In the Susan Slack, Kristin asked for dystopian book recommendations. Rob immediately responded, "American War." He responded emphatically, "American War." I added it to my library hold list, not expecting it to drop into my borrowed list until next year. Well, it dropped, and I read it, and wow. This book is good.
The book tells the tale of Serat growing up through the end of the second American Civil War. The war triggered on the ban of gasoline and oil, with the South saying, "Nope." We see, as in most dystopian novels, how people can be awful to each other. What makes this book particularly difficult to read is that we can see our current culture, political environment, and temperament, what we have right now, become this world. We are in the declining years of the American Empire. Other empires will rise after its fail. This book gives the tale of a fictional and completely plausible version.
This book is worth reading, even if you don't really like dystopian fictions. Be in a place where death is bearable, though, it's a rough read.
"Bury me in the same grave because I can’t go on alone. Life’s not worth living alone."
This was in the days before — before Julia Templestowe became the rebel South’s first martyr, its first killer, the patron saint of its war.
It is often forgotten: There’s always a before.
If you lived in the South during that war, maybe you were never forced from your home at gunpoint, but you knew someone who was. Maybe you didn’t lose a loved one when the Birds came and rained down death with no rhyme or reason, but you knew someone who had.
Now for most of people, just knowing wasn’t enough to make them take up arms — not everyone can face the thought of getting shot or torn to bits by shrapnel or, even worse, getting captured and sent to rot in Sugarloaf or some other detention camp.
But damned if it didn’t make you want to do something.
Work provided purpose, a sense of place, a sense of agency.
But for the refugees who paid or begged Martina to write these pleadings on their behalf, hopelessness was no impediment to hope.
“Ahh, it’s all long gone now. Time buries time, my mother used to say."
“No matter what they tell you, some things are just wrong, war or no war.”
Even then, at such a young age, she understood that smile for what it was: a mask atop fear, a balm for the crippling insecurity of childhoods deeply damaged. They were fragile boys who wore it, and their fragility demanded menace. Sarat knew the boys better than they knew themselves. And she knew there was no winning this dare. That was the point — for there to be no winning, only different magnitudes of losing.
“Yeah, but I bet you the whole time he was busy being mean, the other guys were busy fighting,” another replied. “Mean don’t mean nothing.”
“I’m not sorry and none of them can make me sorry. They’re liars and cowards, all of them. They pretend like this is normal, like it’s normal to live this way. But it’s not normal. Your dad’s right. We’re just waiting to die, waiting for the Blues to come up over that fence one day and kill every last one of us. I’m not sorry. I’m not the one who’s wrong.”
“I don’t think you’re wrong,” Marcus said. “I’ve never thought you were wrong.
She moved the clipper slowly, in part out of caution but also to prolong the act; the shearing felt good against her skin. Soon the clipper glided along smoothly, and no more hair fell.
I f'ing understand this sensation.
“That’s what an empire is,” he said, “an orchestrator of gravity, a sun around which all weaker things spin.”
"But my father was a doctor, and he wanted me to study medicine. He used to say the only truly stable profession is blood work — the work of the surgeon, the soldier, the butcher. He said all industries rise and fall but as long as there’s even a single man still alive, there will always be use for blood work."
It seemed sensible to crave safety, to crave shelter from the bombs and the Birds and the daily depravity of war. But somewhere deep in her mind an idea had begun to fester — perhaps the longing for safety was 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?
She’d learned recently that solid land was not the natural skin of the world, only a kind of parasitic condition that surfaced and receded in million-year cycles. The natural skin of the world was water, and all water on earth was connected.
"He said people think of that war now the way they think about most wars: just a bunch of young men killing young men on the orders of old men. But he said it was women who were left to clean it all up in the end, women who rebuilt the scorched Southern country and nursed what was left of those young men."
What is the first anesthetic?
And if I take your wealth?
And if I demolish your home, burn your fields?
And if I make it taboo to sympathize with your plight? Family. And if I kill your family?
…Hasn’t said a word in two thousand years.
“You see, we have a habit in this country of deciding the wisdom of our wars only after we’re done fighting them, and I guess we decided the war I’d been sent to fight wasn’t a very good idea after all."
“I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for — be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness — you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I’d had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.”
“Do you know how to use a knife?” asked Gaines, pointing the blade toward her.
“Everyone knows how to use a knife,” said Sarat.
“No, everyone knows how to stab.”
"But I also believe that all reasonable people of the world — regardless of race or ethnicity or religion — yearn for the same right to liberty, democracy, and self-determination. These are truly universal human ideals, and what we do today to advance them is the most important gift we leave for our children. Wars are temporary; these principles are not."
"I saw in the people of this country a spirit I had rarely seen elsewhere, a dedication to liberty so overpowering, it made of many, one."
Of course others had suffered; some arrived at the camp missing limbs or sight or kin and some were nothing but hollow shells in the shape of the living, but she had suffered too.
And as she imagined these possibilities, Sarat thought of something else: of desertion, of treason against one’s own. But what the man and his son had done didn’t feel to her like treason, only the grim work of the hopeless.
Sarat paused at the threshold. She tried to steel herself for what she might find inside, tried to preemptively imagine her mother’s body, the life gone from it. But she was incapable of making herself imagine it. Instead, her mind recoiled and offered only a feeble, child’s defense: My mother cannot be dead because she is my mother. Everyone else can die but not my mother.
Once, during a rare moment of candor, Miss Dana told Karina that all their lives the Chestnuts had lived at the feet of rivers and walls. Always bounded, always trapped — trapped by movement, trapped by stillness.
The room, dark and dank, smelled overwhelmingly of that sweet bile, that old fossil fuel smell. The scent always jump-started ancient memories in Karina’s mind, memories from a childhood spent on the other side of the world: army jeeps refueling, well fires wild and unquenchable, wounds tended to by the light of headlamps. To her, the smell of any old-world fuel was invariably the smell of war.
She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early.
Husbands never wore black. Husbands were never confined to that kind of passive declaration, were never compelled to sulk across the world for the remainder of their lives, walking signposts of mourning. Husbands were permitted rage, permitted wrath, permitted to avenge their loss by marching out and inflicting on others the very same carnage once inflicted upon them.
And what she understood — what none of the ones who came to touch Simon’s forehead understood — was that the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same — and yet they were. War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike, but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.
“He’s doing real well,” Karina said. She knew the Widow Bentley hated it when she interjected, so she did it as much as possible.
She soon learned that to survive atrocity is to be made an honorary consul to a republic of pain. There existed unspoken protocols governing how she was expected to suffer. Total breakdown, a failure to grieve graciously, was a violation of those rules. But so was the absence of suffering, so was outright forgiveness.
She had seen them do these things both publicly — in defiant, chest-thumping speeches — and privately, pragmatically, in the backrooms of Atlanta and Augusta. She saw them do these things and she was disgusted by it. They were to her nothing more than prideful, opportunistic captains, arguing over the boundaries of long-obsolete star maps as all the while the opposing armada’s cannonballs tore their hull to shreds.
"He’s caught up in the old way of doing things, still thinks he’s in the desert, still fighting that old, faraway war. All that tradition he’s saddled with, it’s too late to shake it off."
The exits came as they always did, in a cascade. As soon as the shame of being the first fighter down was gone, the men’s threshold for pain suddenly plummeted, and those who knew they had little chance of winning were almost happy to find themselves in a headlock or an arm-bar from which they could tap out.
Instinctively, they expected of him the same chivalrous defiance they believed they themselves, placed in the same position, would show.
It had once belonged to Layla’s mother, and had reached that useless middle age between novelty and antique — it was simply old.
“So let him,” Sarat said. “I’m not afraid to die.”
“That’s because you’re young and you think dying’s quick,” Bragg Sr. said. “But they got ways to make dying take just as long as living.”
“All these old men want it to be like it was when they were young. But it’ll never be like that again, and they’ll never be young again, no matter what they do. And it’s not just ours that do it. It’s theirs too. Imagine if the North had just let us be. Imagine if they didn’t fight us tooth and nail, kill all those innocent people, just to keep us from having a country of our own and doing things our own way — would it really have been so bad? No, of course it wouldn’t. But it wasn’t that way when all those old people that run everything were young, so they can’t let it be."
Rising, she looked at the hollowed remains of the guard and she felt the inverse of fulfillment — the empty undoing of a castaway who, rabid with thirst, resorts to drinking from the ocean.
"They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories."
“Why’d you do it?” she asked me.
“I just wanted to know.”
“Don’t ever apologize for that,” she said. “That’s all there is to life, is wanting to know.”
"They still think the miracle is that he survived. But bad people survive too; lucky people survive. The miracle isn’t that he survived, the miracle is that he’s healing.”
“But I’ll love you anyway. And your brother will love you anyway. And your nephew will love you anyway. That’s what family does. Take what time you need, Sarat. Heal how you want to heal.”
“Come here,” she said. I shook my head.
“Good,” she said. “Now you have something you can kill. Come here.”
She held the nail in place. “One soft one to set it, one hard one to drive it,” she said.
“My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fail."
"It said in the South there is no future, only three kinds of past — the distant past of heritage, the near past of experience, and the past-in-waiting."
“Sarat told me you were a sweet boy, Benjamin, but you must understand that in this part of the world, right and wrong ain’t about who wins, or who kills who. 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.”