American War: A Novel
by Omar El Akkad
Read March 2017
This is a remarkable book. I am having great difficulty separating myself from it to return it to the library although I most certainly want others to read it and be impacted by it as well. This, however, is not a pleasant nor easy book. It is frankly disturbing on a number of levels. On one level, the story of the Chestnuts of Louisiana could become a successful 2 hour movie but if it is actually filmed, I hope it is in a long series so that the viewer can experience what the reader will experience—the other levels that Akkad explores in an engaging and powerful way that will leave you unsettled and, hopefully, thinking.
The book starts with a Prologue, written by an unidentified narrator who indicates he was born in Georgia but was transplanted to Alaska as a child and has spent his professional life as an academic. He has studied many historical documents and has published about the Second American Civil War, including an account of the “infamous events of Reunification Day, when one of the South’s last remaining rebels managed to sneak into the Union capital and unleash the sickness that cast the country into a decade of death. It is estimated that eleven million people died in the war, and almost ten times that number in the in the plague that followed.” The narrator indicates he is now dying from cancer and is taking this time to “say what needs to be said”. He refers to a mysterious “she” who he still loves. He reveals the story he will provide isn’t about war, but rather about ruin.
Akkad tells the story of Sarat Chestnut in four sections: Part I April 2075 in Louisiana; Part II July 2081 Iuka, Mississippi; Part III October, 2086 Lincolnton, GA; Part IV 2095 Lincolnton, GA. Interspersed between and within these sections Akkad provides excerpts from various historical documents, books, and speeches that the narrator has used in his research. These provide various kinds of views about the history of the war and the people who drove it. They provide an interesting sort of context for Sarat’s story. Sections I-III are told through a narrator in third person. Section IV is told in first person by the narrator we met in the Prologue, as he is in this section but not the earlier ones.
We meet Sarat when she is 6 in April 2075, about 18 months after the assignation of the President of the United States of America by a suicide bomber, now a famous martyr, and about 6 months after the Declaration of Independence by the MAG (Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama), fueled in part by opposition to a law banning the use of fossil fuels. We also learn that by 2075, climate and political forces discussed in 2018 have had substantial impact by 2075. The geography of the United States has been vastly altered including the coasts having been substantially reduced (including the complete loss of Florida) driving immigrants from the coasts to the center of the country and the requiring relocation of the US capital from Washington, DC to Columbus, Ohio. The scorched and parched southwest, including much of Texas, has been given over to Mexico. Civil and inter-country wars in the Middle East have given way to a new Bouazzi Empire which, in conjunction with China, is sending aid to the MAG. South Carolina isn’t part of the MAG primarily because a biological agent unleashed on it earlier has resulted in the need for a wall to keep it forever quarantined from the rest of the country. In the opening chapters, Sarat loses her father as collateral damage in a guerrilla attack as he is seeking a work permit to go north and secure employment that will allow him to take his family north to a better life than they currently have. The Chestnut family and their neighbors feel substantial pressure to leave the area as fighting just west of them is expected to envelop them soon. The Chestnut family is allowed, although they are in a “blue/purple state” , and for substantial cost, to go to a refugee camp on the border of Mississippi and Tennessee.
In the subsequent sections we learn about Sarat at various time points in her life: as a refugee in the camp that was the destination at the end of Section I, as a product of radicalization/recruitment by Albert Gaines, as a detainee following arrest for actions she undertakes for the war effort, and after release from this detention camp. I won’t give away further aspects of the plot.
While reading the book, I pondered what life was like for other people in the United States and in the MAG at that time. Since the book focuses on Sarat, we are limited in our understanding of these questions to what Sarat personally experiences. This is an interesting aspect of the book. As I write there are presently people who were born in a refugee camp, or fled one with their family at a very young age, and who are growing up in a refugee camp and have little or no idea of what life is like for anyone not in a refugee camp. They have limited or filtered information about those on either side of the conflict that has driven them to be in the refugee camp and have unclear prospects for where or how they might live in the future.
I became aware that this book provokes the realization that our understanding of what war is really like for those living in the presence of war, whether in a refugee camp, in the cross-fire of the front, or in a rubble left after the fighting has moved on, is close to non-existent.
But the author provokes even more—why do we fight in wars? Gaines tells Sarat “I sided with the Red because when a Southern tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I’d had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” I was confronted by the reason Sarat’s driver, working for a coordinator of a group of Southern rebel groups, had for joining: “I just wanted to be something.” His desperation for meaning in his life is haunting, especially since he didn’t have much interest in the “cause” at all. I wondered how many “recruits” have joined rebel groups, “terrorist” groups, or even the “official” military for this reason (whether living in a refugee camp, in an occupied territory, or even in “regular society”). Sarat’s reason for her actions evolves over time and eventually echoes a reason for continuous conflict over the eons of human existence: vengeance for wrong done to one’s family by others.
The author continues to keep us uncomfortable throughout the book. Sarat’s story is very difficult to read at times. We are reading about the United States of America being in the state of civil war—a situation that currently only happens “over there”. But most of all, the author effectively holds a mirror up to the USA regarding the role it’s played in civil wars elsewhere.
Read this book to be uncomfortable. Read this book to begin to confront what you know and think about war. Read this book to begin to comprehend the drivers for desperate acts we brand “terrorist”. Read this book and pass it on to others and talk about it and how it makes us feel.