The Forever War and Military Science Fiction

Amongst one of the many books that has come highly recommended to me, especially from my fellow graduate students, was Joe Haldeman‘s The Forever War. Published in 1974, Haldeman’s book is an interesting one, tying together a stiff criticism for the Vietnam War, in which he was a participant and recipient of the Army’s Purple Heart, a look at the future of humanity and a romp through futuristic military battlefields. The book is scattered, to say the least, through these three larger themes, and while the book as a whole is a pretty strong one, reading it brought up some larger issues that I have with the whole of the military science fiction subgenre.

Branching off from the 1980s, humanity has taken to the stars fairly early in its history, travelling the galaxy via collapstars, which fires off a ship around the galaxy. During the course of humanity’s exploration, they come into contact with a race of aliens known as the Taurans, and inevitably, war breaks out. The story’s protagonist, William Mandella, is conscripted into the military, where he’s trained and sent off to the distant front lines to fight, eventually becoming part of the first engagement against the Taurans. With that battle completed, he is shipped home, along with his lover, Marygay Potter, to an Earth that they hardly recognize. After a short period of time, they leave again, rejoin the military and rejoin the fight. Over the next several hundred years (only a couple for them, subjectively), they are retrained, and eventually separated, before one last battle brings Mandella back home, where he is eventually reunited with Marygay.

The book is ultimately lackluster as a military science fiction novel: the action scenes are nothing new, and anyone reading Robert Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers or John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War will recognize the basics when it comes to this sort of novel – there are powered suits, the requisite training portion and rise of the protagonist, not to mention the action. Taken at face value, it’s a bit of a miss for me. The biggest saving grace is Haldeman’s conceptualization of space warfare, where tactics take days, weeks, even months to carry out, over hundreds of millions of kilometers. This gives the book a bit of a realistic edge that does make it stand apart from other military Science Fiction novels, something that I greatly appreciated.

However, where the book succeeds the most is in Haldeman’s look to the future. As Mandela lives out his life through the military actions that he takes, long stretches of his life are relatively slowed down while travelling through space, allowing for jumps in time as he comes back into contact with Earth and sees just how society has changed over time. Upon his first return, humanity has united on Earth, under a largely repressive, Children of Men style world where human civilization has faced enormous hardship under the interstellar war. Leaving the world as it has changed too much for his liking, William and Marygay return to space, to find several major changes as they continue to jump around space. Eventually, the world as they know it has changed completely – humanity has gone from a recognizable society to one where homosexuality is the norm (as a form of population control) to a world where humanity has essentially merged into one asexual entity, with each generation cloned from the last. Elements of this remind me heavily of another book that I’ve been recently reading, Olaf Stapledon‘s The First and Last Men, published in the 1930s, and dealing with much the same thing: looking at how humanity as a species and culture will change in the future. Mandela’s vantage point in the military is an interesting story element that allows Haldeman to not only tell an interesting story, but present a compelling future for humanity. Another book that I read last year, George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, noted that society and cultural norms can change vastly over even the period of just one hundred years, and to an extent, that lends Haldeman’s and Stapleton’s ideas some reality: what will happen to humanity over the next thousand years, with technological and societal advances altering what is normal? It is here that The Forever War is especially interesting.

Another major element of The Forever War is Haldeman’s pointed look at the Vietnam War, no doubt inspired by his own experiences with the US Army. The book is considered a reaction to Starship Troopers, in that it takes a largely anti-military stance throughout most of the book. Mandella is a reluctant soldier, at best, often delegating his responsibilities away to subordinates and avoiding killing when he can help it. But throughout the book, there are examples of Vietnam, as humanity faces an enemy that is largely unknown, never knowing exactly what they are fighting for. More so, it is alluded to in the book that the war was fought simply because it was desired, something that was the main focus of a documentary, Why We Fight, that looked to that central theme in regards to American foreign policy. However, the core focus of this book isn’t the Vietnam War itself, but the soldiers who fight there. Soldiers returning from Vietnam found themselves back home in a strange place, not as heroes of the war, but as murderers and criminals, something horribly unjust, considering that many were conscripted. This is a prime example of how science fiction should function: acting as allegory for current events, pulled out of context. Mandella returns home after hundreds and hundreds of years away from Earth; vast changes occurred while he was away.

The Vietnam comparison, however, is something that bothers me, and helps to underscore a larger issue that I have with military science fiction as a whole, something that I brought up with my review for Old Man’s War: while there is a lot of discussion about the nature of war, there’s very little discussion towards the institution of warfare. Tactics are almost always something out of the Second World War, with plenty of hand to hand combat scenes and all that, but there is very little on the overall impact of warfare. Sometimes, it’s on the soldiers, other times, on society, but there’s very little to bridge the gap. The Forever War does this in part.

Part of my issue comes from my training as a historian, and particularly, in military history. Amongst all of the theorists out there, a number of historians have come up with a number of theories on how warfare works – Clausewitz, Jomini, among others, who have both conflicting and interesting views on the nature of war. I particularly like Clausewitz’s analogy that warfare is simply a duel on a larger scale, and that war is an extension of foreign policy. It makes little sense to me that humanity would simply go to war against an alien race, something fairly common in science fiction. Humanity seems to drop everything and take to the stars with lasers and rockets, but the goals of warfare are never clearly stated? Is it, as Clausewitz suggests, an effort to completely bend an enemy to one’s will, something incredibly difficult when attacking someone profoundly alien and unknown to humanity, or is it something deeper, such as perceived competition for living space, ensuring that humanity will have space to grow? To date, I’ve never found a good military science fiction book that’s really covered that territory, and at times, the genre makes me want to throw things, simply because warfare doesn’t work like that.

Similarly, while powered robotic suits are very cool, the other problem that I have is tactical. Robotic powered armor laden down with guns simply doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, especially when the authors talk much about dropping soldiers onto the planet from orbit in a glorified Omaha Beach scenario, where these soldiers are not only placed into hostile territory, but usually without support: it reminds me very much of airborne doctrine during the Second World War, where highly mobile forces were used to secure areas and wait for heavier things, such as artillery and armor to arrive. It’s a good concept, to be sure, but it’s deeply flawed in that these soldiers are usually out matched by the occupying force. Science Fiction takes many similar themes, but fails to follow up these sort of tactical options in any way that makes sense. Thus far, the best thing that I’ve seen was here, The Physics of Space Battles, which talks much about orbits and how that aspect would work, on a tactical level. Haldeman gets some points for interesting scenes and more science to the battles than most, but still misses part of the mark.

Part of that reason might be that The Forever War isn’t really a military science fiction book, despite some of the content. In that instance, the book works wonderfully, hitting all of the marks of a fantastic science fiction novel. Still, I enjoy a good romp with powered armor and shooting, so it works fairly well when it comes to that, but not as much as I’d like.


4 thoughts on “The Forever War and Military Science Fiction

  1. Andrew,

    Let me lend a bit of additional perspective to your review. A couple of quick points up front and then on to the meat.

    1) The tactical focus of military science fiction is largely a result of the market. People read science fiction for escapism (in addition to the other valid reasons you brought up.) So, taken in that light, tactical focus and the “airborne scenario” provides the greatest opportunity for individual feats of glory, both in the literary and literal world. As such, it’s fodder for the escapist market.

    2) “Power Armor” has a lot of practical potential in contemporary military thought. In fact, if you go back and revisit the initial chapters of Starship Troopers, I think that you’ll find that the equipment described almost 60 years ago is largely exactly what the modern American soldier is equipped with today.

    Now on to the meat.

    You noted Halderman’s Vietnam experience in his credentials, but I think you failed to consider it in your analysis.

    The Forever War is an allegory of the Vietnam War, but it’s not from a perspective of drums and bugles, it’s from a social perspective. In fact, Halderman does a remarkable job of representing the plight of the soldier and his social detachment from the society he serves. Think about it, he’s taken away to serve in a conflict with ambiguous goals, the execution of which is a very personal matter to him. However, given the lightspeed factor, each time he returns “home”, he finds that he has less and less in common with the civilian society he is serving. Pause for a moment and consider this in the frame of American domestic upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Eventually, he returns to the military community, the one in which he is most comfortable and surrounded by largely like minded individuals. It then evolves to the point where the war is barely regarded by the civilian populace and veterans are viewed as subjects in need of rehabilitation. (I’m making some analytical jumps here in terms of significant events in the book, but this is the main point)

    Now think about things like PTSD, the internal conflict of the soldier on a personal level, and “reintegration” into a society which has changed dramatically while he/she is away serving.

    If you read the follow up novel, Forever Peace, you’ll see a PTSD theme reoccur. The veteran attempts to isolate himself and live out his life. However, the characteristics that kept him alive and sane in combat have become so ingrained that he finds himself reluctantly continuing to lead and act on the behalf of others who lack either the ability or will to do so themselves. The perspective of civilians as sheep needing to be led is a common veteran experience.

    In summary, don’t view the action bits as the metaphors, they’re what sells the books. The message is in the non-action bits, which the juicy parts have lured you into reading.


    • Thanks Will. There’s a couple points to that that I just ignored, trying to take the book at a deeper level than ‘Just selling books’. That’s a big motivation on the part of any author, and I agree. The Forever War, Starship Troopers, Old Man’s War, all exciting reads, and I geek out about that and try and seek it out whenever. That also goes along with the airborne scenario nicely – why do you think Band of Brothers sold so well, in book and TV form? Because the individual stories were the most compelling arguments. Now, I’ve got nothing against that, but I think that a lot of the titling in these instances miss the point – they become something other than military science fiction all together. The military aspect is just part of the story.

      Part of the taking this literally was an opportunity to rant about this aspect of military science fiction, something I’d like to return to at some point in the near future – this book just happened to be convenient.
      Looking at The Forever War within this context, I’d agree with you – it’s largely a social book. This is why I bring up the book The Next 100 Years, because it does just that, look at what could happen in all of it’s weird forms. I agree with you a 100 % in all of that – and I read the book not as a straight up military SF novel, but as one that has a lot of social commentary. That’s where the book is the strongest.

      The PTSD thing is something that I didn’t consider, but didn’t really see it in the book, but I don’t have a whole lot of experience or knowledge with that.

      But yeah, the book is far more than military SF, it’s more social. That being said, at some point, I’d love to see a purely military SF book – one that really looks at the evolution of war.

  2. In terms of the evolution of war in a military scifi context, I’ve got a couple of suggestions.

    First would be Jack McDevitt’s “A Talent for War” (one of his Alex Benedict novels, which are all fairly good). The main theme is the deliberate suppression of technology at certain stages of a societies development in order to avoid self destruction. Similar to the rapid pace of military and military based technological development in the Second World War.

    Also, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze is always a good one for pondering the low tech/ high tech approach to warfare. Doesn’t get much better than Roman Legions laying siege to alien citadels.


    • I’ve heard many good things about Jack McDevitt’s works – I’ll add that to the ‘To Read’ list. I like that idea. I’ll look into the other one as well.

      I’ve read some good short stories that say a lot for military doctrine and space warfare – Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise are two very good examples, and one of the few books that I’ve read (Although I would include Forever War) that’s gotten space warfare dead on, at least to a physics level.

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