The Forever War is generally thought of as a SF-classic with everlasting appeal. Not only a SF-classic, but even a straight out American classic of literature. 3 different quotes on my edition rave in one way or the other about the book being up there with the big boys of non-genre, non-pulp literature: “the most important war novel written since Vietnam”.
I disagree. It’s not that the book hasn’t aged well: it hasn’t, but that’s not its problem. I never felt it being a very good book, and I think it never has been. It is not without merit, there’s excellent parts, but overall there’s not enough meat on the bone. It works as an allegory, but not as a story. Moreover, its ethics are pathetically superficial: a pretty spectacular fail, especially for an indicting war novel. More on that later, also in the comments.
I guess most SF-fans know that Joe Haldeman was a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, and that The Forever War actually is about the Vietnam war – it is even considered a critique of that war; in the introduction Haldeman recollects having a hard time getting it published because of that. It’s a personal book: the protagonist’s name, William Mandela, clearly is an anagram of Haldeman.
So, what’s the good here?
There’s quite some good Hard SF ideas spread throughout the book. The main thing the book is famous for is the fact that the soldiers fighting the Tauran aliens age a lot less than the people back on Earth, because of the effects of relativistic time dilation. So, when they return from a tour, centuries have passed. It is the book’s most important narrative idea, and I guess it was indeed original in its time. It also seems like an interesting way to get across the estrangement a lot of soldiers returning home report feeling – also those fighting in today’s wars.
Seems that way: yes, when Mandela returns to Earth he doesn’t feel at home – but that’s not because the war has changed him, but because Earth itself has changed. A messy metaphor, to say the least, and one that already hints at Haldeman’s failure to take responsibility himself, as I’ll discuss later. He hasn’t changed, it’s the others. On top of that, this faux estrangement effect is marred by the fact that Haldeman chose to overdo it: the Earth that Mandela revisits the first time is a caricatural dystopia, especially to these contemporary eyes – the picture Haldeman paints might have been believable to a reader in the 1970ies, but it isn’t anymore. Still, as I said, the fact that the book didn’t age well is not the main problem.
Other good stuff includes Haldeman’s prose. It’s not full of interesting images or poetic phrasing, but it does the job and doesn’t get in the way. That’s something. At times it even manages to convey the harsh nature of war and death.
a few centimeters above the pubis a membraned loop of gut was protruding…
It’s not a very long book (265 pages), and the first 80 or so are actually great. As a lot of stories about war, it starts with the obligatory training sequence (think Full Metal Jacket, but in outer space) and Haldeman does a great job describing getting used to fighting suits, the conditions in a space ship at a constant 2 Gs, etc., etc. It’s all pretty bleak and pretty harsh. As a reader, you are still left with a sense of anticipation, since it’s only the setup, and “the most important war novel since Vietnam” is only getting started.
Then the fighting actually starts, and the book quickly becomes pretty repetitive & even boring. At first it’s not so bad, since we get to meet the aliens, but once their novelty wears off, all that remains is, well, fighting. And fighting is just fighting.
Especially if you have no characters to care for… The Forever War is a first person novel, and Mandela is the only character we get to know a bit – but don’t expect a lot of depth either. It is utterly baffling, but even with him there is absolutely no character development whatsoever. Sure, he has a love interest, but when she parts for an other tour and it is obvious to both they will never meet again, it doesn’t seem to affect Mandela at all. And yes, when he returns to Earth he doesn’t fit in, but as I already explained, not because he changed. There’s some emotion at the very end, but there’s hardly any emotional connections to be made. One might argue that war dehumanizes people, that it numbs feelings and makes cynical bastards of us all. But even that is not the case – I didn’t experience feelings of paralyzing dread or cynicism. The Mandela at the beginning is simply the same Mandela at the end of the novel, except for a higher military rank and some years of experience.
That’s what I meant when I wrote this book works as an allegory, but not as a story. True, the pointlessness of war is illustrated. Its repetitive nature. The carnage too. As a story, it falls short: there’s not even an interesting story arc dealing with the war itself. It’s not clear why the conflict started, it’s not clear who’s winning, we don’t have a view on the strategies, we don’t even get to know the enemy. And again, as an allegory for a soldier participating in the Vietnam war all that’s probably pretty on the money, but it doesn’t make a good story, let alone without character development.
What’s also lacking is ethics. One would think that a veteran like Haldeman would have interesting things to say about moral responsibility, duty, guilt, the nature of suffering, and the likes. Aside from a few fancy Von Clausewitz quotes, there’s only this shallow passage, after Mandela – aided by hypnotic conditioning – killed some aliens.
I spent a long time after that telling myself over and over that it hadn’t been me who so gleefully carved up those frightened, stampeding creatures. Back in the twentieth century, they had established to everybody’s satisfaction that “I was just following orders” was an inadequate excuse for inhuman conduct… but what can you do when the orders come from deep down in that puppet master of the unconscious? Worst of all was the feeling that perhaps my actions weren’t all that inhuman. Ancestors only a few generations back would have done the same thing, even to their fellow man, without any hypnotic conditioning. I was disgusted with the human race, disgusted with the army and horrified at the prospect of living with myself for another century or so… Well, there was always brain-wipe.
Brain-wipe… Yup. At the end of the book, we get the following additional analysis, in a comment about the final military base left standing…
It exists only as a rendezvous point for returnees and as a monument to human stupidity. And shame.
Stupidity. And shame. Deep. The feeling I got reading this book was that it was a self-centered, semi-apologetic rant by Haldeman. If this is supposed to be an important book about Vietnam, where is the suffering of the victims? Yes, some cruel massacres are described, there’s techno-gore enough. But since Haldeman chose for the allegorical victims to be truly alien, grotesque monsters even, we do not sympathize with them. We do not feel their pain.
So, this book is mainly about the boredom of the imperialist Western warrior in-between battles. And a tiny wee bit about his conflicting feelings – a tiny, tiny wee bit: it is mainly just the 2 quotes above. And it’s all the army’s fault anyway! They trick you into signing up! It’s a whining book.
It is also about sex. Really. Now that I think of it, The Forever War really is first and foremost a book about sex. Haldeman’s take on homosexuality has to be read to believed. And women soldiers are all prostitutes too! Let’s just leave it at that.
This book surely is not about the complexity, emotions and tragic nuances of war. Should you read it? The first 80 pages for sure, and the next 80 to be baffled. After that, don’t expect any insights, nor redemption.