“American War,” by Omar El Akkad, 2017
This book is ostensibly about a second American civil war that starts in 2075. Given that 30%, of the U.S. population presently thinks another civil war could happen in the U.S., it would seem to be a book that could surf on that meme quite well.
It is actually about something else. It is a book structured so that we feel sympathy for a suicide bomber who kills 100 million people. It is far more about past and present events in the Middle-East – torture facilities, reactionary rebellions, imperial invasions, refugee camps, armed militias, political suicide, massacres, assassinations, drones, tribal allegiances and revenge – than a 2nd American civil war. Not that some of these things might not occur in the U.S. as well. In that sense it seems to be a book about present imperial ‘blowback’ processed through a reactionary logic. And set in the U.S. to ‘bring the message home’ to readers who are paying attention. Akkad was a reporter who covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so it makes sense.
Akkad has combined this overlay with elements of the first Civil War on American soil in 1860-1865 and the catastrophic effects of global warming to create a cramped simulacrum of the future. In the book, Florida is all gone, now called the Florida Sea. Only an island prison camp, Sugarloaf, that resembles Guantanamo or Bagram or Abu Ghraib remains on a slightly higher chunk of land. Or, if you know your Civil War history, the old Union prison on Dry Tortuga. New Orleans is gone, to be replaced by the Mississippi Sea. Savannah is underwater, and now Augusta, Georgia is the main port receiving aid supplies and contraband. All southern coasts are gone and some eastern ones, seemingly including Washington, D.C. Hurricanes and storms are frequent. Overwhelming heat and dust swirl around the south, so that farms in skyscrapers around Atlanta provide almost the only food for that region. Food from greenhouses provide another source.
The 2075 civil war revolves around 4 states in the deep South – Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina – who refuse to give up the use of gasoline and move to a solar electric grid. They secede and form the “Free Southern State” (FSS). A singular reed to hang a civil war on, but that is one of the main motivations in the Middle East. Somewhat funny logic for the U.S. though. “You’ll have to tear the wheel of my 8-cylinder muscle car from my cold, dead hands.” Oddly, wind turbines are invisible in this future. The southerners are “reds” who start another sad and doomed reactionary rebellion for gasoline production against the “blues” in the north. (Those colors come from the present corporate press’s identification of a state’s political loyalties, of course. Socialists will take back the color ‘red!’) This scenario reflects the first U.S. Civil War, which was launched to defend a reactionary economy, slavery, so long ago. This civil war involves the reactionary oil barons of Texas evidently defending their profits, though Texas is oddly not part of the FSS. South Carolina itself has been walled off from the rest of the country, as the North allowed a biologic agent to damage everyone in the state permanently.
Akkad focuses on a tough, tomboyish girl, Sarat, who comes from the Mississippi swamps in ‘purple’ territory.’ She is the book's central character. She eventually ends up with most of her family in a refugee camp called Camp Patience near the Kentucky border. The camp is presided over by the ‘Red Crescent’ society – in actuality the present Middle-Eastern version of the Red Cross. The joke here is that the Chinese and the large Middle-Eastern “Bouazizi Empire” are now the powers of the world, who send humanitarian aide to the U.S. FSS. A large chunk of the U.S. southwest has been retaken by Mexico as well and turned into a protectorate. So the U.S. is no longer what it once was.
Given global warming would have impacted the Middle-East into an even more extreme oil-depleted desert, it is not clear what the Bouazizi Empire is based on, but fantasies sometimes run rampant. Nor does anything here tell us why Mexico would be able to take back the Southwest – as Mexico would be even more parched than Arizona. China’s aid seems to be purely humanitarian and that makes sense. Akkad’s future national imagining is somewhat arbitrary.
Sarat is recruited by a wealthy FSS agent to be a sniper for the “reds” and she goes on to shoot the top general of the ‘blues.’ Later she is captured and tortured in the Sugarloaf detention facility in Florida. This cruelty and the prior deaths of her mother and sister and permanent deformation of her brother during a massacre at Camp Patience carried out by a ‘blue’ militia lead her to accept another assignment by a Bouazizi agent. She sneaks into the North with help from a southern militia leader Bragg (name-checked after Braxton Bragg, Confederate general.) There she releases a toxic biologic agent supplied by the agent in the new northern capital, Columbus, Ohio. This happens during a ‘reunification ceremony’ that follows the 2nd Northern victory in the 2nd civil war.
And like I said, 100 million plus die in a plague that last 10 years. Revenge.
Other than the view of global warming, which seems quite accurate for the U.S., this view of the “American” future uses a Middle-Eastern template which I find unconvincing. There is nothing about class in here, or rural versus city, or economics or the many other fractures that actually exist in the U.S. A ‘state-versus-state’ rebellion is actually very unlikely based on one issue, though it fits the conventional journalistic template. For instance, Atlanta, the ostensible capital of this southern rebellion, is mostly controlled by black or Democratic Party politicians now. Houston is too, as are most large southern cities. Black and Latino people are invisible in this book, so you have to wonder what happened to them in this version of the South. It is hinted that Sarat might be mixed, but she is the only one. She’s a lesbian too. Instead she becomes a ‘rebel’ flying the four-starred and barred flag.
Akkad has basically taken bits of the U.S. and Middle-Eastern present and stretched them out to 2075, creating a creepy central character for us to cheer on. Or not. It is an enjoyable read as a bit of speculative fiction, but its structure is flawed. This is a civil war that liberals would love.
Predictably, the New York Times compared it to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," an inaccurate comparison. 'The Road' was actually a less political and more Biblical version of dystopia or the future than this. There is another future that might be imagined, a revolutionary future where the version of ‘civil war’ is actually that between corporations and the rich one side, with their fascist allies – and the working class on the other, in all its ethnicities. Global warming is certainly a constant, but ‘capitalism’ - not gasoline alone - will be the real fulcrum around which a class-based ‘civil’ war develops.
I even know someone that is working on a book that is about precisely that.
Other reviews on dystopian futures: “The Road,” “Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Blade Runner,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “The Heart Goes Last,” “Good News,” “World War Z,” “Cloud Atlas.”
And I bought it at 2nd Story Books, Ely MN.
July 14, 2018