Review: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

When I decided to read The Forever War it was for three primary reasons –

A) The praise it got from people I respect,
B) I’ve read my share of Military SF and often enjoy it, and
C) It was a group read at the Shejidan site.

The last happened this past fall and for different reasons I didn’t make it, even as I acquired the book well in advance. Now was the time, though, and I took it off the shelf with great anticipation.

The Forever War has apparently been published in several various editions. The one I read is the SF Masterworks 2010 edition.

As the lead character returns from what ends up to be his last campaign, a campaign that lasted a handful of years in his time-frame but 700 years on Earth, he is informed the war is long since over. Furthermore he gets to understand that the war was due to a misunderstanding. Humanity has spent over 1000 years fighting against an opponent that didn’t ever want a fight, and that only because neither party could understand or even communicate with the other. Not until humanity had changed enough – some would say “beyond recognition” – for communication to be possible.

At the time of its original publishing in 1974 the Vietnam war was yet to end. The story has generally been interpreted as a Vietnam war story, even while it is set in the future, but Haldeman himself states his intention was to write about war in general. Either way I think the story displays naivete.

Not in how people die or in the way military leaders have to distance themselves from the humanness of the people they send to certain death. Not in what it does to the ex-military who are trying to find a place in a civil society. But in the final chapters he displays his lack of understanding in what properly leads to war. Either that or he chose to evade that issue as too hot, back in the days.

If the book is about the Vietnam war anybody thinking that war being based on miss-communication should go home and read up on the history of the region.

If the book is about war in general anybody thinking war generally being based on a lack in communicative skills should go home and read some history, too. Especially with focus on political and economic history. Because every known war has, at the core, been about power – either as in independence wars (of which Vietnam was one of the last in the row of wars that ended Western sovereignty over former colonial holdings) or for control over natural resources or economically or militarily strategical sites (in modern times the Gulf wars comes to mind, even if the ‘Nam war also qualifies) or over territory in general (many local conflicts) or for ideological hegemony. Whatever the cover story is. War entirely based on a misconception regarding the intentions of the opponent is, while not totally improbable, highly uncommon.

Because he manages to totally evade this fact – the political side of war – I cannot take either him or his book, however acclaimed, seriously.

Apart from this Haldeman knows what he want to tell the reader and he keep close tabs on that line, not for once deviating from the track. He seems to know military mentality, how a military organisation works, and what it feels coming “back” to civilian life. (I say “seems to” because I myself is clueless and thus can’t judge him.) Also, he can write.

However, I would not recommend The Forever War other than as historically interesting to those trying to understand the 1970’s.

Onwards, to my next read :)

2 thoughts on “Review: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

  1. “the political side of war”? Why is this important? He’s much more interested in the personal side of war — in a movie on WWII it’s hardly like a small group of soldiers narrative would be belabored endlessly with political questions…. There’s different types of military sci-fi — and the this clearly falls on the social end. I loved it as a satire — not convinced that it’s a masterpiece…

  2. I don’t think the politics must be overtly discussed; that is not what I am saying. For example many of Cherryh’s science ficion works manages to be very political, even if they seemingly explores the social and personal side of war and conflict.
    What I think is that The Forever War manages to have any driving idea or message at all, except on the effects of an extended lifespan and perhaps on what violence do to the people who are forced to deal it. The latter could had been interesting but I don’t think he manages to do anything with it.

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