Last Updated on September 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084
American War is a novel that revolves around the themes of political division within the setting of a climate-change-ravaged-US. The novel begins after the start of the Second American Civil War, which is precipitated by a ban on the use of fossil fuels. This ban is enacted because of the effects of climate change, which have already led to the loss of Florida and much of the coast to the sea. This ban leads South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas to secede from the United States. South Carolina is subdued by a biological weapon that leads to a mass infection of "the Slow," a disease which causes prolonged lethargy and then death. To prevent the spread of the disease, the Northern government constructs a wall around South Carolina, manned by guards instructed to shoot any who try to escape, though there is apparently no concern with individuals seeking entry. Texas is invaded by Mexico, leading to a war between Texas militias and the Mexican government that lingers. The Northern government uses drones early on in the war, but the Southern militias destroy the command stations, preventing communication with the drones. Since the drones are solar-powered, they remain in the air, occasionally dropping a bomb or crashing into civilian centers. This creates animosity, as Southern residents blame the North, while Northern residents blame the Southern militias for destroying the command equipment.
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It is in this environment that Sarat is born and raised with her siblings in Louisiana, near the border with what is known as the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia). Sarat and her family live in a converted shipping container and subsist in a mostly neutral position between the North and South, though Sarat's father does apply for a position working for the North. While completing his application, Sarat's father is killed in a "homicide bombing" committed by a Southern militia group. The family is notified, and Sarat's mother works to provide for the family's needs. She grows to depend on the kindness of a neighbor who receives provisions from a Southern militia group in return for providing support. Sarat's mother decides to leave their home with the children after seeing a nearby explosion that she believes is the extension of the Mexican conflict into their area. She beseeches the Southern commander who is working with her neighbor to help her evacuate and is eventually successful in receiving a pass to Camp Patience. The family crosses the Mississippi River and hikes to the pick-up station. After a lengthy wait, they are gathered on to a bus, which eventually fills beyond capacity, and delivered to Camp Patience, a refugee camp. They live in the camp for the next six years.
While in the camp, Sarat develops a reputation for fearlessness and befriends a boy who helps her in the camp, though he and his father eventually sneak into the North. This boy later joins the Northern Army and provides information to Sarat. Sarat also befriends Albert Gaines, a recruiter for the Southern militias. He gives Sarat gifts and indoctrinates her, ultimately recruiting her as a guerrilla fighter. Sarat's brother joins a Southern militia and engages in raids on the North. These raids ultimately bring a Northern militia to the camp, where they commit a massacre. Sarat hides in Albert Gaines's office with her sister, though their mother is killed and their brother is badly wounded, resulting in his lifelong mental incapacity. Sarat kills a Northern militia man before Southern forces come to collect the survivors.
Sarat, her sister, and her brother are relocated to Georgia. Sarat uses Georgia as a base of operations for assassination missions. She ultimately assassinates the top general of the Northern army, leading to an escalation in force from the Northern army. Sarat has a fraught relationship with her siblings. She and her sister are no longer close, and she has difficulty with the celebrity status her brother has achieved because of his injury. Sarat herself is engaged in an intermittent relationship with a waitress. Sarat's brother is cared for by Karina, with whom he eventually falls in love. He and Karina marry and have a child named Benjamin. Sarat, becoming disillusioned with the leaders of the South, is captured and sent to Sugarloaf Detention Facility (which appears to be modeled on Guantanamo) where she is tortured repeatedly until she discovers that Albert Gaines betrayed her. She ultimately confesses to a litany of crimes before being released to live with her brother and his wife. Her sister, by this time, has been killed by an uncontrolled drone.
Sarat has trouble readjusting and suffers significant physical issues because of her torture. Her nephew, Benjamin, tries to befriend her, but this does not work at first. After he breaks his arm in a fall, Sarat creates a splint, which leads to a recrimination from Karina for not taking him to the doctor. Sarat and Benjamin become friends after this. During this time, the South and North begin peace negotiations, with the Southern delegates interested only in having their cause portrayed positively. This is eagerly accepted by the Northern delegates.
Sarat is contacted by former rebels and informed that her torturer from Sugarloaf has been abducted. She murders him but spares his wife and children. She is later contacted by Joe, an associate of Albert's, who is concerned with keeping the US divided and weak because he represents a different world power. He obtains Sarat's agreement to commit a significant attack during the reunification ceremonies. Sarat obtains help from her former rebel allies and, before leaving, visits Albert Gaines. She does not kill him. Sarat also has associates kidnap Benjamin and transfer him to New Anchorage, in Alaska. Sarat's plan involves infecting herself with a faster and more deadly form of "the Slow" and gaining entry to the reunification ceremony in the North. She is almost prevented during a border check, but she is ultimately let through by the sons of her former torturer. This disease, called the Reunification Plague, kills a significant number of people, leading Sarat to be posthumously condemned.
Benjamin grows to become a respected historian and discovers Sarat's memoirs are being held by her former lover, though he does not know at the time that Sarat and the woman were lovers. After obtaining the memoirs, he returns home, where he reads them and, in anger and spite, burns all but one page, which he keeps as a memento. This prevents a more nuanced portrait of Sarat from becoming known.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1749
Author: Omar El Akkad (b. 1982)
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 352 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Time: Late twenty-first through early twenty-second centuries
Locale: United States
Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, imagines a future in which the United States is embroiled in a bloody civil war over the use of fossil fuels.
Sara T. Chestnut, a.k.a. Sarat Chestnut, the protagonist, a young girl who becomes a vigilante leader of the Free Southern State
American WarCourtesy of Knopf
Omar El AkkadCourtesy of Michael Lionstar
Dana Chestnut, her twin sister
Simon Chestnut, her older brother
Benjamin Chestnut, Simon’s son, a historian and the book’s narrator
Martina Chestnut, Sarat’s mother
Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is set in the late twenty-first and early twenty-second centuries. Told in retrospect—through memories and scraps of fictional newspaper articles, oral histories, and government documents—by a narrator who is an elderly historian and the nephew of the protagonist, it imagines the United States embroiled in a Second Civil War. The story begins in 2075, when the novel’s protagonist, Sarah T. Chestnut, or Sarat, as she prefers to be called, is six years old. She lives with her parents; older brother, Simon; and twin sister, Dana, in a salvaged shipping container in St. James, Louisiana, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Louisiana, its coastlines flooded by rising seas, is neutral territory wedged between the Mexican Protectorate (which swallows West Texas and most of the American Southwest) and the secessionist Free Southern State, or the Mag, which includes Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
A combination of factors led to this geographical configuration. As the effects of climate change altered the face of the country, the US government imposed a ban on fossil fuels. The ban threw the country into turmoil. President Daniel Ki was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 2073 and the proud South—the Mag, with the sympathies of the surrounding states—seceded in 2074, which is approximately when El Akkad’s story begins.
Despite these new circumstances, Sarat and her siblings recall their makeshift early existence as a happy one spent swimming in the river in the sweltering summer season, which lasts from March to mid-December. One day, the children’s father journeys up North to find work and is killed by a suicide bomber. The event is a harbinger of things to come. As the war progresses in later years, its southern participants are largely insurrectionists and guerilla warriors supported by China and the Bouazizi Empire, a nation made up of smaller states across the Middle East and North Africa. Solar-powered drones called Birds patrol the Southern skies, unleashing death and destruction at random. An attack from one of these Birds forces Sarat’s mother, Martina, to leave St. James with her children for a refugee camp called Camp Patience near the Tennessee border.
In the refugee camp, Sarat comes of age. She is an awkward girl, over six feet tall, with a penchant for reckless behavior. This combination of traits brings her to the attention of a man named Albert Gaines. Gaines is a shadowy figure, offering Sarat real honey (as opposed to slimy apricot gel rations) in exchange for running messages to the various corners of the camp. He shows her books and teaches her about history, but he has a larger vision for his protégé. He is carefully grooming Sarat as a human weapon of war, an intent made more clear after a terrible massacre kills Martina and almost kills Simon. The rest of the book traces Sarat’s emotional journey from resistance leader to prisoner of war.
American War is Omar El Akkad’s first novel. He was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up in Doha, Qatar. He later moved to Canada and joined the staff of the Globe and Mail, covering the war in Afghanistan, the military trials in Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. In interviews, El Akkad has said that real events inspired him to write American War. He said that in writing the novel, he sought to portray the emotional fallout of war and how suffering can inspire brutal acts of revenge. The novel includes drone strikes, suicide bombers, and torture, but also the hellish existence of a refugee camp and the pretensions of more powerful countries. It explores the mythology of war long after fossil fuels are no longer economically viable (the entire world in the novel is powered by alternate sources of energy). The people of the South weave their grievances into a kind of protective blanket as they continue to champion their resistance to the Sustainable Future Act, which prohibits the use of fossil fuel. There are no clearly defined agents of good and evil in American War, and El Akkad does not ask for sympathy for his characters.
American War has a place in the larger literary canon of dystopian novels. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani favorably compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), a Pulitzer Prize–winning vision of a postapocalyptic America, and Philip Roth’s historical revisionist novel The Plot Against America (2004). She also compared it to more recent young-adult series such as the Hunger Games (2008–10) and Divergent (2011–13), in which a young female protagonist, shaped by a cruel world, must “prove herself as a warrior,” as Kakutani put it. These comparisons are apt but do not fully capture the unique (if only intermittently successful) tone of El Akkad’s novel.
American War is a parable about American hubris. It is a thought experiment centered around what might happen if American fighting abroad came home. The newspaper clippings and other ephemera scattered between chapters feel alarmingly real. Unsurprisingly, given his journalistic background, El Akkad’s vision of a war-torn country is one of the book’s most successful features. American War is peppered with seemingly authentic narrative details—like the hand-me-down T-shirts that arrive by the boatload from the Bouazizi Empire and the Texas-centric imagery of the Southern resistance. However, the book is even more thought-provoking when it comes to the complexity of what a civil war in the modern United States would look like, with a retaliatory escalation followed by a stagnation that gives way to a protracted guerilla war. In El Akkad’s vision, a Southern terrorist unleashes a terrible plague on the country after the end of the war in 2095. According to the book’s narrator, at that point in the narrative, eleven million died in the war, but more than one hundred million died in the plague.
Outwardly, El Akkad’s vision is strikingly realistic, but elements of his future give rise to distracting questions. For one thing, there is a curious lack of technology in the world he has created. The words computer and internet do not appear in the book at all. El Akkad’s world is extrapolated from the partisan politics of the mid-2010s, but there is no engagement with the content of these ideological differences outside of a very narrow clash related to climate change. Fossil fuels are no longer profitable, but the South structures a mythology around the worthless product to further the war. In reality, the American South already has a mythology, largely shaped by the actual American Civil War, but El Akkad structures his story based on conflicts elsewhere in the world, where grievances are shaped over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. This approach begs the question of whether the inhabitants of the South in 2075 have any understanding of slavery in relation to the American Civil War.
Such nagging details hinder the enjoyment of a book that is otherwise a very good rendering of the mental and emotional costs of war. Sarat, a smart and curious child, is slowly broken over time. She hardens after the Camp Patience massacre when her mother dies, but Sugarloaf, where she is held as a prisoner of war, robs her of her humanity. Both experiences inspire her to commit terrible acts of revenge, which, as El Akkad suggests, is the engine that powers most conflicts. Worse, Sarat is trapped in this painful mechanism. For her, there is no true escape from the pain of the war. In one early scene, Sarat, then a young teenager, and her friend Marcus discuss the relative safety of the North. If Sarat had the opportunity to go North, Marcus asks if Sarat would go. The question gives her pause. “It seemed sensible to crave safety, to crave shelter from the bombs and the Birds and the daily depravity of war,” she thinks. “But somewhere deep in her mind an idea had begun to fester—perhaps the longing for safety was itself just another kind of violence—a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”
American War received generally positive reviews when it was published in early 2017. Kakutani wrote that it was “surprisingly powerful,” though she conceded that it contained “considerable flaws.” She took issue with El Akkad’s melodramatic plot and dialogue. Ron Charles, reviewing the book for the Washington Post, focused on the transformation of Sarat and the “cycles of vengeance” so carefully depicted by El Akkad. Anthony Cummins, reviewing the book for the Guardian, was less impressed; in that critic’s view, American War was too “schoolmasterly” to be enjoyable, likely referring to the density of expository information revealed through the newspaper clippings woven into the narrative. Overall, the book elicited a wide range of opinion and is worth an exploration on the part of the curious reader, particularly a reader who is a fan of the dystopian genre.
- Review of American War, by Omar El Akkad. Kirkus Reviews, 23 Jan. 2017, p. 1.
- Review of American War, by Omar El Akkad. Publishers Weekly, 20 Feb. 2017, p. 56.
- Charles, Ron. “American War Follows Today’s Vitriol to a Dystopian Future.” Review of American War, by Omar El Akkad. The Washington Post, 3 Apr. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/american-war-follows-todays-vitriol-to-a-dystopian-future/2017/04/03/79ac6952-186d-11e7-bcc2-7d1a0973e7b2_story.html. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.
- Cummins, Anthony. Review of American War, by Omar El Akkad. TheGuardian, 10 Sept. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/10/american-war-omar-el-akkad-review. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “A Haunting Debut Looks Ahead to a Second American Civil War.” Review of American War, by Omar El Akkad. The New York Times, 27 Mar. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/27/books/review-american-war-omar-el-akkad.html. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.