Preposterous. A second Civil War, once again between the North and the South. Rebel forces and suicide bombers (all American). A shadowy faintly Islamic caliphate that is manipulating events on American shores. Biological weapons of mass destruction. Political assassinations. This is the dystopian near future that Omar El Akkad describes in his debut novel American War.
Akkad’s United States is a shattered and humbled country. North and South have split over a fundamental disagreement about the use of fossil fuels, with the South refusing to accept the North’s ban on gasoline and oil. As is often the case with arguments, there are deeper issues at work, and old grievances and unhealed wounds festering. The North wins the war, and a reconciliation process is put into place. But there are those in the South who will never surrender, and rebel groups and individual terrorists continue the fight. Refugee camps are set up, civil rights taken away in the name of safety, human dignity stripped, individuals tortured, and in the process, the moral compass of an entire nation swings out of balance.
It does indeed sound preposterous, at least on the surface. As bad as things might be at any given moment, there is no way we can get from here to there, from where we are now to the tragedy and terror that the book paints, from the United States to a divided North and South. Is there?
But think for a moment. How far is it really from here to there? All of the elements that Akkad draws on to create his compelling narrative are already in place today. We live in a country with deep, angry divisions between Red and Blue states, that only seem to be getting deeper and angrier. The government is dysfunctional, unable to pass legislation to address today’s pressing needs. Our leadership is polarizing. Terrorist networks are operating all over the globe, many of them with the express intent of destroying the American way of life. Weapons of mass destruction exist, whether biological or nuclear, and we have for years worried about what would happen if those weapons were to fall into the wrong hands.
The truth is Akkad doesn’t make anything up from whole cloth for his story. It is all out there right now, today. All the author does is put the elements into one pot at the same time, heat them up a bit, stir them in exactly the right way, and follow the explosion to its terrifying, and also logical, conclusion. He is not really writing about some far distant time and place. He is writing about the here and now. His work is not so much an act of imagination as it is an act of re-organization. It is not a picture of the future. Instead, it is a warning about the present.
Will we figure out a way to heed that warning? That is, at the end of the day, the question Akkad sets in front of us. And we are the only ones who can provide an answer. American War is a novel about the future that could not be more contemporary. It is a sharp critique of today’s cultural, societal, and political trends. It is a mirror in which our images look back at us with uncomfortable and uncompromising honesty. And it just so happens to be a heck of a read.