Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana
If you were to guess what might cause a second US civil war, what would it be? Given the current political debate over the Trump administration, one might think it wouldn’t be so much a physical divide as an ideological one. Yet, in American War, by Omar El Akkad, the second civil war is imagined as erupting in 2074 over fossil fuels, because some southern states refuse to give them up, for both industrial manufacturing reasons and, just plain ornery stubbornness.
As speculative fiction, El Akkad sets a great premise for a future US which has been decimated by climate change—so much so that all of Florida and the gulf coast are gone, and most of the East and West coasts have moved so far inland that the Capital has to be moved to Columbus, Ohio. It’s cli-fi as a secondary plot, but the main story is so good, you might be forgiven for not noticing the deep implications of ignoring climate change.
El Akkad frames his story of the war years (2074-2095) through the research and memories of Benjamin Chestnut, nephew of Sara T. Chestnut, a martyr to the Southern cause. Readers experience the tumult of modern civil conflict through Sarat’s eyes, who is six years old when four Southern states secede and war breaks out. Her father is killed in a rebel explosion, so she, her mother, twin sister and brother, travel from Louisiana to the Mississippi/Tennessee border where they live in a refugee camp for six years. There, Sarat meets Albert Gaines, who teaches her history, world politics and how to be an warrior for “The Red,” or the Free Southern States.
The US of the late 21st century is decimated and weak. Many of the southwestern states have fallen under the protection of Mexico. Texas and Louisiana are full of separatist rebel factions, and the Free Southern States rely on refugee rations from the Bouazizi Empire, formerly the Gulf states of the Middle East, now united and thriving after a fifth Arab Spring uprising. The entire state of South Carolina is walled off in quarantine, due to a pandemic unleashed by terrorists early in the war.
There is so much to love about American War. The story is both intimate and vast, the characters empathetic, and honestly depicted. The history of the war years are defined by “official” Northern historical documentation from the era, which Benjamin Chestnut researches, as well as his aunt’s diaries which have been left behind for him to discover. Everyone is guilty, or complicit to some degree, and modern warfare is exactly as deadly and ethically misguided as you might expect. Birds (unmanned drones) observe from the sky and no one is ever fully alone. Torture remains a common practice, where medieval methodologies are further enhanced by modern technology.
I don’t often cry when reading a book, but I cried at the end of American War. As much for the suffering and damage inflicted on Sarat, as for the dismal, timeworn certainty that humans never learn from their past mistakes. Omar El Akkad has written a beautiful debut novel which is bitterly heart-wrenching. It should be a must-read for anyone who despairs for the United States today, as it seems headed into an uncertain, and unnecessarily foolhardy future.
For #cbr10bingo, I’m tagging this one “Snubbed!” American War was runner-up for Canada Reads 2018