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.