Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a worthy counterpoint to the military Science Fiction of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. But while both deal with the logistical challenges and emotional effects of fighting a war in outer space against an alien species, the underlying themes and sentiments of the novels couldn’t be further apart.
Where Heinlein’s future soldiers are all volunteers who see the value in self-sacrifice and service in the name of protecting humanity, Haldeman’s hero is a reluctant conscript who muses on the absurdity and inhumanity of fighting an interstellar war over the course of a thousand years, and who only rises in rank as a result of being the oldest serving soldier.
For me, The Forever War paints a more moving portrait of war and its effects on the individuals involved in fighting it. Maybe it’s just my lefty politics or my own personal beliefs regarding the absurdity of war in general, but I think there’s more to it than that. Besides its commentary on the nature of war, the book also poses a very interesting practical question about the nature of a war fought across light-years: Because of the time-dilation involved in faster than light travel, how do you coordinate your strategy when years pass between each battle (and how do soldiers readjust to a world that has changed immeasurably since they first left)?
The Forever War Summary
The protagonist is William Mandella, a student who is drafted into an elite military task force without his consent and shipped off to war against the Taurans. After a grueling training period, Mandella is involved in a resounding victory against an enemy base. However, due to time dilation, decades have passed when they finally return home to Earth (even though they’ve only been out less than a year in their time).
Besides the culture shock of returning to a completely different world, the Military is also dealing with the fact that the Taurans have had that much more time to develop more sophisticated weaponry and technology, leaving them at a distinct advantage. After surviving four more years of battle, Mandella officially becomes the oldest soldier in the war (with hundreds of years of objective service). By the time he and his companion Marygay return to Earth a final time, society has become nearly unrecognizable. With nothing left to tie him to Earth, he and Marygay decide instead to re-enlist.
The Forever War Review
Besides the realistic depictions of combat on other planets and the mind-bending questions that are posed about relativity and assimilation, the overarching theme of the novel, in my opinion, is the absurdity of war. From the futile nature of military strategy in a war in which lifetimes pass between each battle and the notion of soldiers fighting for the safety of a world that they don’t even recognize anymore to the final devastating revelation about the reason for war in the first place, Haldeman seems to be making a profound point about the ultimate futility of war and the ways in which war is perpetuated long after the reasons for fighting have been eliminated.
While it could be considered by some to be an Anti-War novel, it is certainly not blatant or preachy in its method or message. Haldeman was influenced by his own experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the parallels between that conflict and the one depicted in The Forever War. Just as soldiers returning from Vietnam experienced profound alienation after returning home from war, the soldiers of The Forever War return to an Earth in which they literally don’t even speak the language.
While some have tried to portray the book as a direct response to Starship Troopers, Haldeman has denied it profusely and said that Heinlein’s work helped inform his own. Regardless of its overt intentions, I did feel that it provided a more soulful, personal and moving picture of the nature of war that is universal, regardless of whether the war is being fought with tanks and machine guns or spaceships and lasers. Highly recommended.