Best Defense

Book review: ‘American War’ — a grim novel about a second American Civil War

I’ve been harping in this blog for awhile on the possibility of another American division, so I was interested to see a new novel tackle that subject.

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I’ve been harping in this blog for awhile on the possibility of another American division, so I was interested to see a new novel tackle that subject.

American War, by Omar El Akkad, an Egyptian-born journalist who moved to Canada and then to the United States, applies a powerful dose of global karma to our country: In it, pretty much everything the Americans have done in the Middle East over the last 70 years gets done back to them. A new pan-Arab empire has arisen and is willing to fund American militias, not because it agrees with them, but because doing so deepens American divisions and so weakens the erstwhile superpower. The United States is broken, millions are dead, refugees stew in grim camps, and killer drones roam the skies. Interrogations are as brutal as anything that ever happened in Abu Ghraib, but more efficient. They work.

As a work of literature, American War has both the faults and the strengths of a first novel. On the downside, some of the coincidences made me stop and wonder: Of all the places in the South, our hero walks in and finds her best friend in the world? On the other hand, and far more important, there is a freshness of thought to the book that kept me turning the pages eagerly.

Some examples:

— A provocative line: “The universal slogan of war … was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”

— Another one that I underlined: “To survive atrocity is to be made an honorary consul to a republic of pain.” (But, I wonder as I type that now, why a “republic?” To me, intense pain feels more like a dictatorship. It says, I don’t care what your plans were, I am going to dominate your life now. You can fight, but you can’t make me go away.)

— And then there’s this sentence, which made me stop and think about both Iraq and the American south: “In this part of the world, right and wrong ain’t even about right and wrong. It’s about what you do for your own.” (That is, if you obey the dictates of family, you will knowingly do wrong if you have to, because obeying the family comes first.) This made me recall a Washington Post article by Anthony Shadid about an Iraqi father near Tikrit who had to execute his son, who had been found to be working with the Americans. He did so because otherwise his entire family would be killed by the clan.

— Another line that gave me pause: “the only true profession is blood work — the work of the surgeon, the soldier, and the butcher.” I’ve been reading and writing about military literature for decades and yet have never seen that thought expressed before, to my knowledge. (Not that I endorse it. My own view is that something is a true profession if its practitioner is governed more by the soul more than by the market. Thus law is not always a profession, but other work, say boatbuilding or cooking, sometimes can be.)

— One of the few lines I disagreed with was this: “You fight a war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.” I think that is a mistake that oddly enough we Americans make too often. In fact, you fight a war with both guns and stories, because it is the stories — taken together, “the dominant narrative” — that often makes people willing to pick up guns. And even to put them down.

Also, there are a few missteps, very minor. For example, the Army might do a lot of things, but it would not allow Marines to guard the gates at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Also, drones could not be made to go rogue simply by destroying a server farm. (But for the purposes of the book, I was willing to accept that as a kind of metaphoric shorthand for what might make them stupid, like destroying the satellites through which they are controlled. This guy is trying to tell a story, not write a technical manual.) I also suspect El Akkad may overvalue the role of culture in American life while underestimating the significance of race. 

Bottom line: This is a good novel for anyone in today’s U.S. military to read, to be placed on the shelf alongside Shadid’s Night Draws Near. As I read American War, I kept on thinking of something a soldier in Iraq said to me: “Hell, if you came to Georgia and treated me and my family the way we’re treating these Iraqis, damn right I’d be an insurgent.”

Photo credit: 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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