When you wade into the ever-agitated waters of social media, you realize just how quickly the currents of infectious bile are flowing. Follow the tributaries of today’s political combat a few decades into the future and you might arrive at something as terrifying as Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, “American War.” Across these scarred pages rages the clash that many of us are anxiously speculating about in the Trump era: a nation riven by irreconcilable ideologies, alienated by entrenched suspicions. But in El Akkad’s dystopian vision, those differences have led, once again, to secession and internecine warfare.
The mainspring of this imagined future clash is not race and slavery, but science and the environment. We learn that as climate change ravaged the Earth, intelligent societies abandoned fossil fuels, but the South clung to its peculiar institution and kept pumping, excavating and burning. As El Akkad tells it, that act of rebellion called down the North’s wrath, which, when the novel opens, has sparked devastating biological weapons attacks that have reduced the United States to a fractured third-world power.
El Akkad arrived at his story by a circuitous route that gives him a bracing perspective on America. Born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, he became a Canadian-based journalist, a job that drew him to conflicts as varied as the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in Egypt and the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Now he lives with his family in Oregon, but such work has made him an expert on current-day repression and resistance — and a student of history. The American War he creates is an unsettling amalgam of 19th-century hatred and 21st-century technology: the War Between the States amplified by the wonders of modern engagement to claim tens of millions of victims.
Although such a cataclysmic story might suggest a sprawling epic, El Akkad keeps his novel focused on the members of one ill-fated family in Louisiana, starting in 2075 , when the country is enjoying a fragile, if often violated, peace. Sarat Chestnut lives with her parents and siblings in a corrugated steel container salvaged from the shipyard, where supplies periodically arrive from the new superpowers in Asia and North Africa. Hearing rumors of good jobs, her father has plans to move the family North for a better life. But when those dreams are slaughtered, Sarat and her siblings are reduced to the status of refugees within their own ebbing nation.
These sections, both poignant and horrifying, are clearly informed by El Akkad’s reporting on some of the world’s most desperate people. From the refuse of war and scraps of charity, Sarat and her fellow survivors manufacture a grotesque simulacrum of normal life, but their efforts are constantly interrupted by fresh outrages. These wounded souls are trapped between warring factions, exploited for propaganda, used as human shields and recruited for suicide missions.
El Akkad demonstrates a profound understanding of the corrosive culture of civil war, the offenses that give rise to new hypocrisies and mythologies, translating terrorists into martyrs and acts of despair into feats of heroism. Sarat “learned that to survive atrocity is to be made an honorary consul to the republic of pain,” El Akkad writes. He illustrates how resentment ferments in boredom to produce an acid that can poison any peace. Odd superstitions arise along with strange rituals of grieving — just as spiritualism flourished around the agony of the Civil War. And he imagines the proud rebel groups right down to their new iconography: “coiled snakes or Texas oil drills or words drawn in barbed wire.”
But this story is always Sarat’s. El Akkad has done nothing less than reveal how a curious girl evolves into a pitiless fighter. Her change appears subtle month to month, but shocking by the end. “Rage wrapped itself around her like a tourniquet,” he writes, “keeping her alive even as it condemned a part of her to atrophy.” That transformation feels all the more horrifying because we sympathize with her so deeply and feel so viscerally the outrages she endures. El Akkad never apologizes for Sarat’s acts of retribution, but he draws us into the murky moral realm of her justice, a place plowed by murder and seeded by torture.
The reflection between Sarat’s private ordeal and the country’s vast, ongoing calamity is sustained by a series of intercalary chapters: excerpts from history books, news reports, memoirs and speeches. These disturbingly realistic documents flesh out our vision of a world struggling to restore order amid spasms of chaos. (Just our luck, amid the cooling embers of civilization, nothing survives except cockroaches and administrative cliches.) This is a world of weapons that can’t be controlled: targeted viruses that rage out of bounds; precision drones that dart across the sky long after their remote pilots are dead.
And perhaps most relevant is the way El Akkad re-creates the rhetoric of factional righteousness, the self-validating claims of the aggrieved that keep every war fueled. He shows us the North only through the fog of its bungling brutality and pompous pronouncements. The South, as before, enjoys the advantage of nostalgic purity, and once again the rebels engineer the terms of peace to preserve the fantasy of their own unspoiled honor.
How can such a toxic cloud of antipathy ever be vented? “What am I supposed to do, now that it’s done,” Sarat pleads, “just snuff it out like a candle?” That’s the challenge “American War” poses as we consider how to break the cycles of vengeance spiraling around our own era.
By Omar El Akkad
Knopf. 333 pp. $26.95