Madison Palmieri ’22
If asked to free associate given the phrase “American War,” chances are you would immediately think of the Civil War: a conflict that, while nearly tearing the United States apart, took place in the distant past.
In American War, however, Omar El Akkad imagines a second civil war, one that occurs in the not-too-distant future: the latter half of the twenty-first century. The novel is narrated by a fairly anonymous figure with short government memos, letters, and other documents slipped in here and there. This is because, as the narrator tells readers in the opening pages, he is a historian and the account of the war that is to follow is a final act of revenge upon someone as he nears the end of his life. He also clarifies that “this isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”
The novel’s main narrative follows the Chestnut family. When readers first encounter them, they are trying to secure passage to the North, out of the increasingly war-torn South. Father Benjamin leaves home one day and does not return after setting out for a distant office which might be able to help the family do so. As mother Martina struggles to grapple with the loss of her husband, she and her three children, Simon, Dana, and Sarat—who was named Sara at birth but added the “t” when a schoolteacher pronounced her name with it—leave their home in Louisiana for a Mississippi refugee facility, Camp Patience.
The Chestnuts are able to make a sort of home for themselves at the camp in the seven or so years they spend there, and it is here that Sarat meets many of the various figures who will shape the course of her life—for better or for worse. When Northerners attack the facility and destroy everything the young girl has come to know and love, it ignites something dormant inside of her—something deadly.
Sarat and her surviving family members relocate to Georgia, where she throws herself wholeheartedly into the Southern cause. She quickly makes a name for herself, successfully killing one of the North’s top generals with her beloved rifle named after the South’s first rebel in the war, Julia Templestowe, who walked into a crowded federal event with a bomb strapped to her chest.
Despite her skill, Sarat is soon captured and brought to Camp Sugarloaf, a detention and torture center for Southern rebels. Although she holds out for as long as she can, tolerating even permanent damage to her eyes and bends in her back, her captors eventually force her to confess—not to killing the high-ranking Northern general, but to crimes that she did not commit.
Sarat is eventually released and returns home to find that her brother got married and had a son in her absence. Slowly but surely, she bonds with her nephew, whose initial fear at the sight of his aunt, deformed and misshapen with scars all over her body from the years of hardship she has endured, gives way to adoration.
Reunited with her family and aware that the war is coming to an end, Sarat could easily accept defeat and attempt to move on with her life. However, as the narrator asserts at the opening of the novel, “this isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.” Even though the war seems to be over, Sarat’s ruin is far from complete. She makes a choice with profound consequences for herself, her family, and her country—not to mention the narrator.
American War is a haunting tale of how the environments which shape one’s existence define who they become. Sarat herself recognizes the tragedy of this aspect of the human condition when, in a diary entry that serves as the novel’s final lines, she writes: “When I was young, I lived with my parents and my brother and my sister in a small house by the Mississippi Sea. I was happy then.” This is where American War’s true power lies: readers are able to follow Sarat as she transforms from that happy, innocent little girl into someone unrecognizable. Indeed, as Sarat learns, “the universal slogan of war…was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
Rating: 5/5 stars