The Forever War
By Joe Haldeman
Ballantine Books 1974/1976
I hadn’t reread this book in years.
Haldeman tells the story of William Mandella, one of Earth’s best and brightest, drafted into an unfeeling military bureaucracy that perceives anything it doesn’t understand as a threat.
Through a series of campaigns, spanning light years of space and centuries of relativistic time, Mandella survives and is promoted, in spite of his indifference to the military and his reluctance as a warrior. Mandella becomes increasingly isolated as the war continues – relativity has swept away his family and the society that he grew up in, while war has killed off most of those who still remembered the Earth he had known.
Eventually, Mandella returns from a distant mission to discover that the war has been over for centuries and he is now considered an anachronistic deviant, though still humoured by the culture humanity has evolved into.
Real Life has been slowly overtaking ‘The Forever War’ – the opening chapters of the novel are set in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s – but it is still a great read. It has been said that Haldeman used his experiences in the Vietnam War to flesh out Mandella’s experiences – the callous indifference of the military bureaucracy; the shear boredom, spiced with moments of abject terror, of army life; the poor infantry, carted around like luggage, yet liable to killed in an instance in situations where they not only can’t fight back, they can’t even see where the threat is coming from – and, if true, explains the feeling of authenticity that permeates the story. Mandella is not a hero in the heroic sense – he is just an everyman, trying to do a nasty job so he can go home. The irony of the situation is that with every mission, ‘home’ is receding at a relativistic rate that he will never beat.
Some of the problems of fighting a war over interstellar distances at relativistic speeds pose interesting conundrums for the Science Fiction wargamer or roleplayer. And as an example of what the members of a small unit would know about their mission and the grand view of the strategy of a war, it is a healthy reminder of the view from the bottom.
Apparently, my copy of the novel is the abridged version. The full version of 'The Forever War' was published as volume 1 of the SF Masterworks series by Orion Books.