The Strangely Plausible Abyss of American War

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In the days following the 2016 election, I deleted many of my connections on social media, particularly the dozens of soldiers I had met when I reported from Iraq as a freelance photojournalist. For years, I tolerated the displays of their grotesque politics as an amusing affectation; the election concluded those relationships.

I also removed their individual ‘tags’ from my photos of Iraqi streets and desert compounds. I wanted permanence: to feel myself cutting off their access to digital memories, to willfully take away any nostalgia they might someday seek. By coincidence, a soldier’s mother had dug up my email address and contacted me around the same time, asking for photos to print and give her son for Christmas. She lived in a small Iowa town, so I had a pretty good idea what vote she cast. I deleted her request, unanswered.

I don’t care about the war we shared. I only see the ruin.

In that emotional context, I read Omar El Akkad’s intense, imaginative, and tragic American War. It presents a future sixty years from now with a weakened United States broken up by a second Civil War. The scenario is more plausible than it used to be, and in light of recent history some may read it as a roadmap, rather than the cautionary tale Akkad may intend.

In Akkad’s dystopian scenario, the US faces a resurgent Mexico and a vast and newly powerful North African-Arabian empire. Climate change has sunk most of the US coastlines. The subsequent outlaw of all fossil fuels has caused Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to break away from the US proper. There are also pockets of rebellion in Louisiana and East Texas.

The book’s landscape conveys the ravages of climate change—the US capital is now Columbus, Ohio; Florida is underwater; the Mississippi River is now the Mississippi Sea—but the narrative focuses on people, especially the perspectives and struggles of the Chestnut family from Louisiana.

At the start of the book, the Chestnuts are semi-loyal Americans; but they might as well be present-day Syrian or Iraqi refugees, home suddenly ripped away, adrift in a once-familiar world.

Because it’s not really the future United States that’s represented. Instead, American War is a creatively skewed image of real life places and events. Sometimes the link is subtle, sometimes very clear, as when Martina Chestnut wonders about the purpose of the Civil War—why the US doesn’t just give in to a final separation:

Sometimes it seemed to Martina that there had never been a Union at all, that long ago some disinterested or opportunistic party had drawn lines on a map where previously there had been none, and in the process created a single country fashioned from many different countries.

This is a fairly straightforward reference to the British creation of Iraq in 1921, or any number of post-colonial mapmaking examples. It’s also fair comparison to the 2017 United States, with industrious folk of New England jammed in with farmers of the south. Whose bright idea was this?

Akkad shows little active war. Fighting often consists of low-level insurrection between competing militias, checkpoint attacks by radicalized southerners, and aerial bombardments by renegade drones. The Union seems content to let the war burn out. It maintains security on the borders, but never invades in great numbers. Instead, we have the same isolated refugee situation that occurred in Lebanon in the 1980s, or Gaza, with Palestinians placed in refugee “camps” that were effectively small cities.

The Chestnuts’ decisions will take them to the huge Camp Patience, on the Mississippi border with Tennessee. Later, the camp becomes a stand-in for Lebanon’s Sabra-Shatila, a throwback to 1982:

She knew from the soft thud of their boots and their voices that they were militiamen. She heard one of them say, “They said there’s no rules before sunrise. It’s all ours till then.”

Militias from the north are one threat. So are elements within the south. Different groups are loyal only to themselves, and a Sunni-Shiite comparison is easy to see.

Into this environment of twisting loyalties, Akkad introduces characters like Alfred Gaines, a shadowy figure who targets Sara “Sarat” Chestnut as a likely revolutionary. Sarat has been radicalized by the death of her father and the brutal lifestyle in Camp Patience. Gaines talks to her like an Americanized version of a Hezbollah recruiter:

“No,” said Gaines. “I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition pride or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie.”

Gaines’s oily appeal to religion, nativism, patriotism, will read the same in any language.

Akkad is occasionally heavy-handed, and the brutality of the “Sugarloaf” detention center—his Guantanamo stand-in—is as subtle as a chainsaw. A character is imprisoned for months, taken through a series of grim tortures, eventually broken by a waterboarding. Still, it’s still a powerful series of scenes—and a grim reminder of tactics the US has already undertaken:

They were brought to Sugarloaf in roaring airborne beasts, chained to the floors and chained to each other. Eye-masks and earmuffs severed them from their surroundings.

The 2001-02 pictures of Taliban prisoners headed to Guantanamo look just like that. That’s what the US citizens wanted; it’s not hard to envision a scenario where we’d turn it on ourselves.

In Sugarloaf, a guard—a torturer—will ask the same question Al Qaeda detainees surely heard:

“How do you think this is going to end? Do you think this ends with you winning? With us giving up? You’re going to sing, I promise you.”

It’s a spoiler, but that torturer will end up a hostage himself, “bought and sold” by various groups, similar to how Mid-East hostages are currently “traded” until finally a group like ISIS has a use for them.

Akkad’s worldbuilding has two flaws. First, fossil fuel is basically a Macguffin in that it doesn’t noticeably impact the story, but readers are expected to accept it was worth this second Civil War. In this world, Florida is underwater, the east coast is gone, and New Orleans is an island. So there are bigger problems than using a gas-powered car. Second, there is a lack of creativity in presenting the secessionists as the South, once again refusing to give up what they consider a vital part of their life. With the South constituting the “rebellion” against the North, Akkad doesn’t ask us to think about this national conflict in a new way. The book might have been more imaginative if New England, California, or the Rust Belt were the seceding states—anything to challenge the history we already know.

Nevertheless, this intense novel takes recent foreign history and reimagines it happening to us in America, and it is successfully disconcerting. You learn something from a story that asks you to consider a dark, strangely-plausible abyss; you learn where your own loyalty has fallen away, like Akkad’s disappearing coastlines.

You learn something by deleting somebody from social media. I had lived for weeks with those soldiers, in wartime Iraq where stakes were high.

Like one of Akkad’s narrators says at the book’s beginning: “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”

It’s my fault for expecting better of the soldiers. We didn’t really know each other. But someday, I hope they look for a little nostalgia from my Iraq photographs and wonder why they disappeared. Then it will be their fault, for expecting better from me.

Nathan S. Webster reported from Iraq several times as a freelance photojournalist, and his work was published in dozens of newspapers nationwide. He writes on a variety of topics. More from this author →