Modern Classic Book Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

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Vietnam… In space!

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (Gollancz, RRP£7.99, 256pp)

For several years now there has been a rumour that this seminal piece of allegorical sci-fi is to be turned into a film. This is probably based on the idea that the rights have been sold, but Haldeman did that years ago, shortly after it was published in 1974. Recently, Ridley Scott was linked with the project, which would be amazing, but it hints that the battle scenes will have more emphasis. But being able to say that you preferred the book when it eventually appears at the multiplex carries a certain kudos factor. And this really is a good book: it is absorbing, and feels stunningly psychologically authentic – not something often said about Sci Fi. It also makes you think, which is what all good literature should do. It is highly political in that it is about war and the ridiculous nature of war, and about the idiocy that perpetuates war. But it is not an angry rant. There is a calmness to Haldeman’s work, a lucidity, a straight-forwardness. He does not directly claim that war is wrong and fighting bad. As Haldeman states in a short introduction to The Forever War: ‘This book is about Vietnam because that’s the war the author was in. It is a book about war, about soldiers and about the reasons we think we need them.’ Elsewhere he makes it clear that he is anti-war because he is pro-troops. Looking at his experiences it is easy to see why he would mistrust and dislike the commanding officers.

The realism is down to Haldeman’s experience in the Vietnam war, of which this is an allegory. Before he wrote The Forever War he wrote an autobiography of his war experiences, War Year, which the publisher had requested be written for teenagers. The publishers were originally going to do a whole series of books by different writers, but Haldeman’s was the only one released in the end. It is telling that with an adult audience, rather than deal directly with his experiences, Haldeman decided to use sci-fi to illustrate his personal perspective of the conflict. Haldeman only went to war because he wanted to become an astronaut, and this would be impossible with a criminal record for dodging the draft. In an online autobiography [] he describes the injury which got him out of Vietnam. As a combat engineer (he had degrees in physics and astronomy) his duty was to make safe the ammo dumps left by the retreating North Vietnamese. One grand-standing Major decided that he wanted this done after a fancy meal had been served to the rest of the troop. While guarding the ammo dump, the inevitable booby-trap went off, killing several men and seriously wounding Haldeman.

The list of correlations between his experiences and those in the book is not exhaustive, but is does depend on the level of interpretation you are willing to extend: The hero, William Mandella, is based on Haldeman, sharing education, interests and a near anagrammatic surname; The love interest, Marygay Potter, is the real name of Haldeman’s wife, whom he married shortly before shipping out to Vietnam; The book opens with a training film called ‘The Eight Silent Ways of Killing’ which was, fantastically, the title of a talk given to Haldeman as a recruit. Much of the training is drawn from his personal memories – such as training in snow when they would be fighting in jungle. And, despite the Sci-Fi setting, the first battle does indeed take place in a jungle. As the technology improves then the correlations become more aligned with the idea of humanity and what it is to be human in such a devastating war. In a way the difference in technology between the text-world and the reader’s world fades into the background: the emphasis settles more on the psychological impact rather than the technological. The first fatality is notable for the psychological portrayal of the survivors. Later scenes of medical emergency, especially a serious injury to Marygay, reveal the panic and desperation at such times. The reaction of the medics and the frankly un-heroic crying and emotional confusion of Mandella show that it is being delivered from personal experience, rather than the imagination.

One of the major factors in The Forever War is the subjective travel time undergone by the soldiers in relation to the objective time of the universe. The enormous distances require the soldiers to be put into a suspended hibernation during the many years – in one case hundreds of years – of travel. The rest of the universe and human society moves on in the intervening time. Mandella only spends around 5 subjective years in the military, but objectively that translates into 1143 years in which he experiences several different versions of human society, from its utter breakdown to the highly advanced wonder of interstellar colonisation; from the efforts to curb population growth, to the eventual, even more surprising, society which humanity becomes by the end of the book. These jumps in social pattern give the book an uneven and disrupting feel. The reader has to re-evaluate the human society each time Mandella does, trying to understand it and then decide if it is in any way better or worse than the previous incarnation. In this aspect we are in the same position as the soldiers, but it does disrupt the reading of the book, since any familiar social markers are removed every time he comes out of hibernation. The alienation of the soldier towards the cause he is fighting for is directly and easily allegorical for the famous scenes of returning Vietnam veterans being decried as ‘baby-killers’ by their own generation. Haldeman has simply taken this sense of isolation and alienation and exemplified it in a context in which the disconnect is heightened, thus demonstrating, to those fortunate enough to have never been in conflict, what it is like to return from a politically unpopular war.

In the first conflict with the enemy aliens, nicknamed Taureans since that is the constellation they were first observed in, a post-hypnotic suggestion is used on the soldiers to help them kill. Mandella, as first person narrator describes the images that swirl through his mind when this is used. The ludicrous nature of the suggestion and the obvious falsity of the images does not stop him from wanting to kill and doing so. There is the strong suggestion here and certainly in the conclusion, that Haldeman believes that at the root of war is the failure of politics to be used properly. The enemy is demonstrated to be the worst kind of being, inflicting terrible atrocities upon innocent humans. All of which Mandella knows to be untrue. The denouement shows the horrendous, almost comic, failure which had brought about the war. And throughout the book Haldeman shows time and again how the war is the one thing which stimulates and promotes the economy, that the war is perpetuated for the economy.

The satirical edge to The Forever War is ably shown in the choice of vehicle. Brian Aldiss had, by the time The Forever War was written, already defined the genre of sci-fi known as ‘Space-Opera’ in which the earth is in danger and a hero rescues it, and gets the girl; think Flash Gordon. The Forever War is definitely a Space Opera, but the rules are subverted, the clichés broken and the reality is so much more complicated. The Vietnam conflict changed the way America saw war. The Forever War translates the dislocation felt by the soldiers and the nation through the able articulation of an ordinary man in extra-ordinary circumstances.

Allegorically there is an immense amount to tie this book with Haldeman’s experience in Vietnam. However, since it is allegory there is no direct linguistic link with the target of the allegorical imagery. Unlike in a metaphor, where the source, or familiar image is brought in to describe the unfamiliar target action or event, allegory doesn’t allow its nature to be so obviously portrayed. The inference must be made in reading, by drawing on extra-textual links between the text and the real world. This of course means that the allegorical world can be seen as a stand-alone fictional construct; you don’t need to understand the level of allegorical detail in order to follow the plot and be drawn in. However, it really makes a difference. It can seem unfair to see this book only in terms of its autobiographical links, but the impact is heightened and strengthened through such associations.

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