The canon of military science fiction has three ‘must reads’. One is “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein; another is John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”. The third is “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman.
“The Forever War” follows the story of William Mandella as he is drafted and advances from Private to Major, fights the alien Taurans and suffers the effects of time dilation as he travels from star to star at near light speed. While the novel wears a hard science fiction overcoat with wormhole traveling starships, fighting suits with lasers and alien life forms, it is actually and thematically, a novel of the Vietnam War.
The book was published in 1974 just as America was extracting itself from Southeast Asia. Haldeman is a Vietnam veteran, who was clearly writing about his war and projecting it forward in time and space while exploring universal theme of combat and the fighting soldiers.
In the first section: Private Mandella, William Mandella, college physics students, is conscripted into the United Nations Exploratory Force. His cohort of 100 draftees, all have I.Q.s over 150 and bodies of above average strength. The training is both harsh and foolish. Training in Missouri for fighting on planet were the temperature approaches Absolute Zero. During this section we learn that the army is coed and very sexual, in fact men and women bunk together as a matter of regulation. But the sex is never explicit and doesn’t derail the story.
The training progresses to outer space and casualties begin to mount as several of the trainees are killed or severely injured and the survivors are dispatched on their first combat mission. However, before leaving for the battle the soldiers are “conditioned”, read “brainwashed”, into remorseless killing machines. The conditioning is unnecessary; the first ground battle with the enemy Taurans is a cakewalk as the Taurans seem to have no concept of infantry fighting.
The second section; Sergeant Mandella details another campaign, in which the human starship is on the wrong end of time dilation when the Tauran ship has much more advanced weapons then the humans.
After that, William and his lover Marygay Potter, are discharged and return to Earth. While they have only aged months, Earth has aged years and it is now barely recognizable to the returning vets. Crime is epidemic; everyone goes armed or requires bodyguards to simply leave home. A one-world-government controls the economy and even food rations. The most jarring change to Mandella is the vast numbers of homosexuals. The UN encourages homolife as a mean of population control. When Marygay parents are killed in a criminal attack and William’s mother dies because she is not due any health care under the Universal Medical Security System. They both re-up to the army and are immediately sent back into combat.
In the third part: Lieutenant Mandella, William and Marygay are assigned to the same company and are both badly wounded in battle, William loses a leg and Marygay an arm. They are shipped to Heaven, the UNEFs hospital planet, where they grow new limbs to replace ones lost in the war. When they are reassigned, Marygay goes to a special company forming on Heaven and William is shipped off planet to Stargate, the UNEF command center and main base, to join another.
In the last part: Major Mandella, William takes command of a company and is sent to the farthest wormhole ever detected, in Magellanic Clouds. Reduced to fighting in a ‘stasis’ field with swords, he manages to win the last battle, but loses most of his company. When William returns to Stargate, he and his surviving soldiers find themselves as the last people to have fought the war. Human clones with a collective mind, called Man, have replaced individuals on Earth. The Man clones also have established communications with the Taurans which are also clones. Once the two clone groups started to talk they discover that humans started the war and it had all been for nothing.
William also discovers that Marygay is still alive and is using a surplus starship as a time machine to stay young until William can return. William and Marygay settle on a planet called Middle Finger, maintained by Man as a genetic pool in case the cloning has some hidden defect. In the epilog Marygay and William’s first son is born.
Thematically, the novel is about soldiers who suffer the violence and hardship of war and then return home only to find themselves alienated from the society that they have fought to protect.
As to it being ‘about’ Vietnam, hints abound leaving no doubt as to which war Haldeman is really writing about. For example, the soldiers are drafted, the cadre and leaders of the first campaign are ‘old vets’ like the veterans of World War 2 and Korea that lead the younger generation in Vietnam. William hates and disdains these older soldiers. The first campaign takes place on a jungle planet. There are many more hints if you look closely.
In The Forever War soldiers are not superhuman or even heroic, they are merely trying to survive and get home. The writing is simple, clean and uncluttered. Haldeman sketches rather than details, but leave the reader with a clear and concise idea of characters, settings and technology.
The Forever War is simultaneously one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time and a classic antiwar novel.
Haldeman wrote a direct sequel, Forever Free and a novella of Marygay’s time away from William in A Separate War.