The Atlantic

The Lessons of 'American War'

What holds a society together in the absence of common ideas?
Source: AP

Dystopian novels are a difficult genre: They need to be imaginative, edging on the far-fetched, while being just plausible enough to terrify. Omar El Akkad’s American War, which interprets the American South by way of the Middle East, challenges Americans to imagine what it might be like to die for, but also kill, their fellow citizens.

The Second Civil War begins in 2074. Climate change has changed the continent, submerging the banks of Louisiana and the near entirety of Florida, save for an island enclave or two, one of which eventually houses the notorious Sugarloaf Detention Facility for Northern prisoners of war.

In the early 2070s, the federal government, by then based in Columbus, moved to outlaw fossil fuels. Southerners resented this and other impositions from the richer, prosperous Northern states. Fervor for secession began to build. The nature of Southern “culture” was rich, but also somewhat vague and constructed, like all cultural identities are. It was enough, though, to moor a movement that would lead to the deaths of millions. A Southern suicide bomber assassinated the president in 2073, plunging the country into violence.

There are little details that stand out: the stubbornness of symbols; how the simple revving of an engine still running on old fuel, while ultimately meaningless, becomes an act of rebellion, an expression of self-affirmation but a completely futile one in the face of so much killing.

* * *

What is most striking about El Akkad’s story is that it is both distinctly American—he takes care to paint the Southern insurgents with compassion even as he

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