The Wrong “American War”? (Book Review) (Guest Post)

The following book review is a Guest Post by Russ Miller, an expert on literature, film, and other things.  Russ grew up in the West and currently lives in Virginia.

I just finished the absorbing and well-paced debut novel American War by Omar El Akkad.  It depicts a dystopian future centered on a second American civil war between the northern “blues” and the southern “reds.”  The war’s personal and national tragedy is related through the experiences of one ordinary southern family that ends up having a profound role in the conflict.

American War’s Division

The fissures leading to another fratricidal conflagration are mostly unexplained and unexplored.  We all know what they are – drawing as they do on the Republic’s historical, entrenched, accumulated animosities and resentments.  But the match that ignites the dry tinder this time (it is the late 21st century) is the southern states’ refusal to comply with a federal ban on the use of fossil fuels.

The ban on fossil fuels comes too late in any case.  Global warming and the resulting rise in sea levels has left the North American continent submerged and scorched in equal measure.  Florida is already under water and the national capital has long-ago removed to Columbus, Ohio.  These conditions exacerbate the conflict.  But the cause isn’t climatic.  It is something deeper.

American War: A novel is getting well-deserved positive reviews.  El Akkad is a Canadian-Egyptian journalist who makes terrific use of his foreigner’s objectivity towards the U.S. and the harrowing experience he’s made reporting from some of the world’s intractable conflicts.

El Akkad brilliantly converts most of our contemporary pathologies into grist for the book’s plot:  drone wars and torture; refugee camps and foreign-supported insurrections; and the obvious nod to today’s seemingly irreconcilable hostility between “reds” and “blues.”

Today’s Real Divide

Still, the book’s crux – a revival of America’s north/south hostility – misses its mark.  As the last presidential election made clear, the real divide in this riven and disconsolate country centers on values and political perspectives.  The fault-line defies geography.  As Robert Kaplan reveals in his new book “Earning the Rockies,” red and blue American are not places but deeply-rooted states of mind keyed to questions of cosmopolitanism, identity-politics, and faith.  Central Mississippi now is aligned with central Pennsylvania and Central Idaho.  Similarly, New York now is aligned with Minneapolis and Lexington, Kentucky.  Mason and Dixon can’t explain Donald J. Trump’s victory, at least not as neatly as El Akkad hopes.  And besides, aren’t the northern fracking fields of Pennsylvania and North Dakota the heart of America’s new oil boom?

To have served as a more effective critique (or cautionary parable) of our current desperate condition, El Akkad’s book would have done better to imagine a future of secular, progressive North American mega-city-states (northern and southern) that observe their own laws (Seattle may be marking the path for this) as part of a cosmopolitan, global, “blue” archipelago – a modern Hanseatic League.  The “red” rural rest should  have been portrayed as an exploited and disparaged class kept poor and at bay by brutal repression, walls, and humiliating check-points (in the way that Israel “manages” the occupied territories today).  The hinterlands would serve and resent the cities under the regressive, self-interested, and corrupt “governance” of sectarian chieftains or warlords (wouldn’t this be the Southern Baptist Convention).  Contemporary London – simply “The City” – on one hand, and present-day Syria and Iraq, on the other hand.  Those are the models for the conflict El Akkad imagines, not Charleston and Gettysburg.

El Akkad has the right idea.  I also regret our internecine, seemingly incommensurable divisions.   But he dares too little with the truth of our current malaise.  To have seen the heart of that, El Akkad need not have traveled to Alabama.  The short trip from his home “just south of Portland, Oregon” to Oregon’s Grant County (Portland and Multnomah County were exact mirrors of Grant County in the 2016 presidential election results) – east and not south – would have done the trick.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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