Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

The Forever War

1984 cover?My copy of The Forever War is a slim Del Rey paperback priced at 2.95 and the pages are lightly yellowed. I’ve read it a couple of times, as might be obvious, but never with the thought to consider its structure and storytelling. Coming on the heels of Haldeman’s Viet Nam experience, you might expect a hefty critique of war or politics or the army. You’d mostly be wrong. If anything, it’s an anthropology of war and the army. Politics barely enter into it at all.

The 218-page novel covers the career of William Mandella in Earth’s first alien contact and first alien war, which happen to be one and the same. “Private Mandella” tells the story of his company’s training and first hostile encounter (pp. 3-64) and covers the years, roughly, 1997-2006; “Sergeant Mandella 2007-2024” (pp. 65-122) covers his company’s second encounter, retirement, and re-enlistment; “Lieutenant Mandella 2024-2389” (pp. 125-139) is a less battle, given that said conflict ends badly and quickly, and more recuperation; and “Major Mandella 2458-3143” is the last battle. The war, incidentally, is between humans and the so-called Taurans, who are rather more capable in space combat than they are on the ground. They are roughly humanoid, but distinctly… alien.

He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands. Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint. Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis. His arms looked surprisingly human, except that they were too long and undermuscled. There were too many fingers on his hands. Shoulderless, neckless. His head was a nighmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest. Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundles of tassles instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his adam’s apple should have been. (pp. 51-52)

But really, Haldeman isn’t all that interested in aliens. They’re the excuse for the war, and the war is the reason for the book, although if you’ll recall, I wrote above that this book is anthropological. I expect that it wasn’t only Haldeman’s experience in combat that helped to inspire this book, but his experience returning to civilian culture in the U.S. from the war where many soldiers were treated as villains. You may have noticed that the years in which Mandella fights expand greatly – all the way to the fourth millennium. Although our protagonist only serves a handful of years in the military (subjectively, which his how is contract is construed), due to the time dilation of lightspeed travel (via collapsars – the ships themselves never cross the speed of light barrier).

The passage of time allows for Haldeman to explore both advances in technology and changes in culture – the military, that barely changes at all. Sure, they abandon the post-hypnotic conditioning that they inflict upon Private Mandella’s company, but then they take it up again, reject it again, take it up again, because they keep learning their lesson, which changes every generation or so (whichever that lesson is – namely, they never played Risk as children). Weapons change, but none of them is really a game-changer, as the Taurans and humans learn from each other at a reasonable speed. They’re still, fundamentally, about broad and minute ways to kill another living being, ranging from the nova bomb to, ultimately, darts and arrows.

Civilian culture, on the other hand, changes rapidly. As the earth’s population grows, it is first pacified by a global government (primarily through free or inexpensive drugs); then, as the population grows, through the encouragement of homosexuality; lastly, through the criminalization of heterosexuality. This is a hard change for Mandella to absorb, given that he was indoctrinated into a military that encouraged (if not mandated) promiscuity between its sexually integrated ranks as a means of building team coherence and morale. By the time Mandella is a major, his subordinates consider him a pervert of the highest order. For all that the novel has a very academic feel, it is all told in the first person and ultimately falls back on a fairly sentimental (and from a gendered perspective, heteronormative) conclusion. Mandella himself relates one event after another, flummoxed by the radical changes that occur between one tour of duty and the next. And for me it worked – even though he is so self-aware a narrator as to keep a long distance between himself and the reader, I didn’t see the end coming.

Is the novel about the futility of war? Communication?

I think it’s about cultural change, cultural shifts, and because of the scientific parameters that arise from (functional) faster-than-light travel, Haldeman gives himself a variety of major changes to address.

The Forever War is hardly forever. From Mandella’s perspective, it is less than six or seven years, and he has no connection at all to the civilian population and how they might be dealing with a perpetual state of combat. To my mind, it is rightfully a classic of science fiction. Too much sci-fi is basically fantasy in which we could just as easily exchange a laser for a wand or a ship for a carpet. Haldeman attends to science (how well, not being a scientist, I don’t know). He attends to culture. His William Mandella is, while reluctant, a fully committed soldier. He might have misgivings about the war or about the army, but he moves forward inexorably and acknowledges the disappearance of his family with remarkable brevity. But his family is not the story. His experience in the war is.

Haldeman engages with “what-if-science” questions with diligent interrogation. It is not a perfect novel, but it is remarkable. Where it falls down is primarily the understanding of the immediate future (from the perspective of 1974, its publication). But taken as a historical document, the four short stories that comprise The Forever War paint a remarkable portrait of how we might, as a culture and a species, turn out to be.


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