THE FOREVER WAR – Joe Haldeman (1974)

The Forever WarThe Forever War is generally thought of as a SF-classic with everlasting appeal. And 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, and it has 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.

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 – moreover, it is a critique on that war; in the introduction he recollects having a hard time getting it published because of that. To make it even more personal, 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 utterly 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: when Mandela returns to Earth he indeed doesn’t feel at home – but that’s not because the war has changed him, but because Earth itself has changed. 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, and surely not 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 & 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.

This book is mainly about the boredom of the 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.

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10 responses to “THE FOREVER WAR – Joe Haldeman (1974)

  1. Yeah, 3 stars from me. over-rated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s been a long, long time since I read this one, but I do remember somewhat liking it, but not being overwhelmed by it. The most interesting part was indeed the estrangement you quote about the changes in social development due to the time-lag of space travel, but overall I did think the story felt a little… flat. Maybe it’s because of its allegoric nature indeed (that’s why I understand Tolkien’s dislike of allegory!): allegory tends to be a bit… preachy – for want of a better word – and ultimately defeats its own purpose.

    Great, thoughtful review as always! 🙂

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    • I don’t know if this book de facto defeats its own purpose, it seems generally praised, but I agree with you. It’s a flat, preachy book and yet still I’m not sure what it’s message is, aside from the obvious: being a soldier in a pointless war sucks a bit, but not so much that one doesn’t re-enlist.

      Thank you for the compliment!

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  3. You are obviously a young person unversed in the Vietnam War. I’m not a veteran, or a supporter of military action. But I do know the history of the Vietnam War, and what you criticize as “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. precisely describes the exact situation American soldiers were dealing with in Vietnam. It was not a WWII scenario where the bad guys were known, now go kill them. The Vietnamese had no Hitler. They had never attacked America. And yet our soldiers were being forced to go there, and sometimes die. Standard military tactics had to be thrown out the window due to the guerilla tactics of the North Vietnamese. Soldiers were often reduced to just reacting, no plan in place. And the American officers drilled into the soldiers’ heads that enemy were just communists – faceless bad guys to be wiped out. And I have not even started to talk about how anti-war sentiment in America affected the soldiers’ sense of nationalism and belonging when they returned from the warfront. Go risk your life for America, but you will not be welcome in many social circles when you return…

    Read John Laurence’s excellent The Cat from Hue for a reporter’s view of the Vietnamese War. I think it will change a lot of your criticisms of the novel into compliments as to how well Haldeman converted the average American soldiers’ view into a science fiction narrative. (If you’re looking for the shorter version, watch the film Born on the Fourth of July.)

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    • I’m not doubting Haldeman converted his or other soldiers’ experience into the novel well, and you make a great case. That doesn’t take away that this book is self-centered. Obviously American soldiers partially were victims too, but I’m still missing any form of self-criticism in ‘The Forever War’.

      The fact that this book – which basically is a book that only looks at the suffering of the aggressors – is heralded so often, tells me something about the imperialist mindset. It would be interesting to read the comments of Vietnamese people on it. The book understandably has an appeal to many Americans – both enjoying the macho techno-gore violence and at the same time being absolved as you’re reading an anti-war book popular opinion has vetted: who doesn’t want to have the cake & eat it? – , but what I tried to show is that it lacks a certain kind of ‘global’ humanism.

      It would have also been interesting to read more on this “our soldiers were being forced to go there” in the book. Conscientious objectors did exist. The Forever War would have benefited tremendously if Haldeman would have included some soul-searching about why he enlisted in the first place.

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  4. I agree with your statement that Haldeman could have provided a more balanced view, but I don’t think he was required to, nor do I think it would have by default made the book better. It’s easy to criticize the portrayal of a faceless army, but at the same time it’s easy to imagine the scenario wherein soldiers are brainwashed into seeing the enemy as faceless, which would make Haldeman’s first person narrative all the more authentic. By including other viewpoints, this portrayal might lose impact…

    Regarding the violence, indeed there is blood and guts. Read Haldeman’s other fiction and you’ll find more. I’m not yet decided whether it’s simply a marketing trick (i.e. violence sells), or a symptom of the lasting trauma Haldeman experienced in battle…

    Why he signed up for the army, yes, there was room for introspection. At the same time, we must remember a prior war, WWII, was the good man’s war. Evil tried to rise but was ultimately defeated by the forces for good – supposedly the same forces that went to Vietnam. It’s easy to imagine a patriotic young man signing up, thinking to support the forces of good. It’s been a while since I read The Forever War, but my memory is telling me that Haldeman left said introspection between the lines–the substance he wanted the reader to chew over, not to spell it out for them. But I could be wrong.

    Is The Forever war the greatest fictional critique of the Vietnam War ever written? I don’t think so… But at the same time does it deserve the metamodern criticism of lacking social/cultural diversity. Again, I don’t think so. It’s a better than average sf novel with some cool ideas, a little war action, and some commentary, but not much more.

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    • Yes, you raise valid points, and again, I never faulted the book’s authenticity. I think part of my problem with the book has more to do with the reception of this book than with the book itself: for it to be one of the ultimate Vietnam books (as is often said) I think it’s way too one-dimensional.

      As I haven’t lived those times, it’s hard to truly criticize soldiers partaking in the war. Some were brainwashed, I’m sure. Again, if I’m informed correctly, there was a lot of criticism of the war, even before it started. Lots of people were informed, and did object. Non-violence as a way of life was not unknown: Gandhi was killed in 1948, and Jesus too is pretty well known in the States. Maybe the moral fault lies in allowing yourself to be brainwashed – but that’s a tricky thing to argue, I admit, as I’m aware of the massive state-sponsored ideological campaigns against leftist ideologies.

      It’s interesting how you call WWII the good man’s war. This might be an American perspective. In Europe, also non-German authors have written powerful, critical books that go well beyond the good allies – bad Nazi dichotomy, both during the war itself, as in the 1950ies. Maybe this has to do with the fact that the fighting didn’t happen in the States itself, and as such the broad population didn’t experience war itself. Maybe that has made it easier to mobilize naive, uninformed young boys to keep on fighting abroad in the decades after. But brainwashed or not, I’m puzzled by why people would re-enlist for a second or a third tour if they are so appalled by violence, and ashamed of human stupidity. Yes, they might be estranged from normal society, even spewed upon by some, suffer from PTSD in contemporary terms, but to then just go back and kill more faceless enemy humans seems to me to wrong moral response, if I’m allowed to make that judgement.

      On a sidenote, if it looked like I advocated more social/cultural diversity, my bad. I wouldn’t call my initial remarks that. It’s not about including a few token Vietnamese viewpoint characters that have agency too, or something along these lines. I’m sure Haldeman has seen Vietnamese people suffer, so an inclusion of his mono-social/mono-cultural viewpoint on the sorrow and the deaths of the other humans he and his nation caused, doesn’t seem too much to ask…

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  5. Haldeman already played the victim card with Mandela. As I mentioned, playing it twice (i.e. having “Vietnamese” representation) might have undercut the impact of his first person narrative, not to mention it might have altered the agenda from an America-critical view of the war to a human-critical view of the war. Would that have made the book better? Debatable, but possible…

    And do I understand correctly, you think it’s possible every soldier in a war might suddenly lay down their arms as a conscientious objector? I fully appreciate the fact you will not be the next person to start a war, but this view lacks a certain understanding of the realities of this world. One such reality is: few people possess the strength to stand at full height in support of their beliefs. People ask how the jailers at Auschwitz could assist in the killing of innocents. Why didn’t they just walk off the job? I think we can safely assume most were normal people caught up in circumstances which they did not possess the inner strength to stand up against even as they were brainwashed. I would say the same applies to most American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. You can hold them to a high moral standard, but living that standard is an entirely different thing. By identifying his protagonist as a victim of the system rather than weak person unable to stand up for his beliefs, I think Haldeman set his crosshairs in a more realistic place. It’s far more likely a government can be turned from war than an army of soldiers decide en masse to lay down their arms.

    You are a man in his 20s, yes?

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    • I’m not asking for Haldeman to shift from America-critical to human-critical, but to add to the America-critical stance also a self-critical stance, among other things by including reflection on the suffering he caused. I think Haldeman takes the easy way out in just playing the victim card, and that’s why I call the book whining and self-centered.

      But you are right, his is a realistic card, and one that resonates with the (American) public: also the aggressors are victims. We were all duped by the government. And even the government was duped by the intricate workings of ideological strife and feedback loops everywhere. The sad thing is that that sentiment is indeed true to reality: in a way, everybody is a victim, and nobody is to blame. I’ll write a bit more on that below.

      But first, no, you do not understand my stance correctly. That might be my bad, so I’ll try to formulate it a bit more clearly. I am not talking about laying down your arms, and walking off the job while you’re at it, as you suggest. I’m talking about not signing up for a second or a third tour. I don’t know how the specific rules were, but Haldeman makes it seem in the book as if signing up for a second, third or fourth tour was not obligatory, but a free choice. If that was indeed the case, I indeed fault him morally. That has nothing to do with being a naive youngster, as you again imply (I’m 37, thank you). I have visited Auschwitz and I have read quite a lot on the ethics and morals surrounding it. I’ve also worked in a prison myself. I’m well aware of the real world, and people getting trapped in systems. That’s why I wrote that sentence with “that’s a tricky thing to argue” in my previous reply. I understand very well that not everybody is born as a Gandhi, but that doesn’t mean I can’t favor one type of human being (a conscious objector who never signed up in the first place) to another (Haldeman re-enlisting).

      I should elaborate a bit on my ethical views. As a first principle, I think that nobody is to blame, never, as all available evidence points to the non-existence of free will. Haldeman did what he thought he had to do, governed by his brain and other factors, all outside of his control. He is not to blame, and my remarks have nothing to do with appointing guilt. But, that doesn’t mean he was “morally right” in killing other people, nor in signing up again. So, it is not so much about appointing guilt, as it is discussing what sets of behavior are more desirable compared to other sets.

      Or, to put things in way a young kid might understand: you don’t blame a yucky pudding for not being yummy, but you can nonetheless say it is distasteful, and like another pudding way better…

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