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When war comes home

When war comes home

[photo of author Omar El Akkad with a cover graphic from his book "American War"
Michael Lionstar

Omar El Akkad, Comp'05, author of American War

"Even back then, you could see it coming," said Gaines. "Before the first bombs fell, before the slaughter in East Texas, everyone knew this country was getting ready to tear itself to shreds. I was worried for my family, worried about whether I could keep my wife and daughter safe. It was Joe who helped me. He found a safe place for them to live in the Bouazizi. They hated me for sending them away, but they’re safe there, and that’s the only thing that matters. That’s what Joe did for me. That’s the gift he gave me.”
Gaines folded the picture of his daughter and placed it back in his wallet.
“You know, I’d like to say you remind me of her,or that you two would have been good friends. But the truth is it’s been so long since we’ve spoken. Maybe if we met now she wouldn’t even recognize me. Maybe all she’d see is some old fool,some foreigner.”
He seemed then not to be speaking to Sarat, or even to himself, but to nobody at all. He stared out the half-open window.
They heard the faint patter of footsteps overhead: the camp’s administrators and volunteers, preparing for the morning shift.
“Why did you side with the South when the war came?” asked Sarat. “You were born a Northerner, you fought for the Northern army when it was still one country. Why not side with the Blues?”
“Well, after they finally brought us back from Iraq and Syria for the last time, I wandered around for a while before settling down in Montgomery,” said Gaines. “You see, we have a habit in this country of deciding the wisdom of our wars only after we’re done fighting them, and I guess we decided the war I’d been sent to fight wasn’t a very good idea after all. In the North, whenever anyone found out I’d been a part of that war, they’d want to debate it all over again, as though I was the one who ordered myself to go over there. But in the South, they don’t do that, or at least nobody ever did that to me.”
“So that’s it?” asked Sarat. “They were good to you here, so you sided with the Red?”
“No,” said Gaines. “I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for – be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness – you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I’d had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.”
“So you think we’re wrong?” Sarat asked. “You think what we’re fighting for is wrong?”
“No.” said Gaines. “Do you?”
“But if you did. If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to tum you against your people?”
Gaines smiled. “Good girl,” he said.

Excerpted, with permission, from American War. Copyright © 2017 by Omar El Akkad

America isn’t ready when its chickens come home to roost. The 21st century is closing and the lethal drones they used so liberally in the Middle East now buzz over Alabama and Georgia, seeking prey. The fossil fuels used to power their empire have choked the atmosphere and dramatically raised sea levels. New York and Miami are modern Atlantises, their skyscrapers and subways lost beneath the rising tide, sending 100 million people inland. And the old social wounds they never managed to stitch have burst open: the American North and South are facing off in a bloody new civil war. 

The spark for the nation-splitting conflict is minor. With ocean waves lapping at the White House rose garden, the federal government decides to ban the use of fossil fuels. Several southern states, unwilling to capitulate and aggravated at the imposition, take up arms.

This is the future that Omar El Akkad’s American War introduces to its reader. Set between the {y€ys and the turn of the next century, it paints a  grim and terrifying picture of what the giant to our south is headed to. It’s a story of extreme political polarization, climatic disaster, and ineffective leadership, which sounds a little like prophecy, but the author says it’s anything but.

Rather than warning us of a terrible tomorrow, the novel exposes us to our present.

Omar El Akkad was born in Egypt in the 1980s and grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada at age 16. He studied computer science at Queen’s but was determined to pursue a career as a writer. As a student, he wrote for Ultraviolet magazine and the Journal, becoming its editor-in-chief in 2004–05. He also did an internship at the Review.

After graduation, he landed a short-term position at The Globe and Mail that had him dropped into the weeds of financial reporting and analysis (“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “I think when I got hired for that job, I had about $€7 in my bank account.”) that started him on his way. A quick study, El Akkad’s financial writing earned him another contract, which led to his first big story. Days into his new contract, he was one of the journalists who covered the foiled plan of the Toronto 18, the biggest terror plot in Canadian history. El Akkad’s reporting delved into how this group planned to storm the CBC, explode trucks in crowded places, and kidnap the prime minister. The series earned him and colleague Greg McArthur a National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting.

With that prize under his belt, El Akkad was able to pursue the stories he most wanted: those of war and conflict.

Within the span of a few years, he had taken war correspondent training, done two rotations in Afghanistan, one in Guantanamo Bay, and had seen first-hand the realities of the so-called War on Terror. These realities shocked and horrified him. He saw the callous indifference to civilian casualties. Saw how people facing no legal charges could be detained indefinitely in tiny cells. And he saw how wars often have a clear start date but never really end for the people involved. 

Though he experienced the kinetic terror of RPG explosions and IED blasts, El Akkad said that the cruelty of war showed itself in quieter moments. Nearly 15 years later, he can still clearly remember driving out from a NATO air base in Afghanistan and passing through two layers of checkpoints: the inner wire and the outer wire. The inner wire was defended by heavily trained NATO soldiers holding state-of-the-art weapons, wearing expensive body armour, and carrying the best equipment. The outer wire was more haphazard, defended by local Afghan troops who were usually in their late teens. Their weapons were relics from past wars and their armour was non-existent.

“The nature of the base is such that in the event of an attack, 100 per cent of the time, it’s going to hit the outer wire,” El Akkad says. “It gave me this insight into the hierarchy of war. Even in this situation where everyone is supposed to be on the same side, there’s a hierarchy of whose lives are more important.”

When he was home and wasn’t chasing a deadline, he began to write about his experiences with war. Frustrated by a populace that felt these atrocities to be a world away, he began concocting a story. Rather than focus on the guns and bombs of military conflict, he wanted to talk about the average people who get caught up in war. About how being caught up in war changes them, marks them, and turns them into more fuel for the conflict. Over time, these stories crystalized into American War and the violent odyssey of Sarat Chestnut.

Sarat is the driving force behind American War. Born and raised on the edge of a war zone, she is the youngest of three children who live a hardscrabble life with their parents. The five of them are crammed into a converted shipping container on the bank of the Mississippi River, existing on food from foreign aid ships and collected rainwater. 

Though they’re living more than 50 years in the future, there’s a distinct oldness that colours the Chestnuts’ lives and the South they live in. They eat bland war rations, struggle to power their home with ramshackle solar panels, and move around in sputtering, struggling cars and boats. 

It’s one of the defining features of the novel’s setting, and El Akkad says it’s one based in reality. “That’s what happens when you’re on the losing end of a war,” he says. “You move backwards in time. Satellites break down, infrastructure breaks down. The South that the book takes place in feels like it’s the past tense.”

Rather than focus on the guns and bombs of military conflict, he wanted to talk about the average people who get caught up in war. About how being caught up in war changes them, marks them, and turns them into more fuel for the conflict

For the Chestnuts, the war that’s riven the North and South seems to be mostly over. The fighting only lasted a few months, with the North winning a decisive victory. But as is to be expected, the South has trouble admitting defeat. The official armies aren’t actively fighting, but every state has rebel factions who strike out at the North however and whenever they can.

The Chestnuts’ tentative peace is broken when Sarat’s father is killed by a rebel’s suicide bomb. This launches the surviving members of the family on a journey to safety and Sarat on a lifelong journey for revenge. Dodging drone missiles and unsympathetic soldiers, they end up in a crowded refugee camp. They expect to stay for just a few weeks, but soon months pass, then years. Sarat and her siblings spend their formative years among the tents and open sewage ditch of the ironically named Camp Patience, along with thousands of other displaced people.

Life at the camp is cramped and boring. People trickle in, the lines of contested territory shift back and forth, and the camp’s residents are generally  stuck. It’s here that Sarat begins preparing for vengeance. While out in the camp one night, she bumps into a neatly dressed older man who asks her to make a small delivery for him. After she completes the job, the man, whose name is Gaines, takes a shine to Sarat. He gives her precious food like honey, plays her music, lends her books, and begins teaching her about the world outside the refugee camp.

While at first the reader is happy that Sarat has found a bright spot within the desperation of the camp, it soon becomes clear that Sarat isn’t being mentored, she’s being groomed. Gaines cultivates her anger, gives name to it, and begins preparing her for the dangerous and clandestine work of striking back at the North. The books and records become bolt actions and rifle scopes. Even though he knows the South can’t hope to win, Gaines is interested in using Sarat however he can in order to bloody his enemies.

Damage begets damage. If you do something terrible, all you have to do is wait a while and then you can start changing the facts.

In Gaines, and then Sarat, the reader sees El Akkad’s vision of how wars fail to end. Even after a peace accord is struck, the desire for revenge creates an endless cycle of violence. Neither Gaines nor Sarat care much for the fossil fuels that are the ostensible cause of the war – they’re focused on avenging the latest outrage from the North. They, like many labelled “terrorists,” are people who have suffered greatly at the hands of their supposed liberators. They’re expected to be thankful to the people who have killed their family members, friends, and way of life, which only makes their rage more potent. 

When he was writing, El Akkad says that he was thinking about “the malleability of history … and how damage begets damage. If you do something terrible, all you have to do is wait a while and then you can start changing the facts.” 

The story of the first American Civil War has been rewritten to minimize the centrality of chattel slavery and instead focus on gallant gentlemen and “state’s rights.” In the novel, the South’s story of the second civil war centres around liberty, autonomy, and tradition rather than its real cause: regaining pride and dignity by hitting back.

The world American War was written in was different from the world in which it was published. El Akkad wrote the novel during the Obama administration but handed it off to his editor just a few weeks before Donald Trump announced his presidential bid. He deliberately didn’t make any changes to it to reflect the emerging political climate, but readers have filled in the blanks anyway. He wrote the novel as an allegory that reframes the unending wars tearing apart the Middle East, but instead it’s being treated as a roadmap.

“In my mind, this book isn’t really about America,” he says. “It’s analogous country. When I was thinking about what would cause a war in this context, I was thinking about Southernness. And that ‘this is right because we’ve always done it this way.’”

In the course of researching the novel, El Akkad travelled often to the American South, where, he says, he met many people who embodied hospitality and generosity, who had strong ties to tradition, “and God help you if you challenged them on any of it.” It reminded him of people he’d grown up around in the Middle East, people who were “hospitable, generous, but were tied to some old traditions … and God help you if you challenged them on any of it,” he says. “Seeing these similarities between people who probably think they have nothing in common really crystallized what I was trying to do in the book.”

He wrote hoping to capture the way that seemingly endless conflicts tearing up millions of lives in the Middle East would have the exact same effect if they happened in our backyard.

Omar El Akkad’s novel doesn’t have policy recommendations, and he doesn’t claim to have answers to global conflicts. What he does have is Sarat.

Sarat Chestnut is a person who suffers when the juggernaut of war rolls over her life. Once it touches her, it defines her, and war becomes her whole life. After she’s hurt, Sarat spends the rest of her life trying to hurt back. American War’s thesis is that Sarat is the norm, not the exception. That anyone in her position would do the same thing. And that the only way to keep more Sarats from being created is to keep war from happening at all. 

[illustration of Queen's students in 1918 wearing army uniforms and Queen's students in 1968 at a peace rally