I believe the thing that sets Omar El Akkad's "American War" apart is not his ability to build a powerful and compelling view of a 2075 America, damaged by global warming and collapsing into a civil war, prompted by the South's refusal to stop using fossil fuels, it is his creation of Sara T Chestnut - who calls herself Sarat. Sarat is a bright, curious young girl from Louisianna who is broken and finally destroyed by a war she had no part in making and a need for revenge that she cannot let go of.
Sarat is neither hero nor saint. She is strong, brave, bright and fierce. She has also been fundamentally ruined by the war she has lived through. What she does is literally atrocious. Why she does it is completely understandable.
It is this ability to help me understand Sarat without turning her into an object or either worship or contempt, that makes "American War" a great novel.
In the opening chapter of "American War" the narrator tells us that:
"This isn't a story about war, it's about ruin."
In this war of the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia) against the North, everything and everyone is ultimately ruined. America becomes a place of violence and vengeance. A place where you or either "Us" or the enemy. A place filled with the desperate poverty of refugee camps, the truculent aggression of militias, merciless oppression by the government and self-interested interference by foreign powers who covertly fuel the conflict with weapons and subversion while publicly offering humanitarian aid. There are assassinations, massacres, torture and bone-deep hatreds.
Yet there is nothing here that I cannot look around and see today in the Middle East or the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp or Turkey or in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Omar El Akkad is a journalist who has covered many wars and revolutions. He has not had to make up the things that come with war, What he has had to do is to help us see them with fresh eyes, to put ourselves in the shoes of the losing side, the oppressed, the refugees, the ones who have seen everyone they love and everything they care about destroyed by an enemy so powerful that victory is unimaginable and the only possibilities are survival or revenge.
"American War" is not a book that preaches through soundbites. The pace is slow, You feel the years passing and experience hope being slowly extinguished and being replaced by shame and anger and an insatiable need for revenge. The book avoids being a series of platitudinous abstractions by focusing on Sarat's slow transformation from a bright, curious child, into fierce fighter and then to a woman broken and in constant pain.
Sarat doesn't theorise about war. Perhaps, as the product of it, she is too close to it to be able to see it as anything other than how the world is.
The theorising is left to an outsider, Karina, who keeps house for the Chesnuts at one point. She is the one who understands that, diverse as people are when there is peace, they all become the same in war. She believes that:
“The misery of war represents the world’s only truly universal language.”
"The universal slogan of war, she'd learned, was simple: if it had been you, you'd have done no different."
Karina also sees Sarat differently:
"Unkike everyone else, she didn't admire Miss Sarat or hold her in some revered esteem. The girl was still a child. At seventeen she was still less than half Karina's age. She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early."
The only other commentator on what truly drives the conflict Sarat is engulfed by is made by her childhood friend, who, trying to explain why she thinks a certain action is right, says:
"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 statement you could hear all over the world, Treating others differently than your own seems to be a basic human response. When war comes, this response is the oxygen feeding the fire.
This novel reminded me that, if I want to understand acts or war or terrorism, I should always remember the "before" that led that person to that event. I don't have to condone them, but I'll never understand them if I stay ignorant of the "before".
"American War" is a grim book but an honest one. It is heartbreaking without being in the least bit exploitative. It's wonderfully well-written and brilliantly narrated by Dion Graham. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample:
Click on the npr books logo to hear Lulu Garcia-Navarro interview Omar El Akkad on how "American War" explores the universality of revenge. In it, Omar El Akkad talks about Sarat and says:
"No. I don't think you're supposed to have sympathy for her. My only hope is that you understand why she did it. I think one of the things that's been lost in this incredibly polarized world we live in is the idea that it's possible to understand without taking somebody's side. So my only hope is that when you get to the end of the book, you're not on her side, you don't support her, you're not willing to apologize for her — but you understand how she got to the place where she is."