American War

American War

April 4, 2017

In 2074, after the passage of a bill that bans the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas secede from the Union, starting the "Second American Civil War." South Carolina is q...

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432 Pages
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In 2074, after the passage of a bill that bans the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas secede from the Union, starting the "Second American Civil War." South Carolina is quickly incapacitated by a virus, known as "The Slow," that makes its inhabitants lethargic, and Texas is invaded and occupied by Mexico, while the remaining "Free Southern States" continue to fight. The novel is told from the point of view of Sarat and her nephew, Benjamin

American War is the first novel by Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad. It is set in a near-future United States of America, ravaged by climate change, in which a second Civil War has broken out over the use of fossil fuels. The story is told by Benjamin Chestnut about his aunt, Sarat Chestnut, and is told through narrative chapters interspersed with fictional primary documents collected by the narrator.

In 2074, after the passage of a bill that bans the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas secede from the Union, starting the "Second American Civil War." South Carolina is quickly incapacitated by a virus, known as "The Slow," that makes its inhabitants lethargic, and Texas is invaded and occupied by Mexico, while the remaining "Free Southern States" continue to fight. The novel is told from the point of view of Sarat and her nephew, Benjamin.

 

Sarat is 6 years old when the war breaks out. She lives with her family on the climate change-ravaged coast of Louisiana. Her family consists of her parents Benjamin and Martina, her older brother Simon, and her fraternal twin Dana Chestnut. After Sarat's father is killed during a "homicide bombing" in Baton Rouge in 2075, Sarat and her family relocate to a refugee camp called "Camp Patience," located on the Mississippi–Tennessee border.

 

Sarat and her family spend the next six years living a squalid existence at Camp Patience. In

 2081, when Sarat is 12 years old, she befriends the charismatic Albert Gaines, a recruiter for the Southern rebels. Gaines introduces her to an agent of the emerging Bouazizi Empire named Joe, who is sending aid to the Free Southern States to keep the United States weak and divided. Later, a Northern militia unit attacks Camp Patience and massacres many of the refugees, killing Sarat's mother and wounding her brother. Overcome by grief and rage, Sarat kills a Northern militia man.

 

Following the Camp Patience massacre, Sarat and her siblings are resettled by the Free Southern government in Lincolnton, Georgia, on the border with South Carolina. The two sisters are joined by Simon, who is suffering from a bullet still lodged in his brain. Five years later, in 2086, the Chestnut siblings settle in to their new lives. While Sarat has become a member of Gaines' rebel group, the broken Simon is tended by a Bangladeshi American woman named Karina. As time passes, Simon and Karina develop romantic feelings for each other.

 

During a guerrilla operation near a U.S. base along the Georgia-Tennessee border, Sarat assassinates General Joseph Weiland, a prominent U.S. commander. While Sarat is hailed as a hero by the Free Southern States, Weiland's assassination only hardens the U.S.'s resolve to end the Southern insurgency, leading to a crackdown against the Southern guerrillas. Sarat eventually grows disillusioned with the corrupt and self-serving Southern leadership. Later, Dana is killed when a rogue drone bombs a bus she was traveling in.

 

Sarat is later captured by U.S. forces who imprison her at the Sugarloaf Detention Facility in the Florida Sea. Sarat later learns her mentor Gaines betrayed her to the U.S. For the next seven years, Sarat is repeatedly tortured, including being subjected to water boarding. To end the torment, Sarat confesses to several, exaggerated charges. Sarat is later released after the U.S. government deems Gaines an unreliable source.

 

Years later, Simon has married Karina, who produced a son named Benjamin. In 2095, the 6-year-old Benjamin meets his aunt Sarat, who settles down on Benjamin's homestead. Sarat is later visited by one of her former rebel comrades, who informs her that his group has captured Bud Baker, one of her former Sugarloaf captors who tortured her. Sarat kills Bud but decides to spare his family after discovering he had two teenage twin sons.

 

Back at Benjamin's household, tensions between Sarat and her brother's wife Karina rise after Benjamin sustains a broken arm and Sarat binds it with a crude prosthetic. Benjamin realizes that his aunt is still haunted by her childhood at Camp Patience. As his arm recovers, Benjamin becomes friendly with his aunt.

 

Sarat is later visited by the Bouazizi agent Joe who recruits her into carrying a deadly virus into the Reunification Ceremony in Columbus, Ohio. Joe reveals that his real name is Yousef Bin Rashid and that the Bouazizi Empire wants to prevent the re-emergence of the U.S. as a superpower. Seeking revenge against the U.S. government, Sarat accepts the offer and convinces her former rebel comrades to secure her passage to the Reunification Ceremony. Before leaving, Sarat visits the crippled Gaines at his cabin but leaves without killing him. She also arranges for her associates to smuggle her nephew Benjamin to safety in New Anchorage. Later, Sarat infiltrates the Reunification Ceremony. The resulting "Reunification Plague" kills 110 million people, devastating the already war-torn country.

 

The orphaned Benjamin settles to his new life in New Anchorage and becomes a respected historian. Decades later, Benjamin discovers his aunt's diaries and learns of her experiences during the Second American Civil War and her role in the Reunification Plague. To spite his aunt, Benjamin burns her diaries but keeps one page as a memento.

Omar El Akkad (born 1982) is an Egyptian-Canadian novelist and journalist.

Omar El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up in Doha, Qatar.When he was 16 years old, he moved to Canada, subsequently completing high school in Montreal and university at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. He has a computer science degree. For ten years he was a staff reporter for The Globe and Mail, where he covered the War in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantanamo Bay and the Arab Spring in Egypt.He was most recently a correspondent for the western United States, where he covered Black Lives Matter.

 

His first novel, American War, was published in 2017. It received positive reviews from critics; The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani compared it favourably to Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America. She wrote that "melodramatic" dialogue could be forgiven by the use of details that makes the fictional future "seem alarmingly real". The Globe and Mail called it "a masterful debut." The novel was named a shortlisted finalist for the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize,

 and for the 2018 amazon.ca First Novel Award, and won a Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

 

He lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Oregon.

 

In November 2019 the BBC News listed American War on a list of the 100 most influential novels.

Review:

 

 

A novel, like a person, doesn’t have to have a purpose. This is one reason humanism regards art as sacred: it exists for its own sake. Other value systems, religious or political, might insist that art serve a theological or ideological cause, but the novel – in its origins a bourgeois enterprise – makes a poor missionary or soldier. The uniforms fit badly and it keeps flunking basic training.

 

The mission of Omar El Akkad’s first novel, American War, is admirable: to encourage western readers, especially Americans, to put themselves in the shoes of the world’s radicalised displaced people. Set in the late 21st century, the novel imagines an America wrecked by war and the flooding brought on by climate change. Its heroine, Sarat Chestnutt, grows up in a shack by the Mississippi, in a Louisiana eaten away by the rising Gulf of Mexico. A handful of southern states, refusing to abide by federal laws prohibiting the use of fossil fuels, have attempted to secede from the union, setting off a second civil war. Sarat’s parents want to emigrate north, where the economic opportunities are better, but her father is killed in a suicide bombing and Sarat, her mother and two siblings end up in a refugee camp near a contested border. Violence and reprisals leave Sarat bereft and vengeful. A suave groomer provides her with education, training and weapons, and a terrorist is born.

 

El Akkad, a Canadian journalist born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, has said that his intention with American War is not to make the reader admire Sarat. Rather, “in this incredibly polarised world we live in”, he hopes that by the time the reader gets to the end of his novel, “you’re not on her side, you don’t support her, you’re not willing to apologise for her – but you understand how she got to the place where she is”. This could have been done otherwise, with, say, a novel set in contemporary Iraq or Afghanistan. The milieu, the history, the culture might have been unfamiliar to many western readers, but the revelation of the familiar in the strange is one of the forms of alchemy we seek in fiction. Paradoxically, the more particular the author’s vision – this exact kind of biscuit dipped in that precise type of tea – the more easily we can locate the universal in what is described.

Instead, El Akkad sets American War not just in America, but in the American south. The news from Charlottesville testified to the truth of Faulkner’s maxim: in the south, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The same backward-looking frame of mind that makes it so hard for the south to shake off the dead weight of racism and cultural resentment also lends southern culture the nation’s most pronounced regional flavour, beloved in one form or another by even its most ambivalent natives: the sweet tea and collards, the delta blues and zydeco, the courtly manners and local dialects. Americans joke about the ability of many southerners to rattle off the names of their ancestors going back half a dozen generations. The south has its own literature and, disturbingly, often its own version of history. The defeated side in a civil war loses the ability to control its future, and this often leads to an accentuated investment in the past.

But the south of Flannery O’Connor, Leadbelly, Elvis Presley and Margaret Mitchell has been erased in El Akkad’s America. A mere 75 years in the future, as he imagines it, there will still be a Democratic and a Republican party, but no one will care much or talk about race any more. Sarat has “fuzzy” hair, but her father’s skin was a “caramel” shade and he keeps a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the converted shipping container where the family lives at the novel’s beginning. The Chestnutts don’t claim any ethnicity at all. Perhaps El Akkad envisions an America where the old races have so intermingled they can’t be distinguished , but in his version of the future, no one even seems to remember that race was once a cornerstone of American identity, a division and a heritage that tore the nation apart again and again.

El Akkad’s southerners don’t talk like southerners, don’t behave like southerners, don’t seem to have any real roots in the land they fight for. (The idea that people would be willing to kill and die for the right to burn petroleum, while somewhat redolent of the longstanding southern resentment of federal intervention, is laughable.) It’s hard to view this novel as the story of how an American would respond to the conditions that create terrorists in other nations because Sarat and her family don’t seem especially American. They have the generic, benighted quality of figures who appear briefly in newspaper articles about human rights crises in obscure, “war-torn” nations, detached from their homeland and its customs and all the fragile dignity those things carry. Sarat’s identity is entirely shaped by the war and what she loses to it.

Late in the book, when Sarat has been almost completely hardened, she offers up what amounts to the novel’s thesis: “The misery of war represents the world’s only truly universal language.” In peacetime, the peoples of the globe may seem diverse, but when war strips them of “the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly”, they are “kin. The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: if it had been you, you’d have done no different.” The point is arguable. What people do in extremis, and what they suffer, is not all that they are, and plenty of combatants and victims cling all the more fiercely to the faiths and identities they owned before war wrecked their lives, finding them even more meaningful afterwards. But Sarat can’t be stripped of any of those things because she never really has them to begin with. She is a contrivance, existing only to serve the message of American War. War may inevitably dehumanise the people caught up in it, but a novel, however well intentioned, ought not to follow its example.

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