Book Review: American War

| American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad

Today’s political climate is more polarizing than a WWE fan’s opinion of John Cena. Hot take, right?

The polar state of our government seems unprecedented, but the American Civil War was once a thing. And although our politics are more partisan than ever, we’re still a single country. We’re not facing an imminent secession (and hopefully we never will).

But what if it happened again?

Publisher: Alfred A. Knoph

Omar El Akkad gives us his vision of a nation divided once again in American War (2017). Like most dystopian novels, this story is set in the near future. Instead a soldier’s point-of-view on the battlefield, this story is told from a civilian perspective. When blood is shed in their own backyards, everyone is affected.

This is one of my favorite books so far this year—it gets 4 out of 5 stars. Not only is it a captivating page-turner, this story challenges my sense of morality. As I was reading, new conflicts arose to complicate the debate in my head. If someone justifiably commits an evil act, is it acceptable? Do the ends justify the means? How about vice-versa? Can someone truly be a good or bad person? Does it depend on context?

If you have the answers, please let me know. My sanity would thank you.

One of the most interesting details of this book is the author himself. Before he wrote this novel, Akkad was a reporter who covered the War in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantanamo Bay, and the Arab Spring in Egypt. As I read the book with this in mind, his descriptions of war became all the more haunting.

Source: Boudewijn Huysmans, Unsplash

Children are born into a broken world where fear and desperation are a normal part of life. Restless teenagers join rebel factions in order to make a difference for their side in the war. Adults must find a way to care for their loved ones; will they join the military to earn a stable income or scrounge up cash through odd jobs in their community?

This story is centered around the Chestnuts, a humble civilian family who struggle to maintain a meager lifestyle in rural Louisiana. The main character, Sarat Chestnut, is a young, headstrong tomboy with a knack for sticking up for herself. She lives with her twin sister Dana, her older brother Simon, and her parents Benjamin and Martina.

Climate change has ravaged the world and, while that’s enough to worry about, the United States is once again split by latitude. This time, the wedge issue is renewable energy. As a response to the severely rising ocean level, the US government outlawed fossil fuels. The South disagreed and assassinated enough key people to instigate a second American Civil War.

When the booming sounds of war get too close for comfort, the Chestnut family must decide whether to stand their ground or find a rumored safe haven in the North.

Source: Malte Schmidt, Unsplash

If you haven’t read the book, it’s not too late to turn back; you’re getting into spoiler territory. After you read it, come back and tell me what you think!

Akkad’s decision to include media excerpts in between chapters elegantly conveys exposition for the story. These excerpts include newspaper stories, memos, and essays which provide foreshadowing that slaps you in the face when you finally make the connection. Because time jumps forward each chapter, these excerpts help soften the sometimes abrupt passage of time.

Time jumping is one thing I’ll nitpick in this story. Sure, we get a year and location at the beginning, but I didn’t memorize the 20XX year from the last chapter. I usually flipped back to the beginning of the last chapter, did the math, and pictured how that amount of time would affect the characters. I’ll complain, but this is just a mild inconvenience in an otherwise well-told story.

The most well-told aspect of this book is Sarat’s story arc. I was surprised at how much my opinion of her shifted as I read.

Source: Danir Yangirov, Unsplash

I rooted for her when she was growing up and and making the best out of a tragic situation. As her story progressed and she met Albert Gaines, a Southern rebel recruiter, she was enabled to take action against those who wronged her. To Sarat, justice and revenge become one and the same.

By the end of the story, Sarat becomes the most ruthless terrorist in the world when she unleashes a deadly plague in the North. Because of the war, she experienced the death of her father, her mother, and her twin sister. She was captured and tortured for nearly a decade for crimes she never committed (she did kill a general, but someone else had taken the blame).

Although she has every reason to hurt her enemies to put them through the same pain she endured, I disagreed with her decision—but I do understand it.

Sarat’s transformation is the core of this story. Akkad wanted to show how an innocent person in dire circumstances can be pushed towards radicalization and violence. She was dehumanized by her enemies, so she paid them back inhumanely. One of the media excerpts declared the North’s torture facility as the South’s greatest recruiter.

Violence only begets violence.

Source: Lena Bell, Unsplash

The last thing I want to note is how Akkad demonstrates how rhetoric shapes worldviews. When the South had surrendered to the North, they didn’t ask for any economic or political compromises; they simply wanted the North to announce that they had agreed to a noble ceasefire.

Even though the South was indeed surrendering, the North agreed to never use the word “surrender.” The people will never truly give up on a country that never gave up in the face of the enemy. Just like John Cena.

In short, this book is topical, well written, and hard to put down. There’s so much more to say about this story I haven’t even touched, including: the randomness of war, the effects of PTSD, and coping with tragedy. But I’ll leave those topics for another day.

If you’re looking for your next dystopian fix, look no further than American War.

Related Recommendations

Empire

If you want to explore a different vision of a second American Civil War, read Empire by Orson Scott Card.

Unlike American War, this story focuses on the perspective of the government as they face a coup from a rogue domestic army. Although Card is known for his sci-fi work, he paints a harrowing picture of severely polarized politics.

Source: Wikipedia

Invisibilia

The “Flip the Script” episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast discusses how we can flip the script—do the opposite of what is expected—in order to transform a situation.

This episode features a story on Islamic radicalization in Denmark. One young man in particular describes how he is marginalized by his community to the point where he begins to think, “You think I’m a terrorist? I’ll show you a terrorist.”

Police officers learn to understand what drives youths to become radicalized and how compassion—not imprisonment—is the best way to combat the situation.

Source: Nick Fewings, Unsplash

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