I once read an interview with a man who was involved in some of the bloodiest fighting during the Vietnam war. This particular battle he fought, watching friends and compatriots killed while he and they tried to kill in return, and then a day or two after it was over, so was his tour of duty. Within 72 hours, he went from foxholes and firefights to standing on the tarmac of an airport back in Oklahoma or Missouri or wherever it was he was from. Within 72 hours, he went from combat to needing a lift into town, where he would have to find a job and pick up civilian life as if nothing had changed. He had been trained, if somewhat haphazardly, for the war. He had not been trained, however, for it to end.
I have no idea if his story was true, but it was certainly true for someone.
Author Joe Haldeman was himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, and his 1974 novel The Forever War is science fiction based on the American Vietnam experience, military science fiction that would be more suited to Buffalo Springfield and Jimi Hendrix as its soundtrack than synthesized epic choral music. Military sci-fi is one of those sub-genre designations that conjures up a very specific type of story for me. The blood and guts space battles of David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, or the “Horatio Hornblower in space” adventure of David Drake’s RCN series. However, I have to remind myself that it can be a more complex style of storytelling than simple tales of massive battles and old-fashioned swashbuckling but in space. One of the foundation works of military science fiction, The Forever War takes military science fiction in a much different direction, highlighting the dubious morality, the human casualties, the manipulative politicians, and the way combat experience can make it impossible for veterans to readjust to civilian life.
The set-up is simple and familiar enough: humanity stumbles into first contact with an intelligent alien species, and things go horribly wrong. War breaks out. Sort of. One of the things that sets Haldeman’s tale apart from similar stories is his basic grasp of “time dilation,” the warping of time that happens the closer something comes to the speed of light. Thus, as Earth’s soldiers set out to do battle via cruises that take months to complete, decades pass on Earth. Men and women who fought two or three battles become revered veterans who have, relative to some, been fighting for hundreds of years. And being outfitted with weapons and technology from the year in which you departed means you could be facing an enemy who has had a hundred years or more to advance and revise their own technology and tactics by the time you arrive, even if it only seemed like months to you.
The Forever War is often compared to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, since both are told in first-person and both are about humans fighting an alien enemy about which they know almost nothing. For my money, Haldeman’s book — and his protagonist — is much more relatable. It reminds me much more of Catch 22 than Starship Troopers. Through the protagonist Mandella’s eyes, the story is told in an almost laid-back manner, full of self-deprecation and doubt, gallows humor and grim violence. Mandella is not a gung-ho soldier; he’s just some guy. He gets drafted into the elite corps not because of his fighting prowess, but because he’s good at physics (Haldeman himself was a combat engineer), and the military figures that sort of stuff will be important if you’re fighting in space. Almost all of his training ends up being useless on the battlefield. He succeeds in war and rises through the ranks not because he discovers the hero within, but because he is lucky — or at least less unlucky than those around him.
Without noticing its happening, one becomes emotionally invested in Mandella and his fellow soldier and lover (canoodling between troops is actually encouraged; keeps people from going insane on long space voyages) Marygay Potter. Military sci-fi can be a blunt instrument, whether it’s for war, against it, or just wants to tell an adventure story. The Forver War isn’t subtle, but it paces itself slowly enough to sneak into your emotions rather than trying to bludgeon its way in. When Mandella and Marygay return to an Earth they fought to protect, and that has aged decades when they’ve aged months, they are unable to adjust. When they re-enlist, they are cheated. When a bureaucratic blow is dealt to their relationship, it’s devastating, one of the most successful emotional moments science fiction has ever produced.
Although it’s not science fiction’s job to be prescient, The Forever War ends up having multiple meaning. Most obviously, it’s the story of a war that drags on for centuries even though in relative time it’s only a few years. A level below, it’s an expression of a sentiment held by soldiers in Vietnam, that the damn war was never going to end. Both of those were intentional on Haldeman’s part, but who knew over forty years after the last American chopper left Saigon that we’d still be fighting the Vietnam War? When John Kerry ran for President in 2004, the campaign was about the Vietnam War. George W. Bush had his own Vietnam ghosts (or lack of them) come back to haunt him. Cable news pundits still attack Hanoi Jane.
But the younger generation doesn’t get off scot free. Since 2001, we’ve been locked in a new, seemingly forever war, one with such open-ended, vague, and malleable goals that it seems not only will it never end; but no one even knows how to end it, or what it means to win or lose. The difficult to use and often faulty power armor Mandella and the troops wear reminds me of all the scandals surrounding American troops in the Middle East being saddled with inferior — or no — body armor. Stop-Loss was no different that bureaucratic tricks used to snare Mandella, Marygay, and others into virtual lifetimes of active combat duty. The Forever War remains relevant, unfortunately, even to a generation for whom Vietnam is nothing but a paragraph in a textbook.