The Forever War

Joe Haldeman
The Forever War Cover

The Forever War


Joe Haldeman had trouble finding any takers for the hardback publication of The Forever War. This was in 1974, and publishers doubted the market for a science fiction novel by a Viet Nam vet that clearly used that war as a background. Analog Magazine serialized the work, but even it balked at a sectioned originally titled "You Can Never Go Back." This part of the story tells of a trip home by the central character, then Private William Mandella, and the rest of his surviving troops after their first and what they all assume will be their only tour of duty. But because this war is being fought on planets reached only by FTL travel, the veterans return to an earth that has aged twenty some years compared to the two years of subjective time they have experienced. Earth is a crime-ridden, over-populated and polluted mess. Although they could conceivably find work as personal bodyguards, one of the only growth industries around, Mandella and his friends choose to re-enlist. Analog thought this section would be too depressing for their readership.

The Forever War is still discussed as one of the great novels of the Viet Nam war, but may of its readers today were not born when that war was fought. It's continued relevance has to do with its ability to speak to the ways in which war shapes human experience. Mandella, despite his many promotions in rank, remains on some level a grunt from the late 20th century. He ages perhaps a decade fighting a war that lasts 1100 years. Technology changes radically, and triage improves so soldiers missing limbs from combat can grow new ones and return to a new front line light years away. Major Mandella comes to lead troops whose English has so altered he has trouble understanding them. Their sexual arrangements are even more baffling to the old soldier still only a decade or so their senior.

Haldeman's flawless storytelling places all these changes in the context of a series of military engagements that are detailed and exciting. But the story is one of exhaustion and disillusion. Mandella survives a millennium of war. The human race has been at war since one tribe of prehistoric man attacked another. Continued calls to arms ring hollow, as obscene as they are inevitable.