This is the eighth installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.
Last month the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, spoke movingly about the removal of Confederate monuments and “the cult of the lost cause” they celebrate. The “Free Southerners” in Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, which opens in 2074, are also a cult of the lost cause: clinging to muscle cars and outboard motors even as the oceans rise, cultivating the myth that this has been an honorable choice.
The titular American War is between Blues and Reds—nominally, North and South—and began, we’re told, when the South refused to abide by energy restrictions enacted in response to accelerating climate change. (The reader who studies the novel’s 2075 maps will see no trace of Cape Cod or Long Island, no New Orleans or Florida—“the edges of the land shaved off” by water.) Proud citizens of the “Free South” are once and future Rebels: “A man caught using fossil fuel in these parts was still an outlaw,” and “It said something to own a vehicle that still ran on prohibition fuel; it spoke not only of accumulated wealth, but of connections, of status.”
This is entirely plausible cussedness, especially on the part of Americans dismissed (also plausibly) as “swamp people.” It’s certainly not hard to imagine the way government regulations on solar power and water usage would be received by those inclined to distrust “coastal elites” and “scientists.” When a Reunification is being negotiated, El Akkad describes the South’s insistence on a narrative of “courage in the face of aggression” and “the protection of long-cherished ways of living” as a “fantasy about this being a noble disagreement between equals, and not a bloody fight over their stubborn commitment to a ruinous fuel.”
In last year’s magnificent The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead described slavery in similar terms: “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies … The pistons of this engine moved without relent.” A “stubborn commitment to a ruinous fuel,” and a “cult of the lost cause,” indeed. That we recognize our past and current fractures in El Akkad’s future makes what might otherwise strain credulity seem entirely, horribly, plausible. Like Ben Winters’s 2016 Underground Airlines, in which slavery persists into modern times—becoming industrialized and corporatized—American War is uncomfortably believable. And in 2017, reading these possible futures—like watching Man in the High Castle or Handmaid’s Tale—hits discomfortingly close to home.
We love our rebels, our renegades. But we’d do well to center our focus and our policies on the collective.
The novel centers on the Chestnut family, particularly on Sarat, whom we first meet as a Louisiana “tomboy” engaged only by the “promise of adventure.” In early scenes, she’s American War’s Scout Finch: brave and tough, clever and curious; and virtually engineered to provoke a reader’s empathy; of course she’ll seek out explanations for the chaos that surrounds her, and take up arms to avenge what she’s lost. The novel intercuts passages from future histories—clinical reportage, congressional transcripts, or textbook summaries—that contextualize, but can’t compete with, Sarat’s more urgent story.
The Chestnuts are displaced by the encroaching conflict, spending years in a refugee camp. Despite what might be soul-crushing squalor, Sarat enjoys childhood’s reckless dares and even a “small paradise” where she and her friend Marcus investigate, “a land teeming with life, away from the human pollution and unmagical monotony of the camp itself.” A mysterious mentor offers Sarat protection as well as an education in injustice and retribution, teaching her: “The only truly stable profession is blood work—the work of the surgeon, the soldier, the butcher.”
War is business, of course, and El Akkad pinpoints the way we bureaucratize and commodify even the unimaginable. Memos written in clinical corporatese summarize the payouts granted to victims and survivors of barbaric massacres (“See Appendix A ‘Gesture of Regret Policy: Terms and Conditions,’” as Joseph Heller might have written). Sarat Chestnut grows into a formidable specialist in “blood work.” The institutions of the Free South—a shipping authority with “crooked” customs officers, a hostel that’s “a thinly disguised brothel”—seem to her to be “the worst kind of lie: a charade of normality at a time of war.”
As an engineering educator, I’m acutely aware of how many of my former students now design the technologies of war. (An old joke distinguishes mechanical engineers, who build weapons, from civil engineers, who build targets. Ha.) Many of my students feel conflicted about their lucrative job offers from defense and military contractors, and hope they’ll be asked to protect rather than attack—that their designs will be used only for the objectives they designed toward and only for the “right” reasons. Werner Heisenberg might tell them, viel Glück with that.
El Akkad reminds us that our intentions in building drones, or synthesizing novel biochemicals, don’t determine their impact: that you meant to be creating a cure doesn’t make a poison less deadly. And Sarat knows that hoping oneself “safe” from conflict is “itself just another kind of violence—a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?” Technical progress and focus on the bottom line have led to the embrace of “safe” technologies like drones: a fixed cost, a comforting pretense of surgical precision, and no need for coffins when they go down.
The future envisioned by American War includes among its weapons flocks of drones that, once their server farm is attacked, “are abandoned to the skies, their targets and trajectories random.” The late 21st-century Americans in El Akkad’s novel call them Birds. This intrigued me; so often, we are warned in novels and films that our future’s bleakness will be due to a soulless pursuit of technological perfection and elimination of organic flaws. To rename the autonomous flying robots as “Birds,” instead of something more like today’s “unmanned aerial vehicle” or UAV, is to situate them in the natural world, to reclaim them from the technobureaucracy.
And, despite nature’s increasing hostility—“rising seas and severe storms,” “torched California parchland”—El Akkad’s characters revere nature. They remain curious about turtles, mushrooms, and plants; they rhapsodize over pure honey. The novel disdains the overly mechanical: MRE rations, we’re told, taste “of apricots as envisioned by engineers unfamiliar with the fruit as it existed in the natural world.” Instead of feeling betrayed by “the natural world,” El Akkad’s people prize it—even those who fail to recognize the way their own actions have ruined it.
Respect for water courses through the novel. “The natural skin of the world was water,” El Akkad writes, “The river moves. It ate all that land a long time ago.” The humanizing language used, particularly in the context of war’s dehumanizing effects, elevates and honors water. “The sound of water was like a million invisible mouths all whispering at once. The water was alive.” It is water, too, that breaks the unbreakably tough prisoner of war: water itself that is the ultimate tool of torture. And in a world of borders and divisions—between Red and Blue, and even between states of origin at the refugee camp where the Chestnuts spend years—water is the only substance powerful enough to alter geography: “The land shifts under the water.”
This mutability of landscape poses challenges for the South’s shipping routes, as incoming goods can be stalled when ships run aground. “Places that were deep one season turn shallow the next.” El Akkad’s description of the waiting reef pilots (“drinking and playing cards and passing time”) and river rats (“reef pilots, tugboat and towboat captains, and the men who ran skiffs laden with contraband in the dead of night”), and their fear that the river itself might snag and ensnare them, echoes the steamboatmen of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn. Sarat Chestnut, “lean and bald-headed, a menacing smile on her face,” observes them at a tavern. By invoking Twain’s steamboat captains—people who answer to no one, marshaling technology to expand a country’s horizons—and, moreover, by introducing larger-than-life Sarat into this scene, El Akkad is both familiarizing and mythologizing his American War, making sure the Rebels could be read as heroes.
The novel’s strongest indictment is of our ability to fall for it: to allow ourselves to be told tales, and to deceive ourselves. To build monuments only to part of our histories; to believe in soothing, affirming mythology without questioning the facts. The artful injection of falsehoods into otherwise factual stories of oppression is the key for a slick recruiter radicalizing Southerners: “What I found worked best was a lie slipped in with the truth.” That enduring “fantasy” about the conflict’s true causes will ensure “the war will never really be over.” “You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories,” El Akkad writes. Sarat “believed every word,” with shattering results.
Our intentions in building drones, or synthesizing novel biochemicals, don’t determine their impact: that you meant to be creating a cure doesn’t make a poison less deadly.
Despite the novel’s title and the ways it feels particular to American history and geography, both climate change and war itself are obviously global concerns. El Akkad suggests that “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language.” And many of the specific miseries in his novel are already far too familiar outside America, from those drones to chemical weapons to the random brutality of suicide bombings. In American War’s imagined future, the “Arab Spring” has succeeded at the fifth attempt in bringing quasi-democratic stability and prosperity to the Middle East, now known as the Bouazizi Empire, with Cairo as its cosmopolitan capital. The agency giving medical support to American refugees is the Red Crescent, not the Red Cross.
Perhaps the aspect of American War most difficult to reconcile with 2017 America is the near-absence of racial tension from its imagined world. It’s hard to believe that the strains of white supremacy underlying the “cult of the lost cause” were wiped out with El Akkad’s rising tides, plagues, and firebombings. Or that American exceptionalism readily gave way to the Islamic empire that dominates El Akkad’s international order: that contemporary Islamaphobia is somehow so diminished that the “Red Crescent” transition—and all the other ways late 21st-century America has become dependent on help and goods from the Middle East and Asia—is unresisted and unremarked upon. El Akkad’s world seems uniquely and somewhat implausibly “postracial.” Strange—but hopeful—that we might stop telling ourselves only the falsehoods and half-truths related to race, even while holding ever tighter to other lies and legends.
American War is not, otherwise, a hopeful novel. It’s a trenchant, bloody warning that we must not euphemize or embroider the facts, or permit ourselves to be told comforting “alternative” ones; that we should, instead, try to find our way back to a shared understanding of “truth.” It’s a treatise against whitewashing our past. Sarat Chestnut admires the honesty of the flawed, asymmetric stars of her Free Southern flag: “Even broken history is history.” Allowing the flaws to remain visible is, for Sarat, what makes the flag worth saluting.
The most damaging of these lies may well turn out to be the ones that allowed us to dismiss the realities and risks of climate change, as El Akkad’s novel vividly illustrates. We pretend we have not contributed to these risks, and we fantasize that we—inland, on higher ground—will not be destroyed by the result. Amitav Ghosh’s recent The Great Derangement describes the rising waters and severe storms already devastating Asia.1 Along with the irresponsible politicians who call this a “hoax,” and the fallacious journalism that gives equal weight to both data and denial, Ghosh also blames engineers who design for “exceptional” events, and agencies that lay out plans for “recovery.” This language gives us permission to relax, to participate in our own gaslighting.2
Omar El Akkad exposes another great danger in our American mythology: the prizing of the individual above the cooperative. We love our rebels, our renegades, our singular Sarat Chestnuts. But we’d do well to center our focus and our policies on the collective—what Ghosh calls “men in the aggregate.” America’s technological culture suffers from this emphasis on individualism, which keeps us from recognizing and institutionalizing our shared responsibilities.
We can see another model in the Netherlands, where flooding is not viewed as “exceptional” or as “someone else’s problem.” The water protection engineer in Jim Shepard’s “The Netherlands Lives with Water” voices the Dutch attitude of collective risk: “We had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other: either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away as individuals.”3
While it’s true that there is no single American story, our diverse narratives are interdependent. We might strengthen rather than divide ourselves by focusing on those truths we hold to be self-evident, even the challenging, intersectional, and shameful ones. History is happening.4 It is our shared history, and it’s a choose-your-own adventure.
- Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016). ↩
- Megan Fernandes describes climate denial as “gaslighting” in her analysis of Ghosh’s book. ↩
- Jim Shepard, You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011). ↩
- The author’s clumsy Hamilton reference is intentional. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical, 2016. ↩