This seems a bit far-fetched. Southerners do love their Nascar, but going to war to defend their rights to gas up a muscle car? All of Florida? And the wall around South Carolina — where have we heard this before? Were the residents of South Carolina perhaps made to pay for it? There’s a fair amount of authorial winking and seat-of-the-pants science going on here, but never mind; El Akkad is far less concerned with the mechanics of his conceit than its psychological underpinnings. When Sarat’s father is killed in a terrorist blast and rebel militias close in on the family home, the Chestnuts flee to a filthy tent city for displaced persons on the Tennessee border, ironically named Camp Patience — the “festering heart of the war-torn South.” Just beyond the wires lies the front line separating “Reds” from “Blues.” It is here, under the gaze of Northern snipers ordered to kill any who attempt to cross, that Sarat commences her education as a would-be freedom fighter or terrorist, take your pick.
By this point, if the novel’s true historical and social analogues aren’t apparent to the reader, they should be. The novel may be set in the future, and the title may be “American War,” but there’s nothing especially futuristic or, for that matter, distinctly American about it. This is precisely the author’s point, and the thing that’s most unsettling about the book. America is not Iraq or Syria, but it’s not Denmark, either; it’s a large, messy, diverse country glued together by 250-year-old paperwork composed by yeoman farmers, and our citizens seem to understand one another less by the day. Puncture the illusion of a commonwealth, El Akkad asserts, fire a few shots into the crowd and put people in camps for a decade, and watch what happens.
Sarat is the novel’s test case. As the war grinds pointlessly on, and she and her family languish in materially deprived boredom, she is singled out by a smooth-talking figure named Gaines, who hires her to deliver money to rebel militiamen operating outside the purview of the Army of the Free Southern State. Twelve years old, she is soon passing her days in his company, being fed a steady diet of pro-Southern propaganda and oily praise while Gaines grooms her for something more. Gaines is an American veteran of various Middle Eastern conflicts (the money is funneled from the Bouazizi Empire, a unified, post-Arab Spring Middle East), and he has learned well the lessons of his former adversaries. “I seek out special people,” Gaines tells her, “people who, if given the chance and the necessary tools, would stand up and face the enemy on behalf of those who can’t … who would do this even if they knew for certain that it would cost them dearly, maybe even cost them their lives.” Sarat rises to the bait; when Northern militiamen massacre the residents of Camp Patience, killing Sarat’s mother and gravely wounding her brother, her fate is sealed. “Sarat turned her attention to the only thing that still mattered: revenge, the unsettled score.”
All of this unfolds at an unhurried pace; the novel’s thriller premise notwithstanding, El Akkad applies a literary writer’s care to his depiction of Sarat’s psychological unpacking and the sensory details of her life, first in Camp Patience, then on the move as a freelance insurgent. (The story also pauses at regular intervals for the inclusion of various wartime documents — committee reports, bureaucratic case files, eyewitness accounts — to flesh out the background.) Even as the story delves deeper into the political minutiae of the war — in particular, a power struggle between the government of the Free Southern State and rebel militias over the question of ending the conflict — it also makes the case that Sarat’s journey is an entirely personal one, as war itself becomes personal, a collection of private grievances looking for a public solution. By the time Sarat is finally captured and sent to a Guantanamo-like prison to be waterboarded, she’s achieved legendary status, but she hardly cares; she’s a thoroughly apolitical animal. When the war ends and she’s abruptly released, there can be little doubt that her program of vengeance has not ended. It’s merely looking for its terrible, final expression.
“For Sarat Chestnut,” her nephew explains, “the calculus was simple: The enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy. There could be no other way, she knew it. Blood can never be unspilled.” Whether read as a cautionary tale of partisanship run amok, an allegory of past conflicts or a study of the psychology of war, “American War” is a deeply unsettling novel. The only comfort the story offers is that it’s a work of fiction. For the time being, anyway.