‘The Forever War’ Is Forever Relevant
An interview with Joe Haldeman
One day in 1973, Vietnam veteran and science fiction fan Joe Haldeman sat down at a dining room table and typed out, “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”
“Then I kept typing, not knowing at first whether it was going to be a story or a novel,” Haldeman explains in a biography on his Website. “After a week, I knew it was the novel I’d been waiting to write, an S.F. [science fiction] treatment of what I’d seen and learned in Vietnam.”
The result was The Forever War, a Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel — and one of the most unique, and enduring, works of military science fiction ever penned.
In the novel, Pvt. William Mandella travels through space and time to fight in a distant thousand-year war with the Taurans. But thanks to Einsteinian time dilation caused by near-light speed space travel, Mandella ages months while Earth and those he left behind age by decades and centuries.
Society changes drastically — and Mandella becomes an alien among his own kind.
Drafted immediately after he graduated in 1967 from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, Haldeman turned to writing after his one-year tour of duty.
While in Vietnam, he was wounded in action and earned the Purple Heart. In 1972, after attending a writing workshop stateside, he wrote his first novel War Year about his wartime experiences.
But Haldeman is best known for The Forever War as well as many other science fiction novels. Currently, his projects include a new novel he is penning called Phobos Means Fear. His latest novel on the shelves is Work Done for Hire.
Haldeman discussed The Forever War with War Is Boring, as well as his thoughts about the military-civilian divide in contemporary society and his recent trip to Poland.
War Is Boring: Why did you choose Poland for your vacation?
Joe Haldeman: I didn’t. Poland chose me. A national Polish science fiction convention asked me and my wife Gay to be guests of honor. So we used the opportunity to travel around Poland for a couple of weeks.
We’ve wanted to travel there for many years, not least because of my interest in the history of astronomy. Poland was also (largely because of Stanislaw Lem) the main point of contact between East and West s.f. when I was starting out as a writer.
WIB: Did Poland’s proximity to Ukraine and the ongoing conflict there with Russia influence your choice of vacation spot?
JH: No. If the hosts thought it was dangerous they probably wouldn’t have invited us. If I thought it was dangerous I probably wouldn’t go. Cracow and Warsaw are pretty far from the fighting.
Of course things might become interesting. Traveling anywhere in the world involves some risk. You could always opt to spend your life cowering under your bed.
WIB: Why has The Forever War withstood the test of time so well?
JH: It’s about war and it’s a good book. Both categories have staying power.
WIB: What are you trying to explain in The Forever War about the divide between the soldier and civilian society?
JH: In some ways the novel is about the gap between a soldier and the culture he is obliged to defend with his life. The actual answer is book-length.
WIB: I understand why you say you need a book-length response to answer my question about how the book explains the divide between a soldier and society. However, can we compromise? Is there an explanation that you can offer that is bigger than a bread box but less than a novel?
JH: 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. No person can escape Einsteinian relativity, and no soldier or veteran can escape the trauma of war’s dislocation.
There’s an emotional connection, of course, in the direction of helplessness and inevitability. To paraphrase [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, we are all borne helplessly down the river of time; nobody can get off and swim away.
WIB: What is the difference between the military/civilian divide during your time in the Vietnam War and the way the divide is today? Are there any similarities between the Vietnam era and today when it comes to that divide?
JH: Not so much. Americans appreciate their armed forces a lot more than they did in the ’60s and ’70s. The Vietnam War also intruded on civilian life more than the current one — people nowadays don’t have to deal with it all the time. Unless you have friends or relatives over there. It hardly touches everyday life.
WIB: What did your experience as a combat engineer teach you about the nature of war?
JH: In a curious way, the hardware and minutia of combat-engineer work took me out of the war and into the relatively benign business of curiosity about the physical universe. Building simple structures and wiring up circuits — even though the ultimate aim was to maim or kill people wearing a different uniform, the mundane daily business was not particularly belligerent.
I hadn’t studied engineering in college, so I learned a lot of useful and interesting stuff, especially the simple business of nuts and bolts and hammers and nails. Of course, I also learned how to blow up bridges and booby-trap land mines — knowledge rarely useful in civilian life.
Combat engineers wryly claim that they give us shovels because we’re not smart enough to carry rifles.
WIB: I encounter readers of The Forever War who insist your novel is a response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Is it a response to the Heinlein novel?
JH: Not deliberately. 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.
WIB: Did you ever meet Heinlein? If so, did he make any comment about The Forever War?
JH: I met Heinlein after The Forever War had won the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He shook my hand and said he loved the book so much he’d read it three times.
WIB: Considering the contemporary changes in attitudes toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage, do readers today understand the point you make in The Forever War about why society in your novel embraces homosexuality?
JH: Not entirely. The attitudes I was writing about have changed a lot in 40 years.
Also, some readers today seem to miss the point that the book is satire. The basic situation — encouraging homosexuality for birth control — seems pretty far out to me. People who take it as propaganda — and there are evidently quite a few of them — have odd protocols for reading fiction.
It didn’t happen, guys. It’s not real!
WIB: What do active-duty military and veterans today say to you about The Forever War?
JH: They all seem to like it, though of course part of that is just military people being polite to an old vet.
I think part of it is that the book is sympathetic to military people without being militaristic. Soldiers don’t cause wars, as most people know, though some kinds of war wouldn’t be possible without their cooperation. Yes, I’m running for Mr. Obvious of 2015.
Most soldiers have more reason to hate war than most civilians. That’s literally true, even if they do like aspects of soldiering, like the camaraderie and truly neat machines that do awesome things.
Some of them love their countries and are willing to put their lives between their loved ones and war’s desolation. But I think most soldiers would agree that it’s naïve to assume that’s always, or even usually, the case. Some of them just love to kick ass and take names. Anyone who denies this probably hasn’t met many actual soldiers.