by Graham E. Fuller — It’s hard these days to avoid glimmers of an apocalyptic future, domestic and international, breaking into our daily consciousness. President Trump represents its most obvious face today, but its roots go back at least to a blinkered American triumphalism emerging from the fall of the USSR in 1991. We had become King of the Mountain and decline is hard.
A striking new novel has just appeared which to a considerable degree speaks to the times—both in our domestic anguish and the impact of our foreign policies.
“American War” (Knopf, 2017) offers us a new and original take on the “apocalyptic” novel, this one set in a future American South from 2075 to 2095, with afterthoughts extending to 2123.
Omar El Akkad is its unlikely author: an Egyptian-born Canadian writer who was a journalist for some years for Canada’s premier newspaper, Globe and Mail. Given his non-native born background, his grasp of the idiom and values of the American South, is striking.
“American War” chronicles a protracted civil war in the US between the North and the South, but this time with overtones of Red States versus Blue States. The war is vicious and deadly, taking a savage toll upon civilians including bio-war that kills over a hundred million. It takes place against the backdrop of an environmentally-ravaged US in which rising sea levels have forced the capital of the country to move from Washington to Columbus, Ohio. Large portions of the low-lying American South have disappeared under water including the state of Florida and most of the eastern shoreline and the Gulf coast, the flood waters expanding way up the Mississippi. Global warming adds to the general miseries of daily life everywhere, but especially in the South. Indeed, one of the proximate causes of the North-South war is the unwillingness of the South to honor the ban on fossil fuels legally imposed by the federal government in Columbus. We learn that domestic chaos has also produced other breakaway regions of the US.
“American War” could simply join the ranks of novels about environmental catastrophe and domestic conflict tinged with class war. But El Akkad brings his own special sensibilities to the material of the novel, reflecting his personal cultural background and experiences living and working in the Middle East. Not surprisingly this makes him particularly attuned to southern American values of land, honor, tradition, and family. These traditional qualities of the American South are of course well known to readers of other books about the American South, but El Akkad offers a hint of psychological connection to other peoples in the world similarly defeated in war, and especially peoples of the Middle East. The passionate and stubborn southern embrace of land, family and traditional values against Yankee power were popularized earlier with “Gone with the Wind.” But such values and emotions are also evident, in different cultural garb, among Palestinians who similarly refuse to abandon their land even as they struggle vainly against the overwhelming military power of the Israeli state.
Other familiar echoes: Southern radicals carry out suicide bombings against Northern officials and troops, dressed in “farmers’ suits.” Northern forces also fly drones over southern American space, dealing death from the sky. The ever-presence of these “Birds” is an ominous and feared sight, just as are American drones hovering in the skies over Pakistani tribal areas—a significant theme in my own recent novel “Breaking Faith: a novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” Indeed El Akkad served earlier as a Canadian correspondent in Afghanistan.
Grim Northern concentration camps are scattered around the defeated South, reminding us of MacKinlay Kantor’s classic “Andersonville” (1956). But there is also a scene of a tragic massacre of impounded Southerners by Northern irregular forces—the details clearly reminiscent of the terrible massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982 when Christian militias murdered upwards of several thousand Palestinian men, women and children, unrestrained by occupying Israeli forces.
And we have clear echoes of Guantánamo, this time a lone island in the middle of the submerged state of Florida where a Northern prison camp carries out brutal interrogations of Southerners including devastating (and successful) use of waterboarding.
The novel is not meant to be an allegory of the Middle East—it is quite steeped in American reality and history. Indeed the word “Muslim”appears nowhere in the novel, although we learn that the greater Middle East has finally gotten its act together after five attempts at “Arab Springs” and now constitutes a major new and consolidated Arab state at this point eager to assertively export the benefits of democracy to the rest of the world, and to bend its wealth and power to that end.
An old Southern woman near the end of the novel comments “…you must understand that in this part of the world, right and wrong ain’t about who wins, or who kills who. In this part of the world, right and wrong ain’t even about right and wrong. It’s about what you do for your own.” This is a sentiment as much at home in parts of today’s Middle East (or other parts of the world) as it is part of the values of the traditional South.
El Akkad provides striking insights onto many other issues here and there in the mouth of diverse characters. Another figure speaks of the South after nearly twenty years of intermittent war: “…in the South there is no future, only three kinds of past—the distant past of heritage, the near past of experience, and the past-in-waiting. What they’ve got up there in the Blue [North]—what your wife wants, what our parents wanted—is a future.”
Another eerie comment echoes today’s world: “Nativism being a pyramid scheme, I found myself contemptuous of the refugees’ presence in a city already overburdened….[Harassing them] made me feel rooted; their unbelonging was proof of my belonging.”
“You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories,” another character suggests. Here El Akkad reflects the struggle to gain control of the master narrative in our war-torn world, in which America is now merely just one player in this struggle to determine the future world’s narrative.
El Akkad’s central protagonist is a Mississippi girl we first meet as a child but who, under circumstances of terrifying harshness of war, becomes a bitter and single-minded warrior, driven by impulses to avenge in the name of justice. Her actions end up having dramatic consequences on the course of this long and bitter American conflict—a nation physically falling into separatism in the course of its agony. “It seemed to [her] further proof that wartime was the only time the world became as simple and carnivorously liberating as it must exist at all times in men’s minds.”
El Akkad’s book is worth reading at several different levels, as a tale dark with echoes of the present and a possible future before us. His unusual outsider’s eye significantly enriches his observations of this future American anguish. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
A powerful and salutary book that is sadly in tune with the times on many levels.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle)