american war book review
Fifty years in the future, in a world ravaged by climate change, the United States government makes fossil fuels- all fossil fuels- illegal. And the South, a land whose culture is rooted in trucks and barbeque, secedes a second time. This is the premise for Omar El Akkad’s inaugural novel, American War. The book focuses on the maturation of a young woman named Sarat. She grows up in Louisiana, a state that stubbornly refuses to take sides, dubbed “purple”. As a young girl, she is forced to become a refugee when blue forces bomb neighboring towns and approach her home. And the exile and repeated loss she experiences snowball into an all-out devotion to the Southern cause.
Akkad balances Sarat’s more emotional narrative with excerpts from declarations and history books about the war, which he wrote himself. Akkad achieves something remarkable in a novel set as a warning to act against climate change, as quickly as possible: he makes the Southern cause the pitiable side. Akkad himself is outspoken for the Paris Agreement and improved international efforts for conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, in order to better balance his dystopia, he writes the side he disagrees with a more empathetic argument. Certainly, they may be fighting against humanity’s last chance to outlive environmental devastation and they may have seceded for a petty reason, but the South is fighting a losing battle to maintain a way of life they feel has been stolen from them without permission. This narrative is reflective of the political division of our own time; American War was published in early 2017, during the beginning of the most divisive period in modern politics. The issues of modern partisanship are exploded into an all-out war over something as minute as fossil fuels, in an era when cars, trucks, planes, and boats have all been made to run without them. It becomes clear that this issue was merely a breaking point after decades of disunion and inefficiency at the highest levels of government. Like the first Civil War, the South feels ignored and passed over as yet another law they fundamentally disagree with is passed in Congress. Secession is, to an increasingly disenfranchised and powerless region, the only defense mechanism. Sarat is the perfect catalyst for this narrative: a young girl who has lost everything to war, breaking her vivacious, stubborn, Americana spirit. Like the South in Akkad’s narrative, her actions are the result of desperation and fear. Akkad’s weaves history and science fiction into a narrative about loss, the cost of war, humanity’s duty to act in the face of peril and injustice, and the shape of American identity in a world divided.
Sarat plays multiple roles in the traditional dialogue of war: she is an orphan to the conflict, an innocent, a fierce soldier, a true believer, and a refugee. Akkad manages to turn these identities that would normally remain separate in the world of fiction into a layered and gripping identity. Sarat’s story is reminiscent of a news story of today: a girl bred by conflict, defined by loss, who finally picks up a weapon to punish those who took everything from her. Akkad further tells a story of gender in a world of war: Sarat is forced to sacrifice feminity for respect and revenge in military ranks, an all too true facet of today’s armed forces. American War isn’t just the story of climate change’s dire consequences, half a century away, it is the story of today, of the fights of class and party and race and gender that we often ignore for the sake of comfort. The book is political in the best way: it doesn’t outright address its most important issues, it leaves them between the lines for the reader to discern.
The issues the novel deals with are reflective of Akkad’s own background working in Egypt and the Middle East, where he finds himself toe to toe with women’s issues and anger at the American government founded in years of loss and destruction rained upon their communities. Twisting these struggles into an entirely American narrative gives American readers a different level of connection and empathy with the protagonist.
American War plays a role in science fiction uncommon for an era of literature defined by melodramatic dystopias: he makes his war and the founding of it seem entirely plausible. His background in journalism grants him a unique understanding of the present and the threats that will continue to define the coming generations. It is this understanding of the science and the politics that divide our country, our world, and our people that give him the space to flesh out this representative conflict. However, his sensational dialogue, to some degree, mitigates the careful thought put into his prudent premise. Akkad’s style, throughout his career in journalism, Akkad’s style has occasionally overstated or overdramatized situations. This continues throughout his first fiction novel, occasionally making Sarat’s true struggles seem unreliable or making the interpersonal relationships too much of a focus rather than the greater narrative he is attempting to convey. Despite these minor flaws, the book warrants a read, for its captivating characters and astute social commentary.
I love reading, especially works of nonfiction, but I’ve started exploring writing as an extension of reading since taking Adv. St. Creative Nonfiction in the fall semester.