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Omar El Akkad's American War Review by Jacob Hammer

American War by Omar El Akkad

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

This book is one of the most imaginative that I have read in some time. When I first

saw it, I assumed that it might be a novel about American military presence in the Middle

East or something like that. When I looked further, I found it was going to be a different thing

all together.

The author begins by setting up a frame for the novel. A writer and historian is

reflecting on his life and the things he has been through like the effects of prolonged global

warming and the Second Civil War. At this enticing speculative future, I was immediately

drawn in. After the brief prologue establishing this frame, we dive into an engrossing


We begin with a young girl named Sarat and her family. The Second Civil War has

only been raging for a short time and her father is hoping to get them north. In his attempts,

he is killed. At first, her mother Martina wants to stay, but she is talked into taking her twin

daughters and son to a refugee camp called Patience that is right on the border with the North.

For a while their life continues as normally as it could in a refugee camp in the middle of a

war-torn county. Sarat, her sister Dana, and her brother Simon all grow up in the camp.

Eventually Simon falls in with some of the rebel militias that recruit in the camp despite his

family’s disapproval. Dana lives as much of a normal teenage life as she can. Sarat, on the

other hand, begins running errands and being taught a slanted history by a mysterious, welleducated,

and well-dressed man named Albert Gaines. He seems suspect from the start, but

the books and knowledge he can give Sarat are inaccessible otherwise, despite their selfserving

ends. These ends are not apparent until Camp Patience is attacked by Northern militia

groups in the night. Sarat and Dana are able to survive only because they hide in Gaines’

office. Martina is killed and Simon is shot in the head but not killed. This is Sarat’s true

breaking point. In the chaos of the raid, she kills a Northern militiaman and, unable to process

her shock any other way, helps the aid workers as they clean up the ravaged camp. After this,

Sarat becomes the willing and murderous tool of Gaines. The remains of their family are

given a house far from the ruins of Camp Patience and the Southern government makes a

hero/martyr of the nearly brain-dead Simon. Sarat’s accomplishments as Gaines’ puppet

culminate in the assassination of a high-ranking northern general. It seems, at first, that she

will be able to get away with it, but in the reign of terror that follows against all known

combatants and recruiters, she is given up by Gaines and captured herself.

For years she is kept in a torture prison that the North operates off the coast of a

submerged Florida. She is broken by this non-stop brutality eventually and not long after that,

is released back to what remains of her family. Only Simon remains with his former caregiver

and now wife, Karina. His condition has improved greatly against all odds and he and

Karina have a son together, Benjamin. Sarat tries to adjust to life there and to the nearing

peace between the North and the South, but she is still full of anger against those who she

feels have caused all the anguish in her life. She and Benjamin grow close in the time when

she is recovering from her imprisonment despite Sarat’s differences with Karina and Simon.

When an associate of Gaines offers her a way to strike back at the North in a devastating

way, she takes it, but not without making sure that Benjamin will be far from harm. She

travels to the North and releases a biological weapon in the new capital city of Columbus that

soon spreads to the entire country and lasts for a decade.

Meanwhile, Benjamin has a hard life, but a life nonetheless. He ends up in Alaska, far

from the plague and is able to attend college. He eventually becomes the historian and writer

that we met in the prologue and collects Sarat’s journals and other documents to recreate the

past of his family through the tumultuous war years. From these he creates the narrative of

the book.

The storyline is engaging, to be sure, but what really made this novel interesting was

the world that Omar El Akkad postulates. The Second Civil War is started by several

incidents—chief among them the outlawing of fossil fuels in 2074. The world is ravaged by

the effects of climate change. We are given a stark and uncompromising vision of a future

that seems a little too plausible. He avoids over explaining any of the technological advances

or every event that leads up to the war. This same under explanation is found in classic

speculative-future novels like Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead he, much

like those authors, is able to keep a focus on the individuals and the effects of this war on

them. The use of a frame tale then a close third person narration throughout allows us to get

inside the head of all the characters and understand their perspectives deeply. Another

interesting touch is the inclusion of interviews, book excerpts, government documents, and

other sources outside yet related to the events of the main storyline between each chapter.

This gives us as readers the chance to maintain a broadened view on the events in the novel

and not get too caught up in the way that individual characters are viewing things. This kind

of depth would be difficult to achieve any other way and is something that I have not seen


This was a great read that I would recommend to anyone looking for something that’ll

be hard to put down and reward your enthusiasm with depth of content. It’s certainly a

haunting view of the future and the experiences of the characters definitely make me think

differently of civil wars occurring now and the refugees affected by them.

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