I just finished reading The Forever War, now a science fiction classic and first published in 1975. In talking about it now, I’m going to quote from passages in the book and do some light analysis of their contents, but I’ll do so without the use of spoilers so that anyone who reads this and then wants to read the book won’t have given up much.
Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War based on his experiences in combat in Vietnam, which afford the main character half-pitying disdain for the Taurans. That’s the name for the distant, ill-equipped and easily killed enemy the United Nations Exploratory Force (“emphasis on the ‘force,’” narrator William Mandella tells us early on) faces in Haldeman’s now anachronistic vision of the 21st century. The mismatch of strengths is chillingly clear when, at one point, Mandella’s company defends against an advancing Tauran force:
It was a weird, impressive sight. Some three hundred of them stepped into the field simultaneously, almost shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter of the dome. They advanced in step, each one holding a round shield barely large enough to hide his massive chest. They were throwing darts similar to the ones we had been barraged with. [...] It was a one-sided massacre. [...] With twenty arrows I got twenty Taurans. They closed ranks every time one dropped; you didn’t even have to aim.
Despite the inequality between adversaries, the war continues on, century after century. This is partially because of the Taurans’ sheer advantage in numbers, which allows them to take heavy losses and simply field new platoons. But in light of another consideration, the war’s interminability is but the unintended consequence of travelling among different galaxies in order to find the enemy. Time dilation causes years to slip away, making time a unit of measurement as easily inflated as, say, a fiat currency.
After running up against the space-time continuum hard enough to pass years on Earth time and age only months himself, Mandella finds that the home to which he returns is not much more appealing than the war he left behind. The feelings he expresses reminded me of this comic, in which an American serviceman in Iraq slowly realizes he may not be fighting for the principles he signed up to defend:
In fact I imagine Dexter Filkins’ book-length reporting on the Iraq war was also titled The Forever War not out of coincidence but intention.
As I suggested above in calling it anachronistic, Haldeman’s 1970s forecast of the 21st century gives the human race way too much credit in terms of technological advances, but then in some ways the similarities are downright spooky. There are unmanned aerial vehicles in The Forever War, and though they don’t exactly serve the same purpose as the ones we use to kill hordes of women and children and the occasional potential terrorist, they’re still called drones, just like ours. Other parallels have to do with the world economy and social relations, but I won’t go too into those here.
I originally picked up the book because the title intrigued me. It sounded like something that should’ve been in with the new hardcover nonfiction, all that long-form current affairs drivel that criticizes this or that administration for this or that war (er, kinetic military action), unable to agree whether it’s Obama or Bush’s fault the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken so long to wrap up. (Never mind that neither war will actually be over even 2 years from now, if your definition of ‘over’ is the total withdrawal of occupation forces.) And of course there is the Filkins book, noted above, to buttress this point. So I was surprised to pick the Haldeman classic out of the science fiction section and find that its story references the Vietnam war. But after a second, of course, I wasn’t surprised at all…
Thank God there still exists the freedom in this country to publish the kind of damning criticisms thinly veiled in The Forever War. But God save us from the circumstances that make the book still relevant today, nearly forty years on.
[Edit: At first I said this book was nearly 30 years old, but it is in fact nearly forty. I will go do some addition & subtraction sets now, if you'll excuse me.]