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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    The Children of “The Dust Bowl” (Short Review)

    Several years ago, I read Timothy Egan‘s The Worst Hard Time, a National Book Award winner about the dust storms and drought that struck the High Plains in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The book is a fascinating immersion into another time describing the causes, government responses, and the people in an otherworldly land. So I was excited to see that filmmaker Ken Burns created a new two-part documentary about The Dust Bowl for PBS, and that Egan appears several times throughout the film.

    The Dust Bowl is unable to go into the depths that Egan’s book did about the causes and the responses to the environmental disaster, but the documentary narrated by Peter Coyote gives viewers a decent understanding of a somewhat forgotten period of American history that is still relevant today. As today’s politicians debate the effects that human beings have on our environment (even if scientists agree), The Dust Bowl provides a clear example of how human activity destroyed an environment. The film explores how the farming practices ruined the landscape, how the government was eventually able to effectively respond, and how humans often fail to learn from experience.

    What The Dust Bowl does best, however, is tell the personal stories of the people who lived on the High Plains during the 1930s. Through interviews with twenty-six survivors who were there, along with outstanding photos and video footage of the land and the dust storms, one gets a good sense of what it was like to live on the land at the time, as well as understanding why some stayed and why some left.

    More precisely, The Dust Bowl captures what it was like to be a child growing up there at the time, as the most fascinating interviews in the film are of people who experienced the drought and dust storms. And, of course, those people still alive now were children during the Dust Bowl era. So, the most moving tales come from the eyes of children remembering details like the dust on the dishes and the joy of being reunited with a parent. Also, because they were children, we see that some of the stories that most affected the speakers were not about falling wheat prices or how the dirt affected the local economy but about seeing how the drought affected animals. So just as animals often play a large role in our memories of childhood, one person vividly remembers the death of a calf, another remembers the community’s brutal response to an influx of jackrabbits, and others are haunted by other similar childhood experiences.

    Others who are no longer alive give us additional perspectives on the times, including footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another famous voice we get to hear is that of Woody Guthrie, both talking and singing about “the dusty old dust.”

    The story moves along briskly and is engaging throughout. The episodes were written by Dayton Duncan, who has worked with director Ken Burns on other series like The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz. I have been a fan of Duncan’s since the late 1980’s when I discovered his book Out West: American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail (1988), where Duncan recounted his own modern road trip tracing Lewis and Clark’s famous travels. When I saw that he was working with Director Ken Burns years ago, I was glad that Burns found such a good writer.

    If you enjoy Ken Burns’s other work, such as The Civil War, you probably already know whether you want to see The Dust Bowl or have already seen it. I am a fan of all of his work. But even if you have not seen his other work, you might find The Dust Bowl engaging because its first-person accounts provide an entertaining living history and a living warning about our times. Check your local PBS stations for reruns of The Dust Bowl, which is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. In the video below, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan discuss the series.

    Another Review Because Why Should You Trust Me?: For a different view on The Dust Bowl, check out “Burns’ ‘Dust Bowl’ speaks to our times, but it’s dry” from David Wiegand.

    What did you think of The Dust Bowl? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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