The Sublime Satire That Is ‘The Forever War’ in Comics
Military sci-fi's best illustrated adaptation is worth revisiting
I first read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War as a teenager. It was one of my father’s favorite novels and a salient work of military science fiction for the Vietnam generation. He was glad the U.S. government never called up his draft number and sent him into that nightmare. My uncle volunteered, served in the U.S. Army infantry and lived a troubled life. I don’t know the war had anything to do with that last fact.
It’s too neat and tidy to say combat causes post-traumatic stress. There is something to be said for the alienation which ex-soldiers experience in an atomized, individualistic society after leaving a tightly-knit group of warriors — who share deep bonds and loyalties between them borne from shared experiences. Civilian life is decidedly lacking in this area. This, more than far-flung technology, is what The Forever War is about.
I recently re-read the book, published in 1974, in the graphic novel form first published in 1988 and adapted by Haldeman and illustrated by Belgian artist Marvano. Titan Comics republished it in a series in 2017 and has the full-length collection arriving in December.
Haldeman, a combat engineer in Vietnam, tells the story of William Mandella, a young recruit to an elite corps of soldiers with the United Nations Exploratory Force.
“Emphasis on force,” Mandella says.
Their mission is to seek out and destroy the Taurans, a bipedal alien race from the Taurus constellation at war with humanity after a hazy incident — remember this is a Vietnam War allegory — that led to the deaths of colonists on the other side of a “collapsar,” or black hole, used as an interstellar gateway.
That is just background for a hard sci-fi military space opera exploring war with horrifying futuristic weapons, dehumanizing training, militarized hypnosis that turn soldiers into mass murderers and — centrally — the emotional and social disconnection from civilian society of which a soldier is subjected to after returning from combat. Marvano’s illustrations are fantastic in the surreal, Belgian and French clear-line style.
Haldeman illustrates this theme via the extreme distances the UNEF soldiers must travel at relativistic speeds. As Mandella travels to a war-torn moon close to the speed of light, decades pass on Earth during a campaign that, for him, lasts for only a few years. By the time he returns from a campaign, human society has changed into forms unrecognizable to Mandella.
Imagine a combat veteran returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968 to arrive at home in 2017, going back and returning to 2030, and doing it again and coming back to 2160. Thinking about this scenario further, to create some serious dislocation, when he gets back in 2017, introduce him to modern music by dumping him into the middle of Eurovision.
Then explain that the Soviet Union broke up and that U.S. warships now dock in friendly ports controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam.
“What I was driving at was that The Forever War uses a science-fictional construct — time dilation in everyday life — as a ‘global’ or all-encompassing metaphor for the emotional center of the book,” Haldeman told us in 2015. “No person can escape Einsteinian relativity, and no soldier or veteran can escape the trauma of war’s dislocation.”
In The Forever War, Mandella returns to an world is overpopulated and half the population is gay — which the government encourages. Haldeman intended this as satire, and didn’t treat changes in sexuality critically but with tact and as a matter of fact. The same society seems to run on a kind of quasi-Soviet form of central planning in which most of the population is unemployed and lives on an allowance from the state.
Mandella, who is straight, feels alienated and is the subject of discrimination because of his sexual orientation — an echo of Charles Beaumont’s 1955 short story The Crooked Man published in Playboy. While this setup feels dated now, at the time the flipping of sexual orientations — and even acknowledging the existence of homosexuality as a distinct orientation — was subversive.
Time dilation extends to military training. Soldiers learn how to fight with the help of an Accelerated Life Situation Computer or ALSC, allowing the soldier to act out historic battles. Mandella references Clausewitz, and when trying to command soldiers who resent the time-traveler, proposes structuring the unit along the highly-democratic lines of the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist militia that fought during the Spanish Civil War.
“They lost the war!” one officer replies. “True,” Mandella says. “But the other side didn’t have any fun.”
Critics have often referred to The Forever War as an attack on Robert A. Heinlein’s militarist Starship Troopers. It’s not.
“Not deliberately,” Haldeman said. “I read Heinlein’s book and enjoyed it. That I disagreed with it was no surprise — most of the people in my generation did. But if it’s a response to any book, that book is my own War Year, which was about Vietnam. And The Red Badge of Courage was a more direct influence.”
“My disagreement with Heinlein himself was not personal or passionate. He was in a different war. If I’d been in his generation I’m pretty sure I would have agreed with him.”