I thought I knew what to expect from American War before I even cracked the first page. From the jacket blurb and from my experience with apocalyptic novels, I thought this would follow a familiar formula: The author would weave together threads from current social and political attitudes to compose a dark and terrifyingly plausible future. The next American civil war, though taking place decades from now, would surely break along the lines of today's significant divides: race, class, religion, lifestyle, or political ideology. Because the author is Muslim and the protagonist has an Arabic first name, I vaguely assumed the book would follow the experiences of a Muslim family caught in the conflict.
I was wrong about all of this. So wrong that for the first few hundred pages, I thought I was reading an entirely different - and much worse - book than the one I actually held in my hands.
My misconceptions about the protagonist's backstory were the simplest to correct: Sarat Chestnut is not Muslim, but Catholic. Her parents are Martina, who is Black, and Benjamin, who is Latino. Along with her twin sister Dana and brother Simon, the family lives in southern Louisiana, beside the swollen waterway now known as the Mississippi Sea. By today's standards they are quite poor, living in a shipping container, generating energy with solar panels, and filtering rainwater for drinking, but they get by. Sarat would have considered her childhood almost idyllic, had the war not arrived to cut it short with repeated and ever-escalating brutalities.
The details of the war itself were where the book started to ring false for me. After the American government banned the use of fossil fuels in 2074, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia seceded to form the Free Southern State. South Carolina would have joined them, but the entire state had been walled off and quarantined after a government-released calming agent turned its population to zombies. Florida might have joined them too, but it had long since disappeared under the rising ocean waters.
With all of the issues currently dividing us, it did not seem realistic or interesting to me that the next civil war would be driven by stale regional grudges dating back to the 1800's, or that it would be solely precipitated by the South's cussed devotion to a destructive and obsolete fuel source. It was especially jarring that all of those other issues I mentioned above - race, religion, class, politics - are never mentioned as relevant factors in the war. Or in American life at all. I guess by the 2070's we'd solved all of that - the only contentious issue was the gasoline.
This premise seemed so off and so odd to me that I couldn't take large portions of the book seriously. It seemed like such a glaring misunderstanding of modern America's internal strife. How could I be properly scared of a dystopia that wasn't populated by metastasized versions of today's bogeymen?
But this is where I didn't understand the book at all, or the story it was actually telling. It isn't intended to be a commentary on American culture. It isn't interested in realistically portraying the causes or methods of war. If I had been paying attention, I would have recognized this from the beginning. The narrator spells it out right in the prologue: "This isn't a story about war. It's about ruin."
This book is about what happens to Sarat and her family throughout the war's harrowing 21 years. She is 6 years old when it begins, not yet 30 when the reunification treaty is signed. When the war breaks out her family are civilians, uninterested in politics, not partisan to any particular side. They love each other; they love their home. They just want to get by.
There are millions of Sarats out there right now.
What we are inculcating in them now with our military operations could very well bear bitter, vengeful fruit for decades, for generations, to come. This isn't about war - its justifications, its high-minded ideologies, its dark utilitarian bargains. It's about ruin.
"Everyone fights an American war."