The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman
1974, St. Martin’s Press
As far as I know, The Forever War is basically the antiwar sci-fi novel. Between it and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, you’ve got the “why it sucks to go to war” pretty well covered.
Written in 1974 and based on Haldeman’s experience as a draftee in Vietnam, The Forever War uses science fiction’s potential to its artistic fullest—he takes an element of war he’d like to describe (the alienation of returning home) and exaggerates it for effect with science.
In the world of The Forever War, the battles are taking place lightyears away from each other and from Earth. And despite a series of wormholes scattered throughout the galaxy, ships are required to travel for months or years at a time through regular space at near the speed of light. Which, for those science fans following along, means time dilation. While only months go by for the people aboard the ships, years, decades, even centuries pass on earth. After every raid, soldiers return to a completely different world. The moral? You can never go home.
The horrors of the draft, of the individual’s loss of autonomy to the the state, are pretty well covered too. But despite its antiwar message, I’m actually pretty fascinated by what a good piece of military sci-fi this is—a large portion of the book is composed of battle scenes, geeking out about tactics and weapons and all of the kinds of things that pro-war military sci-fi might focus on as well. This makes the book’s themes all the more powerful and its message all the more successful.
So the book does the antiwar thing pretty damn well. But there’s a hell of a lot more going on with it than that. While I’m sticking to the unabashedly positive aspects of the book, the love story in it—while strangely just in the background for much of the novel—brought me to tears at the end. (This isn’t all that hard to do, to be fair.)
And then… then there’s the way book deals with sex and homosexuality. I think if I’d been alive in the 60s and 70s I might understand it better. Reading this book 40 years after it was written, it’s bizarre and not always so good.
The story attempts to study a thousand years of changing sexual relations in humanity. The drafted recruits in the beginning are half men and half women, and they practice what at first sounds like free love: they each bunk with a different partner each night. Then you learn that for rookies, the rotation of partners is assigned from above. This basically reads as an authoritarian perversion of a 60s free love ethic. (And while I’m nervous to say anything positive about Andrea Dworkin, her writings critiquing the misogyny of the free love movement have never sounded so germane.) But somehow, it gets worse: they go to a remote space station where the women are vastly outnumbered by men, and we learn that in the military, women are required to fulfill the men’s sexual needs. The women there are quite excited for more women to show up because they’re… tired.
That is to say, the military culture is entirely built upon the routine rape of every single woman within it. This could be a powerful point about military culture, and maybe it was intended as such, but it’s entirely glossed over.
There’s something fascinating (and, obviously, disgusting) about this though—taking a subcultural, ostensibly voluntary lifestyle like free love and putting it into an authoritarian context. It gets at how dangerous the co-option of subculture really is. And I’m fascinated by how some of the things that can be so liberating and beautiful when voluntary become the worst things in the world when forced on someone.
Some time goes by in the book, and suddenly everyone is gay. The protagonist tries his hardest not to freak out the first time he goes home and his mom—still alive, but greatly-aged—is in a lesbian relationship. Later, on his psych analysis, it’s revealed that yes, he thinks he’s open-minded about homosexuality, but it’s clear that he’s not. This, actually, is a pretty well-written section of the book and a realistic portrayal of an everyman who wants to be open-minded trying to deal with change. The protagonist reminds me a lot of some of my relatives. But just like my relatives sometimes do, this aspect of the book leaves me uncomfortable. And then it gets stranger.
At first, homosexuality is just “encouraged” by the governments of the world in response to overpopulation. As time goes on, heterosexuality is criminalized. Then it’s pathologized—straight people are locked up in mental institutions and “corrected.” All babies are test tube babies and eugenics policies are universally instituted. Finally, at the end (yes, this is a spoiler) the Earth is populated only by perfect clones. Fortunately, there are colonies of straight people living on distant planets.
As our protagonist moves up through the ranks, he’s more and more distant from the new recruits. He’s the strange, five-hundred-year-old dinosaur who doesn’t really even speak the same language as they do. Worse, he’s straight. It’s hard being the only straight guy around!
I can’t decide what the author is doing here. I go back and forth almost every time I think about it. He might be trying to do a role reversal, to show the (presumably straight) audience what it might be like to be the only gay person around in a straight society. Or, well, he might just be expressing his own fear of suddenly becoming the minority as homosexuality becomes visible in the real world. I have a feeling that in 1974 these themes came across entirely differently than they do now—or maybe I’m just offering the author the benefit of the doubt.
The eugenics and enforced homosexuality are definitely portrayed in a negative light, of course. But for an antiwar book that is condemning the draft, war, eugenics, indoctrination, and all of that, it doesn’t make the jump to anti-authoritarianism. The military hierarchy goes uncriticized. At the beginning, some officers are painted negatively. But by the time our hero is an officer, he comes to understand why his superiors had acted as they had. He considers instituting a more democratic command structure, potentially modeled on the POUM (a marxist and not-very-authoritarian militia active during the Spanish Civil War). But he goes on to imply that it was this democratic structure that was their undoing and why they lost to the fascists. I believe the quote about the POUM was along the lines of “not very effective but probably a more enjoyable way to live” or something, mirroring a lot of almost-sympathetic-to-anti-authoritarianism rhetoric. Of course, it was the Stalinist betrayal of the Spanish revolution and their choice to shoot at the POUM and the anarchists in the streets of Barcelona that allowed the country to fall to fascism—not that the militias were organized along egalitarian lines.
There’s also a passing reference in The Forever War to the moon in the 21st century as an anarchist colony. This statement goes entirely unexplored, leaving me with the impression that it’s a nod to Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress in which individualist/libertarian anarchists on the moon declare their independence from the Earth.
If the book is a metaphor for the Vietnam War, then it falls into the cliche of “represent the communists as a hive mind without individuality.” But to the book’s credit, it doesn’t actually demonize this way of being, just demonstrate it. Also, for all I know, this wasn’t cliche back in 1974. Maybe my judgement of it would be like reading The Lord of the Rings and thinking “geez, elves and dwarves again?”
There’s a lot going on in The Forever War. If you’re willing to wade through the worst of it, there’s plenty in here worth reading.