During the last few election seasons, I’ve amused myself by studying the color-coded zones of the electoral map and trying to figure out a feasible way for the blue states to part from the reds. The blues would retain the east and west coasts and their cultural capitals; the reds could keep the Mississippi River and have their ports on the Gulf of Mexico. When my daughter points out that there would still be a need for an east-west land corridor, I reply that we (the blues, that is) could easily annex Canada.
But I also have roots in the red states, since I was born and raised in rural Tennessee and, as a Southerner, I am hardwired to remember that secession leads to civil war. The American Civil War of the 1860s passed out of living memory when I was a child, after the 1960s civil-rights struggle, which in its turn helped us all remember that white Southerners had lost that war and that black Southerners—most of them slaves at the time—hadn’t exactly won in the aftermath, although the conditions of their lives improved at least a little. I was raised on the truism that wars are remembered by people who lose them. In my own and my daughter’s generations, those memories are atavistic, but I’ll still say it anyway: People with no memory of civil war don’t fear it nearly enough.
A debut novel by the Canadian journalist Omar El Akkad offers us a glimpse of what a second civil war might look like in America when the blue North and the red South find themselves again caught up in a bloody conflict. American War takes its epigraph from Kitab al-Aghani, a book of Arabic songs and poetry: “He who deserves punishment at your hands is the man who brings injury upon you.” This verse, drawn from the Arabic literary tradition, perfectly captures the Old Testament flavor of this novel: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and an eye for the eye taken for an eye and a tooth for the tooth taken for a tooth, until the original injuries have been completely obscured by fresher ones. The title is a bit of a double entendre: What happens in the novel is a civil war, but one in which the Disunited States of America brings the nastiest tactics of its foreign and proxy wars home to inflict on its own people.
American War opens with an unnamed narrator who is tasked in the beginning with laying out the grand panorama of the war between the Reds and the Blues, which lasts from 2074 to 2093, and with producing a sort of synthesis to conclude the book. On the eve of this new civil war, many of the dire consequences of global warming have come to pass: Various US coastal cities are now submerged, and the national capital has been moved to Columbus, Ohio. The South secedes from the North again, this time not because of slavery, but because of its addiction to fossil fuel. El Akkad has a background as a war reporter, and this second American civil war has the style of partisan conflicts all over the world (where in excess of 40 armed conflicts are going on right now). Somewhat unexpectedly, this fictional war has no religious, ethnic, or racial dimension, but is driven entirely by regional and nationalist impulses.
The exchange of atrocities is interminable and imaginative, ranging from the president’s assassination by a Southern suicide bomber, Julia Templestowe, to the release of a germ agent that turns the whole population of South Carolina (now immured inside a quarantine wall) into the equivalent of Parkinson’s patients. In a flourish of surreal black humor, a Northern-controlled fleet of solar-powered drones has gone rogue following the rebels’ destruction of its servers, and the drones fly perpetually over the South, dropping ordnance at random. Such dark comedy notwithstanding, the horrors of the war are viscerally portrayed, and they continue until 2093. The South, where most of the action takes place, has been lacerated by defeats the rebels refuse to accept, a situation worsened by local factionalism and a high rate of internal displacement.
Against this background, we’re introduced to the Chestnut family: Martina and Benjamin and their children Simon, Dana, and Sarat. Their home is a metal shipping container on the shore of what’s now called the Mississippi Sea, in an area known as the Purple, a semi-neutral zone. Benjamin is desperate to move the family north, where there’s employment and a chance at a better life, but he is killed in a terrorist attack while seeking a travel permit. When the war invades their part of the Purple, Martina flees with her children to a refugee camp called Patience in northern Mississippi, an area that is now a fortified battle line between the Red and Blue states.
Martina gets by as a sort of fixer at the camp, while the Chestnut children finish growing up there as best they can. Like many of the characters, they’re a racially indeterminate bunch: Sometime before 2074, an explosion of racial and ethnic mixing seems to have occurred (the fear of which, in real life, has been a factor in bringing a white-power movement to dominate the US government). Dana is a fair-haired beauty, a sort of starlet of the camp; her fraternal twin, Sarat, is a tomboy who rapidly grows larger and plainer, even as she emerges as the story’s main protagonist; their brother Simon eventually joins a guerrilla group, the Virginia Cavaliers. Sarat’s boldness in accepting dares attracts the attention of Albert Gaines, a person of obscure but privileged status, whose courtliness and resources seem derived from the prewar era and who takes Sarat under his wing.
Gaines educates Sarat, or rather trains her, and in return she runs clandestine errands for him in different sectors of the camp. He “fed her the old mythology of her people” and “taught her about the first time the North had torn her country to shreds.” He explains the spirit of eternal war to her: “You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever, change your mind.” He gives her a clasp knife and a whetstone to sharpen it: “All it takes is resistance and stress.” Without revealing his purpose, Gaines is developing Sarat as an assassin, operating on the principle that there’s “no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early.”
Sarat’s training pays off when Blue militias slip across the border to massacre the refugees in Patience. Martina is slain and Simon seriously wounded, but Sarat manages to hide herself and Dana and even finds an opportunity to exact some revenge: As the militia members withdraw, she slits the throat of one with her knife.
In the wake of this massacre, and for reasons never entirely explained by El Akkad, conditions for the surviving Chestnuts improve. Dana, Sarat, and Simon, who has been made simple by his head wound, fetch up in a reasonably comfortable tract house in Georgia, on the bank of the Savannah. There’s even a nurse named Karina Chowdhury to care for Simon, around whom an odd little cult has developed. Simon’s status as a living martyr earns the Chestnuts some sponsorship from “the Free Southern State,” but the household runs primarily on the subsidies from one of Gaines’s friends, a man named Joe from the Bouazizi Empire—a nation composed of many of the old Middle Eastern states, which is fanning the flames of the American conflict. Joe furnishes Sarat with a sniper rifle, which she nicknames “Templestowe,” after the presidential assassin, and with it she kills a prominent Blue general, derailing a peace process that seemed to be nearing a successful conclusion.
Sarat is arrested, although not for the assassination, and sent to Sugarloaf, a Guantánamo—like prison on a desolate island in the Florida Sea. Since she’s been connected to no particular crime, the elaborate tortures inflicted on her seem supremely pointless. Eventually, Sarat breaks under waterboarding and confesses to a series of actions—-some of which she’s actually committed, others not—before being just as pointlessly released and returned to her Georgia home. Sarat’s former handlers aren’t quite done with her yet, though: They give her an opportunity to retaliate against a sadistic Sugarloaf guard (she does) as well as Gaines, who has betrayed her (she doesn’t). Finally, on the eve of a permanent peace settlement dubbed the Reunification, Sarat is armed by another agent of the Bouazizi Empire with a new germ agent and heads north to release it, killing herself and, over the next decade, about 100 million other people.
A Canadian citizen born in Cairo and raised in Qatar, El Akkad is as international a person as they come. Having reported on the war in Afghanistan, the revolution in Egypt, the trials at Guantánamo Bay, the riots in Ferguson, and more, he’s well-suited to imagine how the headless chickens of the war-torn world might come home to roost in the United States. Many of the conditions for civil war have existed in this country since at least Bush v. Gore. The red-and-blue electoral maps of the past 17 years have demonstrated that half of the electorate fervently, if not violently, desires a world completely opposite to the one preferred, with equally fierce ardor, by the other half.
The growing tensions between red and blue America have been exacerbated by a balkanization of opinion that has eroded practically all common ground between the different flanks of the political spectrum. If or when our political system fails—and a case can be made that the process has already started—El Akkad’s story might cease being fiction. We all want to believe that another civil war can’t happen here, but it might be folly to think so. Not only is there enough anger and divisiveness in our country, but there is also plenty of matériel: a military and a militarized police force, either or both of which might stop responding to their ostensible masters, plus the most heavily armed civilian population on the planet.
At American War’s end, the narrator who opens the novel tells us a little about himself: He is the son of Simon and Karina, and he assures us that the long, bitter war that we’ve been following for the last several hundred pages is over. But there’s a lacuna here: Neither the narrator nor his creator ever tells us how the war ended. Maybe there just weren’t enough healthy people to keep fighting after the devastating germ attack that Sarat unleashed on the North. What we do know is that, had it been left to her, the violence would have gone on forever. Gaines has nurtured such a state in her that, toward the end of her training, Sarat volunteers this statement: “Stop talking about them…. I don’t wanna hear about them anymore. I don’t wanna read about them or memorize their capitals or learn how they did us wrong… I want to kill them.” This unthinking, bloodthirsty intransigence, forged in the fires of suffering and the rage of civil war, is the novel’s most memorable element, and it underscores what the narrator tells us early in the book: “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”