The Forever War remains timeless, especially on September 11

It's been nine years since our own interminable War on Terror started. Can we learn anything from 1976's Hugo-winning novel, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War?

Briefly-ish, three notes before we get started. You can safely skip the first, longest one if you want:

1) First, a mild digression: I finished The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing a few days ago, which was just wonderful, and I don't want to discuss the book here, but I do want to mention something the author wrote in her 1971 introduction to it. (By the by, these days I generally read introductions and forewords and the like after I've finished a book, a practice I would highly recommend as more illuminating and better for your mind than reading them first.) In the introduction, a really fine and instructive complaint about the difference between how a writer perceives their work and how the public and critics perceive it, Lessing comments that:

...a young man or woman, reviewer or critic, who has not read more of a writer's work than the book in front of him, will write patronisingly, or as if rather bored with the whole business, or as if considering how many marks to give an essay, about the writer in question — who might have written fifteen books, and have been writing for twenty or thirty years — giving the said writer instruction on what to write next, and how. No one thinks this is absurd, certainly not the young person, critic or reviewer, who has been taught to patronise and itemise everyone for years, from Shakespeare downwards.

That hit home, especially after my last review in this series, which I think was accurate after a fashion but I know could have been better informed. Even though I have tried to avoid writing about books in the manner Lessing describes, I have totally fallen into that trap, on multiple occasions. It's hard not to! I wish I had more time to do all the additional reading before writing one of these posts (in today's case, Joe Haldeman has written other books in the same series, one of which we'll get to eventually), and I wish I were better at developing thought-provoking arguments that didn't simply hinge on my opinion of a novel's relative quality (and I hope I'm improving at least a little on that front). Anyway, this is merely a self-indulgent clarification: I don't presume to believe that any of these posts are the last word — not even my personal last word — on these books; and even when I'm at my most stridently opinionated, my aim is to stimulate people's brains a little, rather than to pronounce judgment.

2) There have been at least three different versions of The Forever War published. The one I read for purposes of this post is what Haldeman calls "the definitive version." (The edition I read was the 2009 book, with the foreword by John Scalzi, whose cover is pictured at the top of this post.)

3) Some significant spoilers will follow. I try not to reveal stuff when I don't have to, but these are unavoidable. (You can still thoroughly enjoy the book if you're aware of them, however.)

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So, coincidence has presented me with either a problem or an opportunity, in that today is of course the ninth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and as that dreadful day marked at least the symbolic beginning of the country's ongoing War on Terror, I think I would be kind of remiss not to draw some sort of connection between that campaign and the themes of The Forever War. At the same time, I don't want to strain the connection just because of a flake of timing. Nor do I want to spend hundreds of words to arrive at a conclusion that isn't any more profound than "War is bad."

The Forever War remains timeless, especially on September 11

Anyway, it just feels like a lot of pressure, is all I'm saying. Let us do what we normally do in such situations and start with a summary of the novel, before we grapple with the heavier stuff.

Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, The Forever War is a first-person account of the military career of one William Mandella, one of the first people drafted into service by the United Nations Exploratory Force for Earth's war against the Taurans, aliens from near Aldebaran. It opens in 1997 — Joe Haldeman admits it's a little hard to swallow that we'd have developed interstellar travel and a world government by then ("Think of it as a parallel universe," he advises in his author's note), but he wanted it to be possible for some of the UNEF soldiers to have been Vietnam veterans.

Haldeman — whose middle name is William and whose last name can be rearranged phonically as "Man-de-lah" — was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve as a combat engineer in Vietnam and awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded during fighting. The Forever War was written as a reaction to his experience there, and is autobiographical enough that the main love interest's name is almost the same as Haldeman's own wife's name.

It is also famously considered a markedly antiwar response to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which, as has been previously noted here, is a fantastic, rollicking read that is really a thought experiment about what an ideal military force would be like, but which has drawn a fair amount of fire because of how completely it evades any serious reflection on the possible downsides of soldierhood. Like a lot of entertainment, science fiction has a history of engaging with themes over and over again, and presenting them with greater nuance and believability or sophistication with each major recurrence of a riff. Here, even the battle suits Mandella and his comrades wear are more complicated than Johnnie Rico's were: They're amazing pieces of technology, for sure, but you can't just wear and control them intuitively — it takes a lot of practice just to pick something up or run in one. And fall down or lean against something in one the wrong way, in the wrong atmosphere, and it'll explode and kill you.

The Forever War remains timeless, especially on September 11

Other facets of life for a UNEF soldier are similarly more problematic than they were in Heinlein's Terran Federation. Protocol isn't governed by mathematically verifiable logic, leaders are not necessarily any wiser than their troops and don't feel compelled to put their own lives on the line, and neither means nor ends are rooted in morally responsible — or even intellectually responsible — thought. When The Forever War opens, Private Mandella's company is learning eight silent ways to kill a man — even though their enemies are Taurans, not men, and no one has actually ever seen a Tauran before, just their starships. Shortly after, they're practicing building bridges, leading Mandella to wonder about the usefulness of that skill "on worlds where the only fluid is an occasional standing pool of liquid helium" (and indeed, the environments in which they eventually see combat tend to be quite different from those they've trained in).

And then there is the space travel. Space travel is an interesting thing: It can be as easy as getting into a flying yacht like the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, where you walk around unencumbered and are shielded from harmful radiation and just press a button to break the light barrier. Or it can be as big a pain in the ass as in, well, The Forever War. First off, you can get subjected to all sorts of dangerous pressure levels and gravity shifts, and die from something as simple as your clothes not fitting perfectly.

But more important, although actually breaking the light barrier happens nearly instantaneously, when ships jump through the hearts of collapsars to other parts of the galaxy, getting to the collapsed stars means traveling at near-light-speed, which brings relativity into play — meaning that decades can pass on Earth while just a few months pass for Mandella's company.

That, of course, is where the novel's title comes from. The Tauran war isn't just seemingly endless, as all wars, I imagine, are to the people in them — it literally lasts centuries, even though Mandella only serves a few years in subjective time.

The Forever War remains timeless, especially on September 11

One of the things science fiction can do is amplify scenarios and situations and ideas from life — it blows them up so we can see their basic elements more clearly and examine them without getting bogged down in real-world particularities. Asimov's Foundation considers the fundamental tenets of a civilization's breakdown as described in Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by putting planetary systems in conflict with one another. 1984 suggests that we might want to worry about how much power we give our institutions, by making them all-powerful. And The Forever War highlights the sense of alienation that goes with being a soldier by separating Mandella, piece by piece, from everything he cares about.

At first it's fairly straightforward: After his first tour of duty, Mandella returns to Earth, where ten years have passed and society has devolved into a standard-issue post-apocalyptic mess, sans apocalypse. Crime is rampant, and ordinary citizens don't leave their homes unarmed or without bodyguards. Currency is measured in calories, thanks to worldwide food shortages, and jobs are so hard to find there's a black market for them.

It's not the place Mandella left, and when he and his girlfriend, Marygay, end up back in the service and assigned to combat once again, it's almost a relief — like going home. In The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe — himself a veteran draftee of the Korean War — writes that "War is not a new experience; it is a new world." A recurrent theme in military literature is that if you haven't been to that world, you'll never understand it — and as such, if you have been there, only other people who have too can really understand you.

But at least in real life, one can still assume some common ground between a war veteran and the civilians back home. In The Forever War, so much time passes that even the most fundamental of shared experiences is taken away from Mandella. In Chapter 11 of Starship Troopers, Johnnie Rico muses about serving on a ship with women officers that "It's good to know that the ultimate reason you are fighting actually exists and that they are not just a figment of the imagination." After Mandella and Marygay are injured on their second tour and then given orders that, because of the time differential, will split them up forever, he gets the bleak news that everyone on Earth is now homosexual, due to eugenic modifications in the service of population control. A confirmed heterosexual, Mandella faces a future where no woman alive will ever be romantically interested in him again.

The Forever War remains timeless, especially on September 11

As ever, he presses on through his increasing disorientation, because what else can he do? His psychological profile reveals he's disposed to pacifism and not fit for military leadership, but he's bumped up to a command position because the bureaucratic geniuses in charge think it's too "embarrassing" to keep him a foot soldier. And when he manages to survive an assignment that has his strike force serving as bait for the Taurans, it's to discover that the war has been over for more than two centuries, and to learn the predictably, offensively absurd reason it got started in the first place.

Now to deal with the 9/11 connection. I don't want to make a direct one. Unlike The Forever War, the War on Terror didn't start because of a misunderstanding. And though I, like many people, have grave misgivings about some of the ways it's been executed, I'd be loath to comment on our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq even if I were qualified to do so. This is a book review; it doesn't need to generate intense political debate. Moreover, this is a book about soldiering, and I would hate for my writing about it to lead to criticism of our troops' individual struggles to implement the policies our government has decided upon. The people in the American armed forces are dealing and will continue to deal with many of the same things William Mandella does.

That said, war itself has changed, even since Joe Haldeman wrote this book. Even Vietnam marked — symbolically, at least — a shift from a relatively organized paradigm, where nation-states fought for clear goals according to guidelines that seem positively quaint now. No one, as far as I know, has ever really figured out what that war was for exactly, and why we spent so many bodies to fight it.

Now, with the War on Terror, we have a conflict that has no defining borders, no static enemy, and no definitive objective or end in sight. We also have no assurance that the leaders executing it are any more in touch with reality than their counterparts on Mandella's parallel Earth are.

And we've all been sort of conscripted into it. Oh, I don't mean to say that my day-to-day or most people's is anything like life in the active military. But you know, the reason readers have been able to relate to Mandella's story, even when they haven't spent time in the world that is war, is because as human beings, we can imagine the constant, inexorable pressure he's under, the feeling that he is helplessly subject to the machinations of forces that are dumb and indifferent and inhumane. And more and more over the last nine years, it sure seems like that sense of pressure has grown, and that all the little things we go along with in the name of fighting terror lead us further away from the way of life we originally set out to defend. Here's to hoping that doesn't go on forever.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm, from 1977. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.