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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review of AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

4 Stars
An elderly man with terminal cancer tells the story of his aunt, Sarat Chestnut, and her involvement in the Second American Civil War (2074 – 2095).  We see how she, a young girl with a relatively happy childhood, is radicalized and becomes a terrorist fighting Northerners after her family ends up in a camp for Southern refugees.  Interspersed with her narrative are primary sources (academic studies, government reports, military documents) that flesh out the background.

By the time the war begins, the United States has experienced an environmental catastrophe.  Because of global warming, the oceans have risen dramatically and forced people to move inland.  A man-made plague has quarantined South Carolina.  The civil war erupts because the government has passed a Sustainable Futures Act which prohibits the extraction and use of fossil fuels.  Longstanding political divisions worsen, and Southerners in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia rebel against this law and secede.  The fighting, with each side making incursions, makes refugees of even more people.  On Reunification Day, a day to mark the end of the war, a biological agent is released which results in a plague that takes over 100 million lives. 

These events are the background because the novel focuses on Sarat:  “This isn’t a story about war.  It’s about ruin.”  She is an intelligent and independent child, but family tragedies, violent reprisals, and even the boredom of the camp make her ripe for recruitment.  Provided with training and weapons, she is changed into a terrorist:  “For Sarat Chestnut, the calculus was simple:  the enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy.  There could be no other way, she knew it.  Blood can never be unspilled.”  Her anger is emphasized again and again:  “Rage wrapped itself around her like a tourniquet, keeping her alive even as it condemned a part of her to atrophy.”  By the end, though the reader will not condone her activities, he/she will certainly understand how she became an angry young woman full of hatred and capable of violence. 

The book asks readers to put themselves in the position of displaced persons:  “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.”

The book is not flawless.  The premise for the civil war is weak:  would a war break out because of a dispute over the use of fossil fuels?  (Though there is a nod to a contemporary nation divided by ideology:  the word Red is shorthand for the South, a term that has “something to do with who voted for the old Republican Party back when it was all still one country.”)  The science is questionable:  would all of Florida be inundated by rising ocean levels?  Would drones go rogue because a server farm is destroyed?  There are coincidences that do not ring true:  Sarat’s repeated meetings with a friend are very improbable.  There are the things that don’t change:  one hundred years in the future, people will still watch television?   And there are things that aren’t mentioned:  in fifty years, race issues have been resolved? 

To increase the book’s plausibility, the author makes reference to issues which have parallels in our world.  The U.S. is currently involved in foreign conflicts; in the novel, foreign powers become involved in the American civil war because of their own agendas.  A representative of a pan-Arab empire, which has emerged and wants to become the new superpower, admits that Americans cannot be allowed to kill themselves in peace: “’we intend  . . . to be the most powerful empire in the world.  For that to happen, other empires must fail. . . . Everyone fights an American war.’”  Refugees are often unwelcome in parts of our world; in the next century of the novel, refugees are often disliked.  One man who was a refugee years earlier protests the arrival of newer refugees:  “Nativism being a pyramid scheme, I found myself contemptuous of the refugees’ presence in a city already overwhelmed.   At the foot of the docks, we yelled at them to go home, even though we knew home to be a pestilence field.  We carried signs calling them terrorists and criminals and we vandalized the homes that would take them in.  It made me feel good to do it, it made me feel rooted:  their unbelonging was proof of my belonging.”  (I love the twist to the refugee crisis:  “’If you ever stand anywhere on this shore, say in New Algiers, you’ll see fleets of ragged little boats headed southward from the European shore . . .  Boats full of migrants from the old Union countries, looking for better lives.’”)  Certainly, the climate change deniers of today are like the people in the novel who refuse to give up their vehicles powered by the remains of “ancient lizards.”  There are power struggles among various rebel groups, the types of struggles that can be found in the Middle East today.  There is even passing reference to antibiotic drug resistance:  “’there used to be drugs that could have fixed her right up, but everybody used them too much and they didn’t work anymore.’”

Though not without its faults, this book is worth reading.  It is thought-provoking, providing a new perspective on refugees, and emphasizes the need to take care of these people.  If we do nothing, we had best hope that “even someone hell-bent on revenge might find a temporary capacity for kindness.”  The book will leave you thinking, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”