American War by Omar El Akkad
Published April 2017, Read May 2017
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥ (of 5)
“War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike, but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
Dystopian fiction can do a lot of things. It can serve as a warning, a foil to our current time, a reminder of what makes us human, and more. Great dystopian writing, however, does it all. American War is that kind of great dystopian writing where not only do we inhabit an evocative and well written world, but we also also gain insight into the very real lives of our fellow humans.
American War is essentially the story of how young Sara T. Chestnut, known throughout as Sarat, becomes radicalized. While one may think the process of becoming a terrorist may turn readers against El Akkad’s main character, the author brilliantly draws us closer and closer to Sarat’s core, allowing us to, in a sense, become radicals alongside her.
This book is also a dystopian future of America than only someone primarily from other parts of the world could write. Like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, American War takes place in a precise and plausible imagined United States–one so plausible, it serves as a scorching critique of American politics, ethics, and priorities today. The book may, at first glance, seem to be about the catastrophe of global climate change, but truly it is about how global climate change will devastate the already vulnerable, from people of color, disabled individuals, and immigrants, to the working poor, environment-dependent businesses, and our already tenuous grasp on morality.
While Omar El Akkad’s map at the beginning of the text is striking, with the Mexican Protectorate covering all of California, Nevada, and the American Southwest, an entirely sunken state of Florida, and a severely changed East Coast, it appears his primary objective was not a grave environmental warning. With close reading, one realizes that the violence and devastation described in these pages exists today. We are already witnessing violent conflict brought on by global climate change, the most significant being the war in Syria. A serious drought that preceded a famine gave way to political collapse and the outbreak of civil war. We see much the same in American War.
Now, El Akkad’s work is not strict allegory, but it does provide an incredible view into how exactly young people become radicalized in the midst of violent conflict. Sarat must watch, helpless, as all of her friends, family, teachers, elders, and community members are violently uprooted, tortured, and killed, over and over again. Are her experiences so different from those of children living in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and other markedly violent places around the world? Once you read Sarat’s story, I believe one you will have a stronger sense of compassion towards those we brand as terrorists. Violent ideology does not arise from nothing, and neither do radicalized people. There is a vast and intricate web that nurtures and feeds their pain, one we are tightly bound within. American War forces us to examine our hatred and our culpability through a powerful and effective character born 60 years from now, in the midst of a conflict that echoes through time.