Review: Omar El Akkad, American War (2017)
The year is 2084. America is in the throes of a second Civil War. California is burnt to dust because of global warming. Though nominally called the Mexican Protectorate, the Southwest resembles something akin to a lawless frontier. In the East, the seat of government is now Columbus, Ohio, moved from Washington, D.C. as a result of rising sea levels which have eaten away much of the Atlantic coast and completely submerged Florida and the entire city of New Orleans. A high wall encloses South Carolina to quarantine its war-ravaged population from spreading a deadly disease to the rest of the country. The Free Southern State (FSS), which consists of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, has seceded from the Union over the North’s aggressive restrictions on fossil fuel usage. It now finds itself locked in a long and bloody guerilla war against the North. Meanwhile, Northern unmanned drones — Birds, as they’re known — roam the Southern skies and reign hellfire down on enemy and civilian alike.
This is the state of the world in Omar El Akkad’s cli-fi thriller, American War. In the wake of the Trump led attack on the Capitol a few weeks ago and the ongoing global pandemic, there could not have been a better (worse?) time to read this book. When the U.S. seems to be on the brink of Civil War and a deadly virus stalks the country, El Akkad’s world, set 50–70 years in the future, seems both ripped from the headlines and depressingly plausible.
Dark and depressing. Sounds like a good description of our current times I’d say. This tone, though, is one of the main reasons why I enjoyed the book so much. El Akkad’s close attention to detail when building this bleak world and developing his troubled characters really pays off in the end. What emerges is a striking tale that’s equal parts Jason Bourne action adventure and House of Cards political drama. American War is a deep meditation on warfare, revenge, death, and trauma. A book for our times, indeed.
The plot centers on the life of Sarat Chestnut, a naturally curious and observant child from rural Louisiana who eventually becomes a fierce and loyal special agent for the FSS. After the first few pages, you realize that the story is being told from the point of view of an historian looking back on the events of the Second Civil War. This becomes important in the last quarter of the book. (No spoilers here!)
The pace of the plot unfolds in fits and starts. We follow Sarat and her family members from their small shack outside New Orleans, to their time in Camp Patience (an FSS refuge camp located near the Mississippi-Tennessee border), to rural Georgia, Atlanta, and present day Florida. But the time spent and the character development that happens in each of these places is uneven. There are times when it seemed El Akkad wants to describe his fictional world more than move the plot. And other times when it’s vice versa. This is a hard balance to strike in the cli-fi genre. The best books find a balance between the two, or at least find ways to fold world building into character development. Added to this, too, was the fact that the early parts of the book don’t wholly center on Sarat as the protagonist, which makes for a strange disconnect with the expectations set by the book’s dust jacket summary.
If the plot felt disjointed, the structure itself was clever and well executed. After each chapter, El Akkad includes a variety of different primary sources from the second Civil War to help further explain the larger context and history of this future America. These were very fun to read and were oftentimes artfully written. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a trained historian with a PhD in history. The sources range from first-hand accounts by soldiers who fought in the war to official government reports about specific events or people. This is one of the most creative ways I’ve seen an author world build, and it turned out to be extremely effective.
While I think the book’s historical framing was one of its biggest strengths, it was also the source of one of my biggest criticisms. El Akkad’s future America had a complete lack of connection to the long history of America, specifically when it came to the history of race. I counted maybe two times race was explicitly addressed. Both times in a very offhanded manner. I don’t think this weakens the book. But I think it could have significantly strengthened the realism of the world.
I mean, c’mon. The book takes place in the South, the site of America’s most brutal racial violence. There are many ways in which El Akkad could have made these historical resonances throughout the text. For example, much of the early part of the book focuses on Sarat’s mother, who’s Black. It’s only mentioned once, and if you’re not careful you might miss it. Camp Patience, which we spend a lot of time in early on, is also full of diverse refugees from across the South. This would have been a potent setting to explore the tensions and power structures associated with race.
America’s past is defined, in many ways, by slavery and white supremacy. But El Akkad’s world erases all of this. It plays no part, for example, in the description of the origins of the second Civil War, which is arguably the most important and interesting things about the book. To be clear, I’m not saying the book should have been more historically accurate. I just think there was a missed opportunity for El Akkad to make more powerful historical connections to the world he built.
The political language of slavery and freedom has a long history in America dating back to the Revolution. Elite white colonists during the 1760s and early 1770s equated new British taxes to slavery. But they meant a specific form of political subjugation not the lived reality of chattel slavery. Through FSS militiamen complaints or Southern political rhetoric, El Akkad could have used this idea to create a more compelling narrative around the origin of the second Civil War. There are also, of course, many historical parallels with the first Civil War that he could have used, too, had he made his FSS officials more aware of the South’s own history. (Like, for example, the politics surrounding the Nullification Crisis in 1832–33.) This is all to say that I think El Akkad could have done more to connect his future America to its long and complicated past.
Of course, there’s only so much you can include. The book is already pushing 350 pages. And you probably don’t want it to feel like a traditional history (even though I’d eat that up). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want El Akkad to write a separate book called the History of the Second American Civil War.
There’s so much about the world that El Akkad explores that I haven’t even touched on yet. For example, the plot has a fascinating international dimension to it. But seeing as this post is already quite long, I’ll let you explore those on your own! Or, better yet, reply and we can talk more about the book in the comments.
The fact that American War raised so many great questions for me is just a testament to the book’s excellence. El Akkad is a phenomenal writer, especially when it comes to his descriptions of war and trauma. One passage in particular leapt out at me:
“The misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, the prayers they received 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.”
We’ve all been in quarantine for almost a year now and the House of Representatives just impeached the former President of the United States for inciting an insurrection. These two themes — disease and civil war — are two themes that powerfully come to life in this book. El Akkad has created a highly plausible if harrowing world. Let’s just hope the history of this world doesn’t become our future.