Throwback Thursday: Haldeman’s ‘The Forever War’ (1974) illustrates the horror, silliness and futility of war just by showing what war is like (Book review)

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oe Haldeman’s “The Forever War” (1974 original edition, 1997 definitive edition) is one-third of what I consider to be the trifecta of classic anti-war (or simply “war”) science fiction novels, along with Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game.” But it’s the one I remember details of the least, perhaps because it hasn’t been made into a film, so I was ripe for a re-read.

Haldeman, who fought in the Vietnam War, extrapolates his experiences – from scary to ridiculous – into the future, adding technological advancements but keeping the horror and absurdity. As with the other two aforementioned novels, “The Forever War” pays suspiciously scant attention to who humanity is fighting. They are aliens called Taurans, but we don’t learn till the end why humanity is fighting them.

I suspected the kicker would be that humanity needed to spark the world economy and invented a villain that somehow doesn’t truly exist, and my guess was close: The war is pushed for by career military members and continues because of humans’ inability to communicate with the Taurans. It turns out the Taurans are equally baffled as main character William Mandella about why this war is happening. And there’s little enthusiasm among Earth’s populace for stopping the war, since it keeps the economy going.

“The Forever War” illustrates not so much the military-industrial complex as a future extrapolation from that: the military-life complex.

The author’s surrogate, Mandella — who ends up fighting from modern times through the 32nd century (thanks to jumping into the future via time dilation from his interstellar travels) – is a good illustration of the problem (and the military’s workarounds) of drafting people who don’t have a natural enthusiasm for war.

After his math and physics skills get him conscripted, he survives and moves up the ranks by luck and attrition, not by leadership skills. Given a chance to retire from the military, he takes it, but Earth of the future is so unappealing that he re-ups; the military life is the lesser evil. Indoctrination sessions help him work up a hatred for Taurans, and pills help him maintain a level of contentment.

“The Forever War” illustrates not so much the military-industrial complex as a future extrapolation from that: the military-life complex. Strictly speaking, there’s life outside of the military, but the military has made it so that’s not functionally the case. Haldeman tantalizingly mentions a rebellion (led by war veterans) against the government, which happens during a century when Mandella is away from Earth, but doesn’t give details. But our hero knows it failed because the war is still going.

The cultural changes of “The Forever War” force us to examine how what we accept as normal today could turn into what is abnormal in the future. Haldeman posits overpopulation as a problem that is tackled by the Earth government. (Whether he sees this as a true problem or a politically created problem isn’t clear, but it plays well with whatever interpretation you choose.) The clever and ironic solution is that the government promotes homosexuality. It gets its paws into eugenics and lab-grown babies and makes everyone homosexual, to the point where the heterosexual Mandella is seen as “the old queer” among his future soldiers.

From a military logistics standpoint, the ability to grow soldiers keeps the war going. But what’s really fascinating about this notion is the perspective of the soldiers themselves. We get this secondhand, but still with some impact, as Mandella wonders if these new soldiers know their odds of surviving so much as 10 missions are miniscule. Yet they function in every way that matters to the military. This gets a reader thinking about the adaptability of humans – but in this case, with a grim spin: The only reality they know is war; they’ll die soon, but that’s what their life is. And therefore they are oddly content. They don’t consider – let alone wish for – an alternative.

“The Forever War” isn’t filled with a large roster of soldiers who made an impression on me, but I think that’s part of the point: Mandella lives through campaigns and military construction projects (which are equally dangerous as the missions) and sees his friends and colleagues killed. Mandella himself is arguably an underdeveloped person, and I think that’s purposeful by Haldeman, too. All William knows is war, and while he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t like civilian life either. He looks for little moments of happiness, and for a good chunk of the book this comes in the form of his lover and fellow soldier, Marygay.

As much as “The Forever War” shows “military life as the only life” (reminding me of Karen Traviss’ “Star Wars: Republic Commando” novels in this way), the book’s one major portrayal of civilian life is not jarring to Mandella because it’s different. It’s jarring because it’s bad. Haldeman’s imagination really kicks into gear in this middle portion (which is sometimes called “You Can Never Go Back,” because that was the name of the separately published novella before it got inserted into the definitive edition in 1997). He portrays a society where instead of money, there’s a calorie allotment.

Cleverly, the author doesn’t spend much time explaining how this is theoretically supposed to work, but instead shows how things do function with a robust black market and other workarounds as people try to carve out a satisfying life. (Even the acquisition of jobs happens via a black market!) Marygay’s family, for instance, runs a farm as part of a large commune in South Dakota. Because this is a tolerated-but-technically-illegal operation, they can’t rely on the government for protection. So we get a “Walking Dead” type of situation when bandits come to raid the farms.

I didn’t grasp all the scientific details in the military strategies and fights. And this is more of a universal story told through a specific man than it is a story of a fascinating individual. But “The Forever War” is nonetheless a page-turner. Without lecturing the reader on why governments wage wars and why people allow them to do it, this book encourages us to think about those issues. And with each time-dilating jump that sends Mandella farther into the future where the war is still going on, the novel gains a satirical aspect while also living up to its title.