The Lessons of 'American War'
What holds a society together in the absence of common ideas?
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.
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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 seems to realize they are wrong and sometimes capable of evil—but also otherworldly. The American civil war isn’t mentioned, although the fact that this new conflict is referred to as “the second” suggests that there must have been a first.
The Founding Fathers do not exist, or at least no one seems interested in mentioning them or calling upon their memory. The Constitution isn’t so much a historical curiosity but an abstraction; there’s only reference, during peace negotiations, to a “Constitutional Defense Officer,” which suggests that there’s a constitution he is trying to defend. Interestingly, in a book that elevates Southern culture, or any cultural nationalism, to its logical conclusion, the racial composition of this new America isn’t made clear. The main character, Sarat, is a person of color. That this is never made entirely explicit adds to the book’s eerie haziness. In unmooring America from its own racial legacy, El Akkad seems to be saying that war could happen here, but it could also happen anywhere.
American War, then, doubles as a mystery: What is the point of the killing? In El Akkad’s America, there are no technocrats, and there is no rationality. There is no consensus, but there isn’t really polarization either, at least not in the sense we’ve come to use the word. There is no politics, but only in the sense that there are no ideas. The idea of the United States—of what it means to be American—doesn’t exist in this alternative universe, because, perhaps by the time the narrator tries to remember, no one can quite recall what it must have felt like to be a nation undivided.
What fills the gap isn’t any distinctive ideology or religion but a kind of nothingness. The Bible is cited, but only as a plot device and a scene setter—in other words something incidental to the act of killing. On the radio, bible reciters are “disembodied” voices disconnected from the daily horrors of war.
The book’s most violent character—who is also the closest thing American War has to a heroine—is not a believer; there is no investigation of deeply held beliefs and what they might entail. But the fact that no one seems to believe in any set of ideas particularly strongly does not impede their willingness to kill. It’s hard to know if the author, here, is trying to make an argument about the pointlessness of war—that there will always be a justification, with or without the divine.
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In the actual Civil War, the one that happened, the question of the divine and, more specifically, of theodicy—why God permits evil—was at the forefront, but perhaps more so after the fact. Only one of the two sides, both of which prayed to the same God, could win. At the start of the war, after the first bloodless Southern victory at the Battle of Fort Sumter, many, particularly on the Southern side, assumed it would last weeks or months. When it was finally over, 2 percent of the American population was dead, making it one of the most bloody conflicts in human history. At the same time, it was one of the last conventional wars where death wasn’t quite mechanized. In infantry engagements, you had little choice but to look right at the people you were trying to kill. They generally looked like you, spoke the same language, and were around the same age.
During the war, dying, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her seminal history This Republic of Suffering, became an art, and Christianity was central to dying well. “It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments,” Faust writes. Christianity, already infused in daily life, became even more so as the death toll rose: “Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America.” After the war, as the realities of defeat settled, there was inevitably the question of “why?” Was the fall of the Confederacy, suffering a significantly higher mortality rate than the north, a punishment from God?
Both sides, with presumably “fine” people on each, prayed to the same God and, therefore, believed they were right, and that God would grant them victory. Presumably, if their cause were indeed just, he would also spare them a long and grinding war. In a war’s early stages, ideas and ideals seem more pure, untainted by political calculation or the atrocities of one’s own side. But once you pick a side—or once you’re already on a side because you happen to be of the South or of the North—there isn’t much you can do. War becomes “tribal.” Sarat, a Southern rebel and American War’s protagonist, asks her mentor Albert Gaines, a Northerner by birth and a veteran of Iraq and Syria, why he chose to side with the South.
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.
Gaines goes on: “Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” This seems to worry Sarat, and so he asks her: “If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against your own people?” “No,” she says.
But for those predisposed to fight—perhaps if they witnessed a massacre, as Sarat did—there is a kind of joy to be found from taking up arms for a cause. Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, Elisabeth Jean Wood captures this feeling, arguing that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Wood calls this “the pleasure of agency.”
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Ultimately, the second civil war, even if it doesn’t begin that way, becomes, “tribal.” To fight for your tribe, regardless of anything else, becomes its own cause, and one apparently worth dying for.
The fear and foreignness of tribal divisions might be why some American analysts, including The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, are treating the risk of civil war more seriously (with the caveat that a future American war wouldn’t be a “normal” one, but rather a lower intensity conflict). One common definition of civil war is 1,000 combat deaths in a year, coupled with the existence of at least one organized militia, a standard the United States, due to its large population, could theoretically more easily meet than a smaller country could.
Wright cites former special-operations officer Keith Mines, who puts the risk of civil war in America at 60 percent and lists five conditions that make violence more likely, each of which has by now been met. Basically, at the core of most civil wars is a collection of grievances, whether economic, ideological, or sectarian, that are foundational enough that they can’t—or can no longer be—addressed through politics. But it is not enough for grievances to exist; rebel groups must be sufficiently organized and effective, and the central state sufficiently weak or illegitimate, to be able to mobilize around those grievances.
Although there is some disagreement about how much it matters, ethnic and religious fractionalization—rather than merely ethnic or religious diversity—is a commonly cited factor in civil wars. In one particularly striking study of the causes of conflict, the Oxford economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler argue that “most proxies for grievance were insignificant: inequality, political rights, ethnic polarization, and religious fractionalization. Only ‘ethnic dominance’… had adverse effects.” Ethnic dominance occurs when the largest ethnic group is 45 to 90 percent of the population. Perhaps most interestingly, Collier and Hoeffler write that “the incentive to exploit the minority increases the larger the minority, since there is more to extract. Hence, a minority may be most vulnerable if the largest ethnic group constitutes a small majority.”
This has major implications for the United States, which presents perhaps the most obvious case of a steadily declining majority population. (By contrast, there are no reliable projections of whites becoming a minority in major European democracies in the foreseeable future.) Since majorities becoming minorities is so unprecedented, at least in Western democracies, it is hard to predict exactly how these demographic changes might play out, particularly considering how disproportionately distributed toward whites economic and political power will still be even after whites become a minority.
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In this sense, ideas, including religious ideas—to the extent that they cut across ethnic, tribal, and partisan divisions—have the potential to be powerful obstacles to the breakdown of society and the violence that often ensues. This is particularly the case in a country where the three major ethnic groups—Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics—are primarily Christian. Yet, just as a common Christianity was not a sufficiently “transtribal” bulwark against social breakdown in the leadup to the Civil War, it’s unlikely to be one anytime soon.
Anything resembling a common religion, or a common religious culture, is no longer something Americans can claim to have. As Ross Douthat writes: “The decline of institutional Christianity means that we have no religious center apart from Oprah and Joel Osteen, [and] the metaphysical gap between the secularist wing of liberalism and religious traditionalists is far wider than the intra-Christian divisions of the past.” Even if one of the two main political parties was always less religiously influenced than the other, there was still enough shared Christianity, however nominal, in the broader culture. Now, religiosity, both in practice as well as in the public imagination, is largely—and more than ever before—the province of one party.
This, obviously, leads to the increasing politicization of religion, something we see daily in the contortions of evangelical leaders in their bid to justify or explain away Trump’s indifference to religion and his disregard for basic morality. It contributes more perniciously, though, to the growing tribalization of observant Christians, thinking as many do that they’re unlikely to be welcome in the Democratic Party, particularly if they’re white and pro-life. By itself, the divide over religion isn’t necessarily dangerous, but considering just how much it overlaps with racial, geographic, and partisan divides, its effects on American political culture shouldn’t be underplayed.
Getting Democrats to rediscover religion, then, isn’t just a matter of winning elections—as important as that may be—but of beginning to close a worsening divide that exacerbates polarization and further undermines any shared sense of national identity. Michael Wear, the former director of religious outreach for the Obama campaign and one of the most prominent Christian voices in the Democratic Party, recently offered a searing indictment of Hillary Clinton’s approach to evangelical and Catholic voters, writing that it “amounted to political malpractice that simply can’t be repeated by the party moving forward. The campaign virtually neglected direct engagement with many religious constituencies, refusing to ask people of faith for their vote while taking policy positions that made it easy for Trump to prey on their sense of embattlement.”
Voters might be irrational, but they aren’t stupid. They can sense disdain from their politicians, particularly when it comes to matters of identity. As the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels write: “It appears that most people make their party choices based on who they are rather than on what they think.” Voters can agree with most of the Democrats’ policy positions, but if they sense that Democrats don’t understand who they are, or at least how they see themselves, they will go elsewhere. (And in any case, policy preferences, as Achen and Bartels also argue, are likely to flow from prior partisan attachments, rather than the other way around.) As Wear notes: “Many religious voters believe they are hated by Democrats, because many Democrats seem disinterested, at best, in engaging them.” While Wear is referring to Christians here, it could one day apply to Muslims. As a conservative Muslim friend who supports Democrats wrote to me recently: “As a religious non-Christian, even I can sense the disdain from the Democratic Party towards my faith, even as they don a cape against Islamophobia. The underlying view Democrats have [about] anyone seriously religious is that they’re, at best, silly and gullible, and at worst, dangerous.”
Religion isn’t just a problem for Democrats, however. The weakness of American Christianity is leaving its mark on the Republican Party, with organized religion in decline among white Republicans, as Peter Beinart has discussed in these pages. Yet even among those who still describe themselves as religiously conservative—think enthusiasts of Vice President Mike Pence—ethnicity and nationalism have come to play a powerful motivating role. As Robert Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, writes, 2016 was perceived as a “last chance” election, with white Christians seeing themselves, and the cultural world of White Christian America, as embattled in both demographic and political terms. White Christians are already a minority, having decreased from 54 percent of the population at the start of the Obama presidency to 43 percent in 2016.
The ideological drift of recent years might have provided as opportune a moment as any for political Christianity to reassert itself among whites. That didn’t happen. Nationalism subsumed religion rather than the other way around. The premier Christian evangelical gathering, the Values Voter Summit, once suspicious of Trump, now prioritizes “allegiance to the United States, not to God,” as Slate’s William Saletan argues. At the summit, Saletan notes, “the most commonly invoked issue wasn’t prayer or abortion; it was the refusal of football players to stand for the national anthem.”
With a more secular generation coming of age, the percentage of Christian conservatives will continue to decrease. There will still be a Pence wing of the Republican Party, but it is likely to find itself increasingly intertwined with ethno-nationalism, confusing, perhaps permanently, which matters more—the white or the Christian—in White Christian. The assumption, long held by members of minority religious groups like myself, that a secular America would be a more tolerant, pluralistic, and therefore more stable place will be tested. In the meantime, we would do well to remember that demographic conflicts aren’t necessarily better than religious ones.