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American War, or American Spirit?

books and culture

American War, or American Spirit?

Two new books, timely in different ways July 4, 2017
Arts and Culture

American War: A Novel, by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, 352 pp., $26.95)

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 192 pp., $25)

Comparing nonfiction with fiction doesn’t usually bear much fruit, but for their titles alone, two relatively new books seem to solicit comparison. David McCullough’s The American Spirit is a collection of speeches that the distinguished historian has given over the last 25 years at a range of public occasions—from the bicentennial of Congress to the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, from college commencements to a naturalization ceremony at Monticello—all of which echo with distinctive themes of his work. These include the importance of studying history not as a collection of facts but as insight into human nature, and also as a joy in itself. Another theme: the need for humility, both in judging our forebears for their imperfections and in assuming that the challenges of our time are unique or unprecedented. “If we are beset by problems,” McCullough writes, “we have always been beset by problems. There never was a golden time past of smooth sailing only.” The American Spirit is a call to remember timeless lessons about work, perseverance, and the contingency of history, but for the intervention of determined individuals. In unspoken counterpoint to the academic preference for rendering history as a product of massive, abstract, forces, McCullough sees history as the story of people, and he wants us to remember those who made a difference: not just the giants we know but those we should know, such as Benjamin Rush and George Marshall and Charles Sumner and Justin Morrill and others.

McCullough notes some contemporary American problems in passing but does not examine them closely. He is deeply concerned about Americans’ lack of historical knowledge, telling of a college student who thanked him for enlightening her: she had not known that the 13 original colonies were all on the east coast. The core problem with American education is not at the college or high school level, McCullough says, but in the elementary grades—a judgment with which E.D. Hirsch would concur. But he never ventures a guess as to why it’s a problem there. He counsels us never to “look down on anyone from the past for not having the benefit of what we know, or allow ourselves to feel superior,” but he does not confront those most guilty of doing so: professors and administrators on campus, theorists in the education schools, and now, in substantial number, the students of a new generation.

McCullough’s admirers don’t look to him to make such judgments, though. If he were to go into the pit of contemporary politics, he would lose the grandeur he has gained as a storyteller of the American past whose readers can discern their own politics in his lessons. Liberals love his devotion to education and frequent championing of teachers— he often points out the sacrifices that founders like John Adams made to educate their children. Conservatives cherish his devotion to the Founders, especially John Adams and George Washington, and his deep devotion to the American idea. Both sides can cheer his gentle but firm admonishment to all of us to put down the devices and read and think more. He cites a letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her oldest son, John Quincy, in which she chastised the young future president for acting arrogantly about his learning. “If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing,” she writes, “reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world and obtaining knowledge of mankind than any of your contemporaries. . . . How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.” Extending the lesson, McCullough reminds us of how much we owe to our predecessors: “How unpardonable it would be for us—with so much that we have been given . . . to turn out blockheads. Or to raise blockheads.”

American War is an acclaimed first novel by Omar El Akkad, an Egyptian-born Canadian who formerly worked as a reporter for the Globe and Mail. It describes a conflict of scale and drama worthy of treatment, were it real, from some future McCullough or Ken Burns:  a second American Civil War. The war, lasting from 2074 to 2095, takes place in a radically different America, parts of which have begun slipping underwater due to global warming. Most of California, Texas, and the American southwest are now under Mexican rule. What remains of America divides along lines that initially sound familiar: the South and the North, the Red and the Blue. In the novel, though, the war’s precipitating cause is not social or religious, not a question of elites versus ordinary people, but rather, of energy policy. The national government, now located in Columbus, Ohio, has passed the Sustainable Future Act, mandating renewable energy and outlawing fossil-fuel use. The people in the Red, as the Southern states are colloquially called, refuse to comply; Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina declare the Free Southern State. As with the first Civil War, signs of the unraveling flash for years before the first deadly shots are fired—in this case, they target not a military installation but the American president, who is assassinated by a Southern radical. Though the war remains active for two decades, it is largely won, by the Blue, in its first five years. The rest is negotiation amid insurgency.

El Akkad’s memorable, if chilly, protagonist, Sara T. Chestnut, known as Sarat, begins the novel as a defiant six-year-old, whose family, living in the neutral territory of Louisiana (the part not yet submerged), seeks to escape to the North and start a new life. But her father is killed while endeavoring to make these arrangements, in the wrong place at the wrong time when a homicide bomber (a Southern specialty) strikes. The Chestnuts spend years as refugees at Camp Patience, where Sarat is radicalized to the Southern cause, becoming a determined Southern patriot and eventual assassin. She is finally captured and endures years of torture at the Blue’s detention center before being released at war’s end, a seemingly broken woman. At this moment, when the novel seems at last ready to offer some resolution to the ceaseless struggle, Sarat revives and commits an unspeakable act that plunges what is left of the United States into a fresh nightmare.

American War is evocative but unrelentingly grim, one of those page-turners that yields no pleasure. It’s easy to imagine it being dramatized for the big screen, though casting the 6’5” Sarat might prove challenging. Even by the standards of dystopian novels, some of Akkad’s design stretches credulity: most Americans likely imagine a putative second civil war stemming not from disputes over energy sources but from social issues, or economics, or immigration, or the enduring conflicts between state and federal power, religious and secular values. Likewise, Akkad’s Mexican protectorate of the American southwest reads like fabulism when one considers that Mexico has long had one of the world’s most inept and corrupt governments; fortunately, this part of the schematic plays no role in his plot. And American War’s construct of the Bouazizi Empire, a confederation of Middle East states that somehow get their acts together to become a superpower, is even more of a stretch.  

The world of American War is most plausible not in its imaginative elements but in the details of war’s hardships—Akkad draws on his Syria reporting to describe life in the refugee camps—and poignancies, such as the way people cherish seemingly disposable objects as a reminder of their old lives (the Chestnuts bring a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe with them to Camp Patience). And Akkad effectively dramatizes the ways in which war deforms human character. Karina, the woman who marries Sarat’s soldier brother Simon and nurses him back to health from shattering physical and neurological injuries, comes to believe that “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language.” War broke its fighters, of whatever side, she thinks, in “the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way.” And it provided the rationalizations and moral justifications, too:  “The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”

El Akkad’s effective rendering of life during wartime clashes, then, with the contrivances of his plot, and points up the novel’s disjunction: its narrative is really less about an American Civil War than about the depredations of American foreign policy. The desperate, embittered, and displaced citizens of the Red seem like a clear analogy to certain Middle East populations, and it’s no great leap to read the Blue government’s murderous unmanned drones, which fly around Red skies long after their own controllers have ceased guiding them, and its merciless use of superior weaponry (and torture) as Akkad’s analogizing to today’s American superpower.

Still, the book is called American War, and those two words, coming together, arrest the imagination in a climate in which we read often about the unraveling of the country. Writing in The Claremont Review of Books, Angelo Codevilla declares that “America is in the throes of a revolution” and a “cold civil war.” El Akkad’s book ranges on the fantastical, but it nonetheless imagines a shooting version of Codevilla’s formulation, a future that none of us wants. McCullough’s book, by contrast, reminds us of a past that fewer and fewer of us seem to appreciate. “We are still the strongest, most productive, wealthiest, the most creative, the most ingenious, the most generous nation in the world, with the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, of any nation in all time,” McCullough exhorts in one of American Spirit’s speeches, this one given shortly after 9/11. He sees our greatest source of strength coming from “our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.” Yet these are the very truths most in contention now.

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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