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The Forever War

Joe Haldeman

New York: Avon Books; ISBN: 0-380-70821-3; Pages: 254

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

This book has often been compared, contrasted, or put as a better/worse alternative to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Superficially, the deal with the same subject matter, but in reality the impetus behind Haldeman's novel is a simple anti-war message, while Heinlein posits a far more complicated idea about the meaning of warfare for humanity. Without saying which novel is "better" (such a thing is a matter of personal tastes and mine run decidedly with Heinlein), I still find Haldeman's book deeply flawed, both as literature and social critique.

The story is simple enough. William Mandella is drafted into the army to fight an unknown, rarely seen, and very distant alien enemy. He undergoes murderous training on Charon, and is then sent into combat in space ships that jump through Stargates. Although for him (and his fellow soldiers) these trips take only months, relativity theory ensures that on Earth decades go by. Haldeman indulges in many grim depictions of combat which are surely inspired by his own experiences in the Vietnam War. Despite the regrettable lack of tactical matters that may make these more exciting, these scenes are usually well done, with death being accepted quite as matter of fact, much like one would expect it to be on the front lines.

When Mandella returns to Earth the first time, he finds a crime-ridden society, with the entire world in the danger of starvation, with the United Nations running it, and with morality befitting a crazy hippie bazaar. Disgusted, he returns to active duty, and upon his next return, he ends up at another planet where advanced technology restores the limb he's lost. Next time, he finds that everyone is homosexual and heterosexuality is a social deviation. He leaves again, and the last time he returns (after nearly a thousand years by Earth time), he discovers that the entire population consists of clones of one individual. The war is over (the clones having successfully communicated with the aliens to find out that nobody had any idea about the war's purpose), and Mandella retires to a handy planet where his old lover is waiting for him in a time machine. They live happily ever after together with a gay and a lesbian who apparently "see the light," turn hetero, and marry.

Okay, war is hell. So what? This was not new even back when Haldeman was writing. His view that wars result when someone's economy desperately needs them is cynical but also naive. The implication from the ending of the war is that lack of communication was responsible for its long duration. If only that were true, we could just sit down as soon as war is declared and work it out. But communication did not help end the Korean War where more Americans died during the armistice talks than the "no-talks" war prior to them. It is also curious that he would blame the "generals" for a war in a society where the military is so much under civilian control it is hardly believable. And if the "economy needed a war" then the results were pretty bad. After all, and despite the nearly full employment, the entire Earth is turned into a badly run world bureaucracy.

Haldeman's ideas about social critique are also shallow. Why is it that almost all sci-fi writers turn planets into equivalents of countries? For some miraculous reason, states disappear in favor of planet-wide governments. In this case, the world government is... the U.N. Never mind that this organization could not put together a tree house even if it came pre-assembled and with full instructions. But that's not all, the U.N. also runs the world's military. It is never specified how exactly it came to be that the United States allowed itself to be absorbed by this organization. I would have found an American world empire more believable actually.

The next ludicrous fantasy involves the army itself. The Elite Conscription Act? That the Army would conscript the best minds (IQ of 150+, we are told) seems reasonable. After all, these are the people that you want running your military machine, either as technicians, scientists, innovators, or even bureaucrats. But is this what these guys do? Nope. They are all grunts in the infantry, trained in ridiculous conditions with a 30% attrition rate (death), then sent on cretinous missions with 77% attrition rates, mostly as cannon fodder. What? There is no freaking way any government that wishes to last more than a year would ever do this to itself... unless it wants to lose the war. Oh well, maybe the U.N. would do it.

While I am at it, why does the Army kill so many people in training? That's just plain dumb. You'd think that they would invent ways of reducing the casualties there in favor of having a larger army. But then when your elite is getting chopped into mincemeat, maybe there's no one left to think about it.

While we're discussing the army, a mention of the position of women in it is in order. Or maybe out of order. Much like in Heinlein's world, both sexes serve in the army. There's sex everywhere, even after exhausting 16-hour work shift (I do envy these guys). But unlike Heinlein, it more than a matter of personal promiscuity here. The women are required to submit to being fucked by any soldier who so desires. By army regulations and law. That is, to being raped. Now, I don't know how women with IQ of 150+ would react to being raped even when the practice is institutionalized, but I suspect that women in general would not care much about serving in such an army. Haldeman's fantasy is for 14-year old wankers who don't know a first thing about women. He is careful to show that women really don't have a say in their choice of partners unless said partners ask them first. In fact, the Mandella-Marygay "love" story is such a torpid affair that when the ending comes, it seems surprising and utterly gratuitous. When did they develop these feelings?

Haldeman is in the wilderness when it comes to sex. Period. That he could believe that human beings would lose their dignity by fiat is preposterous. Some may, but many would kill themselves if there was no way out of it rather than suffer such humiliation. Further, that he can believe the little things called "jealousy" and "love" would simply vanish or be subdued by regulation, is stupid. So William and Marygay fall in love... fine. And then they discuss each other's continued love lives with others as if this were the most natural thing in the world. I know that Heinlein is guilty of that particular idiocy as well, but Haldeman takes it to new heights. At least in Heinlein's world it was all consensual.

The future worlds that Mandella returns to are just as unbelievable. First we have the jungle of his first time back. It's bad, really bad, coupons and everything. We are never told how the new "money" of calories works. If I am a 6 ft. 6 in., 250 lbs guy, do I get the same allowance as a 100 lbs girl? Are we all slimming down? When we are not dying that is, if you happen to have a really bad health plan. Now, from an American perspective it is possible that one's health plan would allow no treatment whatsoever (which is how Mandella's mom --- who has turned lesbian, by the way --- dies). But if there's anything the U.N. is known for, it is for trying to care about people. So, the strict "you're useless, therefore you won't be treated" attitude does not sit well with that organization. With a world American empire it might though.

The next fantasy is the world of homosexuals. The U.N. has apparently taken eugenics to new heights (lows?) by requiring everyone to be homosexual. That's done for the purposes of birth control! Within several generations, heterosexuality has become a crime, then a form of insanity, and is all but gone. Haldeman implies that sexual preference is a matter of choice, not biology. So much is also implied by the ending, where the lesbian (and latent hetero) doctor Diana marries the gay Charlie, who then apparently live happily ever after. It seems all these homos are actually latent heteros after all. So which is it?

Okay, so he was writing back in the Dark Ages, so maybe we should forgive him that particular foolishness. But that he can honestly believe that the heterosexuals would succumb to a world government is unbelievable. There's one thing that people won't suffer to be denied, and this is sex. I don't care if you're the U.N. or the Shah of Baghdad, you proscribe sex only at your own peril. And while we're at it, Haldeman suffers under the misapprehension that orders can change biology. Millions of years of procreative instinct all wiped out at the signature of a U.N. official.

By the way, the idea of the Army consisting entire of homosexuals is not that far-fetched. Plato advocated it in The Republic, reasoning that a soldier would fight better if he fought next to his lover. Maybe, but then maybe they'd be thinking of ways to protect each other, preferably by hiding and not fighting?

Let's not even talk about the clones. Eugenics taken to its "logical" conclusion: everyone is a copy of the perfect individual, the Übermensch. And what do we get from this benevolent demigod? Communication! That's right, they first thing she/he/it did, was to talk to the aliens and discover that they also had been fighting with no purpose at all. In fact, they could not conceive of proper communication before because they were also clones, and clones can only talk to like minds, i.e. other clones. Why? Because Haldeman says so and then tell us that it's impossible for our stupid non-cloned brains to understand it all. Cheap way out of a logical cul-de-sac.

It's not just the logic that is annoying about the book. The style is dry and, frankly, boring. There are several exciting episodes (like the establishment of the outpost in another galaxy and the alien attack on the base), but the jargon and the "scientific" mumbo-jumbo become quickly tedious. Yeah, we get it, "tachyon bombs," yeah, sure, we know, "fighting suits" and those "tanks" for defying the effects of acceleration. But Haldeman's most irritating tendency is to explain everything to the reader. The narrative sounds like it was written for contemporary Earthlings to read, and so stuff that would appear natural because of its pedestrian qualities in a good novel, is amplified, explained, and discussed. Worst of all, it's often done in a dialogue, where characters explain to each other things that they should be taking for granted.

There are also inconsistencies (e.g. when Mandella was being pulled out by dozen people on Charon (p.36) when we have just been told that on Charon people could "muster up a grip of well over a hundred pounds (p.17)); and errors: Chuck von Clausewitz? Oh my.

I cannot understand why this book is so acclaimed. It won a bunch of awards, and people consistently rate it highly. Yet, it such a nonsensical fantasy that it is hard to believe anyone would take it seriously as social critique or a thought-provoking piece on war. It is neither.

If you are going to read it anyway, make sure you get the post-1991 edition, which restores the clunky middle part to all its dubious glory, along with all expletives that you would have otherwise badly missed.

August 10, 2003