American War by Omar El Akkad, book review: Should be read as a cautionary tale

This impressive debut imagines a second American Civil War set from 2074 to 2095 and is set apart from other dystopian novels because of the fully realised plausibility of the scenario 

Lucy Scholes
Wednesday 30 August 2017 10:24 BST

American War is the exciting debut by Omar El Akkad, an award-winning journalist who was born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, and now lives in Oregon. The novel imagines a second American Civil War, that rages from 2074 to 2095, telling the story of the conflict via a combination of the personal account of a principal Southern fighter, alongside extracts from military documents and the historical record. Minor gripes regarding occasionally histrionic dialogue or forced plotting aside, what sets this impressive book apart from other dystopian novels is the fully realised plausibility of the scenario El Akkad has created, the roots of which can be all too easily identified in the world around us today.

Climate change and political uprisings have changed the map. The old Middle Eastern regimes have finally fallen and in their place a new empire – the Bouazizi – has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes, a superpower fuelled and financed by fields of solar panels stretching across what used to be known as the Arabian Peninsular, now too hot for human habitation. The Mediterranean is still awash with migrants looking for better lives, but now these “fleets of ragged little boats” head “southwards from the European shore”, not north towards it.

However intriguing to us British readers, these details are just the backdrop for El Akkad’s tale. America is also suffering the catastrophic results of global warming. Florida has disappeared underwater, Louisiana is following, and great arid plains of southern land are no longer fit for agriculture. All the same, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have refused to stop using fossil fuels, instead seceding the union and inciting the battle that’s tearing the country apart. “[T]he old dynamics of power now inverted,” El Akkad’s brought the war we associate with the Middle East of today home to roost in the America of tomorrow. It’s the old struggle between North and the South turbo-charged with the methodologies and weapons of modern warfare: drones, suicide bombings, torture, the utilisation of biological agents (here El Akkad’s expertise as a journalist – he’s reported on Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and the Arab Spring – comes into play ensuring the terrible veracity of his detail), even the under-the-radar involvement of foreign powers with their own self-serving endgame in mind.

American War is the broader story of a nation told from a personal perspective. The conflict is filtered through the lens of one family – the Chestnuts – and within this, one character in particular: Sarat, who’s radicalised as a 12-year-old in the “huge tent favela” of a refugee camp in which she comes of age, fed a potent blend of romantic Southern mythology and the promise of the cauterising powers of revenge (her father is killed in a rebel suicide bombing, her mother in a massacre by Northern soldiers). Sarat’s no wide-eyed Katniss though; she’s fuelled with rage and fighting a dirty war few are going to survive. As diverting a read as this engrossing novel is, American War should no doubt also be read as a cautionary tale.

‘American War’ by Omar El Akkad is published by Picador, £14.99

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