With American War, published by Penguin Random House April 4 2017, former journalist Omar El Akkad has given us a stunning portrayal of how a terrorist is created. Set in a dystopian future, the last quarter of 21st century America, we follow young Sara T Chestnut, called Sarat because a teacher slurred her first name and middle initial together, as she grows from childhood to her final shaping as a weapon of mass destruction by her handlers.
The United States had descended into a second civil war towards the end of the 21st Century. This time the division is based on the use of fossil fuels. As the oceans have risen coast lines, including Florida and most of Louisiana have vanished. When the oil reserves start to run dry the federal government took the drastic step of banning the use of all fossil fuels. Texas and a group of other Southern States rose in protest.
When a pro-fossil fuel demonstration at an American army base in the South results in the death of protesters – nobody can agree on the how or the why – the Free Southern State, comprised of Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and parts of what used to be Louisiana, seceded and declared war on the rest of the United States. While the war has basically petered out into sort of a numb peace between the two side when we meet Sarat and her family in 2075, ongoing terror attacks by Southern forces periodically provoke the North into retaliation.
When Sarat’s father is killed while visiting a border post in one of those terror attacks, she and the rest of her family – older brother, twin sister, and mother – are evacuated to a refugee camp in Mississippi run by the Red Crescent society. For as America has crumbled into ruin, countries in the Middle East have finally thrown off their despotic rulers and united to form the Bouazizi Union or Empire. So instead of them being the ones receiving aid from the West, they’re now sending aid workers to America.
It’s once in the refugee camp that we witness the gradual development of Sarat as a terrorist. We watch as she’s selected then groomed by the mysterious Mr. Gaines. Under the guise of befriending Sarat, he begins the careful process of gaining her trust and making her feel like she’s part of something important. At first this involves her simply running errands for him – delivering cash to various people within the camp – but gradually develops into the dehumanizing of Northerners so they are no longer seen as anything but an enemy.
When the camp is attacked in retaliation for the ambush of a Northern supply train Sarat’s mother is killed and her brother badly injured. This is the final straw required to make her the tool Gaines has been shaping. Formed in the crucible of war and the barbarity of human atrocity she becomes the ultimate in disposable weaponry.
Akkad has created a world which may seem dystopian to us in North America but is pretty much a reality in any number of war torn countries. His ability to make life in the refugee camp seem almost normal lulls us into a false sense of comfort. It’s only when we step away, think about what we’ve been reading, we realize how abnormal these circumstances are and the desperation they must fuel in the hearts and souls of those forced to live under these conditions.
He also displays a masterful hand in laying out the story. We see it through the eyes of a number of characters; Sarat, her mother, the nurse who is hired to care for Sarat’s brother after they leave the camp, and finally, Sarat’s young nephew. Akkad even includes historical documents; testimony from congressional committees, news accounts of the events leading up to the war, and other similar materials which help create both atmosphere and verisimilitude.
All of these points of view help to create a world both realistic and chilling. What is especially frightening is the fact that we can even understand and sympathize, to an extent, with Sarat. It is remarkable how easy it is to become a terrorist.
While this book is being classified as Science Fiction, mainly because it is set in the future and the world has changed so radically, there is far too much reality contained within its covers to simply dismiss American War as another piece of genre fiction. This is a warning shot across our bows letting us know the circumstances that create the terrorists we fear so much can be created anywhere – even here.
Akkad is a masterful storyteller and American War is one of the most compelling books you’ll read this year. It will explain what’s going on in the world a whole lot more honestly and clearly than any news cast or politician.