A central conundrum of our constantly connected moment is the crisis of empathy: we are witness to incredible suffering and yet often unmoved by it, especially in comparison to the anguish we feel over events of far smaller scale. We mull over this inequity every now and then — when the inequities present themselves in some glaring fashion, as when five deaths in France garner greater concern than five hundred in Baghdad. More often than not we skirt the issue, never quite perusing the cruel alchemy of distance and detachment and the cool and nefarious dehumanization that is born of it, never quite understanding why we cannot mourn certain deaths or distant misfortunes.
It is this very question of who can be mourned, and what losses feel proximate and poignant, that lies at the core of Omar El Akkad’s novel American War. The book, set in a dystopian future America, where fossil fuels are banned and bits of the continent have fallen into the ocean, is proof of the premise that while philosophy can urge contemplation, it is fiction that can lure us into compassion. Akkad, who has in his career as a journalist covered the surfeit of conflicts that make up our bloodied present, does this via a grand and panoramic inversion. The jumbled jargon of war that contemporary Americans attach to other lands — the ones that produce refugees, endure the buzz and blasts of surveilling drones, and try to preserve their children from recruitment as suicide bombers — are in this deftly constructed novel-scape the realities of a future America. Splintered by a second Civil War, this America is divided between the Blues of the North, who have claimed Columbus, Ohio as their capital, and the Southern Rebels, who have chosen secession instead of abiding by the ban on fossil fuels. The war between these jaggedly ripped halves of America begins in 2074 and continues until 2095.
At the center of American War is a woman, the fighting half of a pair of twin girls whose father is murdered when he tries to get a permit to migrate to the safer Blue North. The twins, Dana and Sarat, their brother, Simon, and their mother, Martina, are all refugees, vying for space on a bus with others who have lost children and homes and lives to “the Birds,” unmanned drones that rain down death on the territories controlled by the Southern Rebels. Their place of refuge is Camp Patience, a sprawling complex where the forlorn eke out an existence: lines of tents ringed by a river of excrement “which produces a stench so overwhelming that the refugees refused to live in any tent within fifty feet.”
The camp’s name is freighted with meaning transported from our world: “Patience” is the English translation of the Arabic Sabr, which in turn lends its name to the Beirut neighborhood and the adjacent refugee camps Sabra and Shatila — the site of a grotesque massacre of Palestinians in the 1980s and the venue of ongoing conflict. Here again are the cruel contours of faraway lands affixed to an American landscape; it is Sarat’s sister, Dana, a beautiful child who becomes the subject of photographs taken by journalists who come to see “refugee children” and “will pay all kinds of money to film themselves a pretty little Southern refugee girl.” Sarat’s brother, Simon, runs off to fight, while their mother worries about the children she is raising in and amid such hopelessness. The young Sarat runs around with a ragtag team of misfits, her daredevil energy leading her to jump into the excrement-filled moat on a dare. Not long after, she becomes the target of a recruiter for the Southern Rebels who wheedles her with books and (literally) honey sandwiches, both delicacies amid the deprivations of the camp. As in the actual Sabra and Shatila, there is a massacre, and not all of Sarat’s family survives.
The world of American War is a prophetic one, with loss and privation and conflict the cornerstones. It is also a compelling one, the warp and weft of its details constructing a universe whose internal logic is as convincing as any real-world account. All of it can be chalked up to Akkad’s mastery of detail, his depiction of an ecological collapse hastening the end of human compassion, filial feeling, normalcy, beauty, and possibility. The wry narrator of American War guides the reader through this devastated world; excerpts from bits and pieces of official documentation add depth, exposing piecemeal how bureaucracies paper over the bleeding actualities of war. As he tells us, “This is not a story about war. It is about ruin.”
Also included are excerpts from the “memoirs” of survivors and fighters. The eerily titled “Neither Breathe Nor Hope: The Untold Story of the South Carolina Wartime Quarantine” tells of a traitorous virologist responsible for the poisoning of an entire state. “A Northern Soldier’s Education in War and Peace: The Memoirs of General Joseph Wieland Jr.” presents the contentions of a man who wants Southerners to be compensated for “Un-Oriented Drone Damage.” The compensation is not given, but Wieland, as it happens, meets his death at the hands of Sarat, who has grown up to become an assassin for the Southern cause. The thematic inversion continues when we learn that the activities of the rebels are funded by the Bouazizi Empire, which controls from afar the happenings of a broken America. It is they and “the anonymous benefactors across the ocean in China” that insist on sending blankets to the camp, unconcerned with the fact that it’s the last thing the residents need. Martina Chestnut confesses that she cannot “imagine these benefactors as people.” For her and other refugees, they “exist in another universe, not as beings of flesh and blood but as pipes in a vast indecipherable machine.”
The challenge of a dystopian novel is to imagine that what we all feel is imminent but cannot, for want of imagination or articulation, envision as a whole. American War meets this mark and reaches further. The depletions being inflicted on the environment by fossil fuels, the sinking of coastal lands, the ascendance of a singular fervor for exclusion and intolerance, the killing of unknown others by remote control and known others by torture and targeting are all realities of our world that we have somehow accepted. It is the costly consequences of this acceptance projected into a distinctly American future that Akkad lays out for us in the novel-scape: we are moved to consider the moral cost of not grieving for those whose lives remain too remote from our own, Akkad inverts and presents us with faraway sufferings now imposed on familiar faces, known geographies, resonant names.
There are no answers in war, and none therefore in American War. Killing a man, even a powerful one like General Wieland, does not grant Sarat reprieve from her demons or from all she has lost. War, American or otherwise, provides only this certainty: violence is premised first as an antidote to destruction, then as a temporary salve, and ultimately as a justification for itself. It is only in recognizing its circuitous truths that a possibility for reprieve can be conjured, a possibility that must necessarily be erected on the more fragile of human impulses. In American War, the battle-hardened, prison-leavened Sarat ceases to mourn, and it is this world, a world without grief, that American War exhorts us to urgently beware. It’s a species of fear we could do with more of right now.