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American War by Omar El Akkad

December 24, 2017


This novel imagines the aftermath of a second American Civil War in 2074. In the face of complete environmental collapse, the government outlaws oil, inciting a handful of southern states to attempt secession.

Our protagonist, Sarat Chestnutt, lives with her family in a shack in Mississippi. Her father is killed in a suicide bombing, then her mother is killed in a massacre by northern soldiers. At the age of twelve, Sarat finds herself in a massive refugee camp in a contested area where she connects with a man who takes on the role of mentor in the Hero’s Journey construct (think Obi-Wan, Morpheus, Gandalf, Glenda the Good Witch, etc.). Sarat is trained to think beyond herself, to understand the context of the war and the forces at work in the world, and to fight for her cause. In other words, she is “radicalized.”

There are two very smart sleights of hand in the way El Akkad has constructed this story. The first is that like the best speculative fiction, the world-building is surprising but believable. With our impending ecological disaster and our current political climate, it’s not hard to see how we get from our present world to Sarat’s in fifty years. Florida is under water and Louisiana is being enveloped. The governments of the Middle East have collapsed and a powerful new empire has risen on the back of solar power. Unmanned drones crowd the skies. Americans have continued to ratchet up the anger and are at each other’s throats. It’s shocking to realize how easy is to imagine Sarat’s world.


The second sleight of hand is that El Akkad displaces our preconceived notions of what a terrorist looks like. This story could have taken place in Syria or Yemen or Afghanistan today. It could have been about a man whose family was killed by a smart bomb, whose home was destroyed. A man who, in desperation and anger and hopelessness, is recruited by any number of terrorist organizations. But in that story, we see it coming a million miles away, and we’re not going to go along for that ride. Sarat is different.

This is a gritty, unsettling story with morally complexity. It seduces with the action, but at moments you’re left wondering who you’re supposed to be rooting for. For his part, El Akkad has said that his intent is not to build sympathy for Sarat, but to show how one gets to that place. And we too, can see how we can get to that place, at war against ourselves again, the dirty tactics of our modern foreign wars—drones, torture, suicide bombings, biological agents, guerilla-style fighting—brought home.

I came across this book in Bookmarks magazine, which is where I find probably 5-10 of the books I read every year. It reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines, both of which use the Civil War as the pivot point for speculation. All three are good enough and different enough that they could be read as part of a circuit.


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