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The Millions : Rising Waters: On Omar El Akkad’s ‘American War’

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American War, the debut novel from Omar El Akkad, presents a highly plausible dystopia in the not so distant American future. The Second American Civil War erupts over a dispute about the nation’s energy future, with the North embracing green technology and renewables and the South clinging steadfastly to fossil fuels. El Akkad deftly places climate change as a primary force of national disintegration; the geography of this future post-coastal America has been permanently altered by climate change and geographic sectarianism, leaving the battle for American identity to be fought between the Midwest and the South. The new Northern (Blue) capital is Columbus, Ohio, and the capital of the Free Southern (Red) State is Atlanta. The landscape is dramatically different, but the tenor of the politics in the novel is eerily familiar. The newly dominant Bouazizi Empire of Middle Eastern and North African states united from the “Fifth Spring” Arab democratic revolutions is now seeking to manipulate a civil war in the once “soaring, roaring, and oblivious” America. Here, El Akkad not so subtly suggests the corruptibility of democratic states to imperial pursuits. He creates the theatre of conflict in which the novel’s protagonist stakes her claim.

Sarat Chestnut is a fascinating study of the border between justice and ruthlessness. Sarat grows up in a small river town in Louisiana just outside the Free Southern State until her father is killed in a “homicide bombing.” Early on, she doesn’t display inclinations that portend political consciousness, but, instead, an inwardness leading her to a crucial choice: resistance as an existential imperative or capitulation to the meaninglessness of war, death, and the transience of life.

Sarat spends her early childhood examining her surroundings, once pressing “her finger to the needles of a yucca plant,” and finding them “brown and rigid, immune to sun and storm.” It seems to her that nature is the constant, and it is meaningless. Consequently, she views sexuality as an ulterior concern, noticing the “dramatic concern for things that seemed inane and devoid of adventure: the color and style of skirts, the arrival of facial hair, the mysterious topology of flesh.” It’s an unusually extreme kind of seriousness for a kid her age; then again, this is an unusually extreme historical moment in which she finds herself. When her mother, Martina, moves the family to a refugee camp, the stage is set for Sarat’s radicalization.

At the ominously named Camp Patience, Sarat and her family subsist, waiting for the inevitable Northern incursion where they will be slaughtered. There, she is radicalized by a savvy ideologue named Albert Gaines. He hones her igneous intensity into a fixed bayonet of insurgent rage. Here, her naiveté is on full display. Betraying her provincial roots, she’s just not suspicious enough of the overly smooth Gaines. And the clues are not few. At one point even, Gaines, wearing an unwrinkled suit, jumps the shark by offering her caviar. Still, it is clear she is more taken by the persona of Gaines than by his ideas, which are little more than a melange of nativist and anti-imperialist tropes. She sees in him a cultured man, a man in the fray and above it, and it would be hard for any sensitive young person not to find that alluring. But the real radicalizing moment for Sarat is when Northern Blues storm Camp Patience and murder scores of helpless refugees.

El Akkad is excellent here in judiciously refraining from making clear whether it is Gaines’s ideology or the wanton carnage that radicalizes Sarat. When the Northern militias storm Camp Patience, she fights for her life, even relentlessly stabbing a foe until she can’t slash him anymore. Is this the inspiration Gaines imparted to her, or her desire to wreak vengeance on the marauding hordes from the North? After she draws her first blood, she cuts herself as a form of anesthetic as “the heat of life left the man, but she did not feel it.” She achieves the paradox of the revolutionary, of the insurgent, which is ruthlessness in the service of justice.

One weakness of the novel is the lack of development of Sarat’s close childhood friend, Marcus Exum, who departs early for the safety of the North, where he eventually becomes a Union Blue officer. Later on, the two are reunited and Sarat feels genuine warmth toward him, even though he has chosen a life antithetical to everything she stands for. Nowhere does she show this same level of mercy or understanding for anyone else, and thus it falls flat. We all know the mere fact of being friends with someone in childhood is no guarantee of sentimental feeling later, especially in the context of the novel here, where Sarat’s entire identity if predicated on a fiercely sectarian orientation to the world.

And that fierce devotion to radical insurgency should be her most noble trait, but, as the novel progresses, it proves to be the most damning. After she’s given up and betrayed by Gaines to the Northern forces, she is tortured in the “Non-Compliance Area” of the dubiously named prison, “Sugarloaf,” clearly a futuristic version of Guantanamo Bay. She is waterboarded and confesses to all crimes she’s charged with: “complicity in all manner of insurrectionist violence, things she’d never heard of before.” El Akkad here deploys a subtle critique of torture as not only immoral, but ineffective, as captives will say literally anything to make the pain stop — a direct critique of the Bush administration’s embrace of torture and Donald Trump’s lurid flirtation with it.

Roughly the final quarter the novel is narrated by Sarat’s nephew, Benjamin Chestnut. It’s the end of the war, and Benjamin is the voice of a postwar generation sorting through its cultural inheritance. He’s intrigued and ultimately disillusioned by his famous, war-grizzled aunt, living again with her brother (his father), Simon, and his wife, Karina, on the family property in Lincolnton, Ga., not far from Atlanta. Over time, he gets to know her. He feels affection for her, but, frustratingly, he never can get to the core of who she is. She remains inscrutable to him. Ultimately, in adulthood, Benjamin concludes that Sarat’s will to fight was an act of mourning, a profound unhappiness born of helplessness and protracted, pointless struggle.

He recalls one day from his childhood when he and Sarat went swimming in the river near their home. As they get out to dry themselves, he marvels at her body, that intricately austere record of the ravages of war, with its “strange rivulets of scarred skin that lined her upper arms and shoulders, dead-looking and paler than the rest of her.” When she was waterboarded, the sense of drowning overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t resist anymore. No one could. Drowning is universal. There are limits to resistance, even if there are no limits to one’s capacity to resist. Whether it be the metaphorical drowning of American cultural disintegration or the rising seas of a warming, carbon-clogged planet, Sarat’s lust for vengeance is a fight against rising waters sure to submerge us all.

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