The Author of Our Best SF Military Novel Explains the Future of War
Sci-fi's reigning king of war fiction on 3D-printed weapons, why interstellar war is impossible, and how, one day, we might actually see the end of war.
Forever War cover. Image: Screengrab.
For my money, the best novel to read about the future of war today, in 2015, was published in 1974. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War is an all-time science fiction classic, but it hasn't quite enjoyed the same degree of mass cultural saturation as other war-themed SF staples like Ender's Game or Starship Troopers—maybe because it hasn't been made into a film or TV show, maybe because its politics are too thorny and complex.
Either way, it's too bad. As William Gibson notes in the blurb on the front of my paperback copy, "To say that The Forever War is the best science fiction war novel ever written is to damn it with faint praise." It's one of the best books about war, period, and it's telling that the other accolades listed come from literary lights like Jonathan Lethem and Junot Diaz, who calls it "perhaps the most important war novel written since Vietnam."
Haldeman was a veteran of that conflict—"I was drafted against my will, and went off to fight somebody else's war," as he put it—and the book projects the contours of his duty and subsequent return to civilian life into a future marked by what is almost literally forever war. Its power lies in the expert co-mingling of hyperbolic allegory with gritty speculation. It's about a war that literally damn near never ends, one that spans the furthest reaches of space and time; the fighting can happen anywhere and is potentially everywhere. The protagonist, an almost-anagrammed stand-in for Haldeman named Mandella, is hurled across far reaches of the galaxy to fight a poorly understood, apparently undefeatable foe.
Since the powers commanding Earth's army send him to the front lines of interstellar war at warp speeds, it's not long before he becomes disconnected from the slice of reality he grew up in—once he goes back to Earth, the place has evolved without him; new customs, new social order, new governance, new technologies, new decline. It is mostly unrecognizable, and Mandella is totally unable to fit in. The book does what good science fiction does best: offers the audience a brand new mode through which to process universal truth; in this case, the uniquely extreme alienating power of war.
It's about as pitch-perfect a metaphor for what it's like to go to war a civilian can ever hope to absorb—not only is the organized violence of the battlefield interminable, but the dislocation brought about to those subjected to it is total and unrelenting, too.
About now, we're in need of more such metaphors. The Vietnam War may have ended decades ago, but our military adventuring hasn't. Our moment can somehow feel simultaneously like a crossroads for the technological future of combat and another arbitrary point on its dully predictable, incessantly conflict-laden trajectory. We're relying more on drones and proxy soldiers to fight our far-off wars, in theaters far from the conscionable grasp of homelands, we're automating robotics for the battlefield, and we're moving our tactics online—so it seems like an opportune time to check in with science fiction's most prescient author of military fiction.
Haldeman is a thoughtful, generous interview; he's witty and funny, even when discussing grim prognostications of a violent future. In fact, when we begin our discussion in earnest, and I tell him his book has seemed to have proved prescient, that all signs seem to point to a perpetual state of forever war, he laughs.
"That's a dismal outlook for humanity, to say that war is never-ending," he says. "I think there are ways we can outgrow it, but I don't know that we will." Haldeman taught fiction for many years at MIT, and he's devoted considerable amounts of his fictive firepower to questions of war—Forever War spawned two sequels—so I was eager to hear his thoughts on what has and hasn't changed in terms of how war is waged over that time.
"The central danger in the Forever War's universe was that two powers who possessed futuristic weapons misunderstood each other's motives and actions at a fundamental level: when the dust settled, the dialogue was 'Why did you start the war?' "We didn't start the war—you did!' Even a pre-emptive strike can be rationalized as an action designed to prevent destruction on a larger scale, a maneuver America has used," Haldeman said. Which leads to a nexus of intertwining and perpetuating blame—the US, for instance, justifies its longstanding presence in the Middle East as filling a void or as doing peacekeeping work; but it's indubitably a signal as well, to our allies as well as enemies that the war is stretching on. In Forever War, the conflict ends, after what is literally a thousand years, when both sides are exhausted, and both finally agree that they never really understood what they were fighting about in the first place.
"In that respect, I don't think anything has changed, and you can assert that without any reference to national 'character' or 'identity.'"
Yet the frequency of smaller, but still-deadly bouts of lethal violence has changed. "That's the scary thing," he says. "There won't be another WW II, there won't be another major land war. But there will be lone actors with access to all sorts of technology. Science fiction has been imagining this scenario for three-quarters of a century."
Now, it's becoming closer to reality—3D printers may soon allow anyone with the right hardware to manufacture deadly weaponry at home. Obscene weapons are increasingly obscenely easy to find. "Once we have that access to abundant materials, and anyone can print out a hydrogen bomb, we're about an hour away from total destruction," he says. "We are just a hair's thread away from a large disaster." The future of war is distributed, in other words. But we are just as ill-equipped to deal with our violent impulses now as we were four decades ago, Haldeman says.
"I don't think we've learned any fundamental thing about solving the problem. We've learned more about why people do seek violent solutions," he says. "That doesn't mean we have the social mechanism to address it." His words resonate, depressingly, when you consider that the US now averages one mass shooting per day, and that the trend is only accelerating upwards.
"We have people who just go down to the K-mart and just buy ammunition, and they could kill a few dozen people before we can do anything," he says. "[M]ore brute force is available to individuals, with no obvious improvement in the individual's ability to responsibly apply that force. Or decide not to use it." War, it seems, has been distributed.
Hence the forever warring, in smaller theaters.
"You can't have absolute freedom with absolute danger," he says. "We live in an unstable and dangerous environment, and we like it. We don't want to change it."
"I don't know what we do about that," he adds. "I wouldn't feel uncomfortable taking away that freedom, and I don't even have guns."
Beyond that there are, well, situations like you see in North Korea, where massively destructive technologies are under the control of a small group of deluded or mentally unstable authoritarians. And that technology's only improving, too.
"A schizophrenic teenager can't wander in off the street and push the button that launches a nuclear weapon. But there are political processes in the world bizarre enough to put that schizophrenic teenager in a charge of a country with nuclear capability. If the world were a novel, the novel might be about all the people who are between that kid and that button, and what they do to prevent Armageddon. At the last minute, of course."
I'd read that.
Haldeman wrote Forever War over the course of six years, during "a time when my life was changing pretty profoundly," he says. "I was living in a pretty turbulent time." When I ask him about his influences, and the best works of fiction that focus on war today, he gives the same answers: Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Tolstoy, John Dos Passos, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22.
Robert Heinlein famously wrote the genre's standard-bearing pro-war novel, Starship Troopers, as an explicit piece of political theater—without ever having served in a real war. It's telling that Joe Haldeman, who was friendly with Heinlein, wrote the genre's classic anti-war book, after having been in the trenches. (And look, I know plenty of people will vote Starship Troopers as the genre's best war book, but to me, it's just too two-dimensional, too flagrantly propagandic—Heinlein would've admitted as much, I think. Forever War is not without issues too, of course; the bits concerning Earth's population control policies, which center around encouraging homosexuality, while not malicious, seem dated now.)
"People say that I wrote Forever War in response to Starship Troopers, which isn't true," he says. "But it's one of the best didactic novels in science fiction. Though its didacticism works against it for the mature readers. I think if you were 16 years old and thinking about joining the army, and you read Starship Troopers, you might think 'I can't wait until I'm 18 to go out and kill some aliens."
The Forever War is the polar opposite: Mandella sinks into himself, eventually becoming physiologically alienated from his fellow troops, an effective killing machine forced into awkward despair. The book was noted then, as it is now, for its depiction of mental health issues amongst returning soldiers—another thread that's sadly still present, with continuing reports of PTSD in Iraq war vets and even drone pilots who never travelled further than New Mexico to do their killing in the Middle East. When Haldeman criticized Vietnam, he focuses his blame on the government, and the Americans who ignored and abandoned the soldiers they'd shipped abroad, often against their will. And, despite the Veterans' Affairs bureau's myriad recent scandals, Haldeman actually thinks the situation for soldiers has improved.
"I think the military has become more responsive to veterans' needs, as the public becomes more aware of them," he says, flagging a hulking caveat. "But those needs are pretty distant from the military's primary objective: the use of deadly force to bring about political ends. As long as veterans don't get in the way of that, everything's cool. (But note President Truman's sensitive response to veterans' needs in the fifties—mounted troops and tear gas. That could happen today—and would, if vets organized and marched on Washington.)"
Still, he's worried the news cycle won't keep PTSD in its sights for long. "The public seems to be pretty sympathetic to PTSD, but I do sense a weariness. Vets aren't news anymore. And the wars conventional soldiers fight seem less relevant as "the enemy" is more and more characterized as individual crazies acting out of personal hatred."
The despondency and mental illness on display in Forever War makes for some of the most melancholy sci-fi ever put to page. In fact, the only part of Forever War that I've always felt was a bit incongruous in that regard was the relatively light part, in what I considered at least a bittersweet ending—in which Mandella, our sullen, war-wearied hero, who has been unplugged from the rest of his life, discovers that his lover took pains to stay on the same time-wavelength as him, and that he might meet up with her to live out the rest of their days. It had always felt a bit of a copout; offering a deus ex machina-esque silver lining to an otherwise crushed, doomed soul. But Haldeman doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think the ending's happy at all," Haldeman says. "It's grim. They're going to carry on, but they're alone and lost." He adds that the publisher told him, after it was a bestseller, "we wouldn't have published it without a happy ending."
For the record, he also thinks the interstellar combat scenarios described in the novel would never, ever happen in real life, in any future.
"I think the idea of an interstellar war is absolutely impossible, given the restrictions on space and distance," he says. "Even a planetary-sized conflict just requires too much energy and resources to be feasible." He thinks future space-conflicts will be resolved more amicably. "I think they'll be solved with diplomacy or just wither away. I guess 'withering away' is the nature of diplomacy sometimes," he says, laughing.
"You might try to eliminate war by eliminating the conditions that cause it, like poverty and racial hatred and religious animosity."
The Forever War is, thankfully, poised for a renaissance. Channing Tatum is leading the drive to get the book translated onto the big screen, picking up where Ridley Scott left off. The complicated, uneasy book is perfectly suited to the age of endless warfare, and what better way to start a genuine debate about the sensibilities of the perpetual war machine than to get Haldeman's ideas into the cineplexes.
Which leaves only one question. And yes, the man who wrote Forever War believes that one day, far into the future, war might end.
"The idea of abolishing war has been with us for thousands and thousands of years," he adds. "I think we're more likely to invent the speed of light." But, if it happens, it will come about from abundance, from the end of violence over scarce resources.
"I guess I'm being reductive or simplistic by saying 'economic' reasons, if only because I can't see peace happening because people want to be reasonable or kind or admired," he tells me. "And of course peace itself doesn't happen; it's just the opposite, or obverse, of war happening."
"You might try to eliminate war by eliminating the conditions that cause it, like poverty and racial hatred and religious animosity. This is kind of la-la land, but it really may be the only stable long-term solution." It's what Haldeman calls "the inescapable tautology."
"When war is unthinkable, it will stop."
All Fronts is a series about technology and forever war. Follow along here.