[Marxism] A Haunting Debut Looks Ahead to a Second American Civil War

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 28 07:50:25 MDT 2017

(I have my doubts about this novel. The review makes zero reference to 
economic conflict that would have led to a civil war. Also, the 
comparison to Cormac McCarthy suggests that there is little engagement 
with plausibly realistic historical developments. If I were motivated to 
write such a novel, the conflict would not be rooted in class rather 
than regional differences with wage workers finally resisting conditions 
that resembled the early days of capitalism but without the explosive 
growth. Picture an an unemployment rate in the USA like the 1930s but 
that continues for decades. Picture vast portions of major cities 
resembling the Paris banlieues, with both black and white youth growing 
more desperate. That's my idea of such a novel.)

NY Times, Mar. 28 2017
A Haunting Debut Looks Ahead to a Second American Civil War

By Omar El Akkad
333 pages. Knopf. $26.95.

Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, “American War,” is an unlikely mash-up of 
unsparing war reporting and plot elements familiar to readers of the 
recent young-adult dystopian series “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” 
 From these incongruous ingredients, El Akkad has fashioned a 
surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a 
postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in “The Road” (2006), 
and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an 
American family as Philip Roth did in “The Plot Against America” (2004).

Set in the closing decades of the 21st century and the opening ones of 
the 22nd, El Akkad’s novel recounts what happened during the Second 
American Civil War between the North and South and its catastrophic 
aftermath. It is a story that extrapolates the deep, partisan divisions 
that already plague American politics and looks at where those widening 
splits could lead. A story that maps the palpable consequences for the 
world of accelerating climate change and an unraveling United States. A 
story that imagines what might happen if the terrifying realities of 
today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — drone strikes, torture, suicide 
bombers — were to come home to America.

El Akkad — who was born in Cairo and grew up in Doha, Qatar, before 
moving to Canada — worked for The Globe and Mail, and reported on the 
war in Afghanistan, the military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay and the 
Arab Spring. His familiarity with the United States’ war on terror 
informs this novel on every level, from his shattering descriptions of 
the torture endured by one of his main characters to his bone-deep 
understanding of the costs of war on civilians, who suddenly find 
themselves living in combat zones or forced into refugee camps with no 
other future on the horizon.

There are considerable flaws in “American War” — from badly melodramatic 
dialogue to highly contrived and derivative plot points — but El Akkad 
has so deftly imagined the world his characters inhabit, and writes with 
such propulsive verve, that the reader can easily overlook such lapses.

He demonstrates cool assurance at using details — many gathered, it 
seems, during his years as a reporter — to make his fictional future 
feel alarmingly real. And he writes here with boldness and audacity, 
using a collagelike method (involving fictional news clippings, oral 
history excerpts, memoirs, government documents) to help chronicle the 
events that led to and followed the Second American Civil War.

Those events include escalating battles over the use of fossil fuel; the 
assassination of the United States president by a secessionist suicide 
bomber in 2073; horrifying drone attacks, massacres and guerrilla 
violence that further embitter both sides; and, just as the war is about 
to conclude in 2095 with a reunification ceremony, the release of a 
biological agent by a Southern terrorist that results in a decade-long 
plague claiming 110 million lives.

The Chestnut family at the center of “American War” once led a quiet 
life in flood-ridden Louisiana. When the novel opens, the twin girls, 
Sarat and Dana, are 6; their brother, Simon, is 9. After a suicide 
bomber kills their father, the children and their mother, Martina, end 
up in Camp Patience — a “huge tent favela” for refugees near the 
Tennessee border. There they will remain for more than a half-dozen years.

Although “American War” is narrated, in part, by Benjamin Chestnut — 
Simon’s son, who miraculously survives the plague — it is Benjamin’s 
Aunt Sarat who stands at center stage. At first she bears more than a 
passing resemblance to several famous young-adult heroines. Like Katniss 
from “The Hunger Games” and Tris from the “Divergent” series, she’s a 
feisty, unconventional girl forced by the harsh conditions of the 
dystopian world in which she lives to prove herself as a warrior. She is 
defiant, resourceful and willing to sacrifice her life to protect those 
she loves.

Along the way, however, Sarat will be tempted to turn to the dark side 
by an erudite man, Albert Gaines, who shows up at the refugee camp and 
tells her that he travels around the South, where the Northerners and 
their drones “have caused terrible carnage,” looking for “special people 
— people who, if given the chance and the necessary tools, would stand 
up and face the enemy on behalf of those who can’t.”

Gaines becomes Sarat’s teacher. He gives her books to read and teaches 
her about the natural world, and what the world was like before climate 
change altered the algorithms of everyday life. He also feeds her the 
mythology of the South — how much was real and how much was fantasy 
doesn’t matter to her; “she believed every word.” He also plays to her 
sense of grievance and anger — rage that will build as she witnesses the 
calamities of war and loses one family member after another.

It becomes clear to the reader pretty early on just what Gaines is 
recruiting Sarat to do — in fact, El Akkad scatters a bread-crumb trail 
of clues through the novel, as he tracks Sarat’s increasingly risky 
peregrinations after a gruesome massacre at Camp Patience. In recounting 
Sarat’s emotional evolution — and the dreadful choices she will be asked 
to make — El Akkad has written a novel that not only maps the harrowing 
effects of violence on one woman and her family, but also becomes a 
disturbing parable about the ruinous consequences of war on ordinary 

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