. I hope for your benefit that it’s true, but I don’t think it matters much for us. We’ve been here too long. Whatever we were before this is all gone.