The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974) (read in 2018)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
The parallels between the Forever War and the Vietnam War are not coincidental. This book was written at the tail-end of the Vietnam war by a veteran. In the Forever War, the enemy is an alien race that no-one has ever seen. The war starts with an incident and escalates quickly. There are years between incidents, relativistic limits being what they are. The soldiers are chosen from the best and the brightest—the elite scientists and minds of the current generation.
The story touches on many topics that would be covered again and again in subsequent novels, but which were featured first in this book. The population of Earth turns to homosexuality as a form of population control, the soldiers sent off to war experience jarring shifts in the culture to which they return—just like Vietnam veterans did—but in the Forever War, it’s due to extreme time-dilation effects from their relativistic flights to their battlegrounds.
Haldeman conjectures that any given battle between humans and the Taurans could go either way because it was never clear which side was more advanced in any given confrontation. Because of relativistic travel times, it was possible for there to be nearly a century of additional scientific and military development between them.
Haldeman also likens what it would be like to return to Earth after many decades to the feeling of disjuncture experienced by any war veterans. What’s the point of fighting at all when the homeland can barely remember that there’s a war on at all? Why not run away when no-one can prove that you did? He discusses how language and culture shifts so much that returning soldiers need translators for both language and customs.
During the final battle, I was convinced that the Taurans didn’t actually exist and that humans had actually been fighting themselves all along—just separated across relativistic time. This turned out not to be the case—instead the Taurans and the humans of the future have more in common with each other than the human soldiers of the past. The humans of the future become a hive-mind—just like the Taurans were all along.
“‘One cannot make command decisions simply by assessing the tactical situation and going ahead with whatever course of action will do the most harm to the enemy with a minimum of death and damage to your own men and material.
“Modern warfare has become very complex, especially during the last century. Wars are won not by a simple series of battles won, but by a complex interrelationship among military victory, economic pressures, logistic maneuvering, access to the enemy’s information, political postures — dozens, literally dozens of factors.’”
“Relativity traps us in the enemy’s past; relativity brings them from our future. We can only hope that next time, the situation will be reversed.”
“Doctors don’t seem to realize that most of us are perfectly content not having to visualize ourselves as animated bags of skin filled with obscene glop.”
“And in the past, people whose country was at war were constantly in contact with the war. The newspapers would be full of reports, veterans would return from the front; sometimes the front would move right into town, invaders marching down Main Street or bombs whistling through the night air — but always the sense of either working toward victory or at least delaying defeat.
“The enemy was a tangible thing, a propagandist’s monster whom you could understand, whom you could hate. But this war … the enemy was a curious organism only vaguely understood, more often the subject of cartoons than nightmares.”
“I wouldn’t know a potato or green bean plant if it stood up and took a bite out of my ankle, but I knew how to walk a half-meter step. So I resolved to count to 3800 and take a deep breath. I supposed I could tell the difference between the smell of chicken manure and the absence thereof.”
“We sat there for some time, not touching the exquisite food, ignoring the beauty around us and beneath us, only conscious of each other and the two sheets of paper that separated us with a gulf as wide and real as death.
“We went back to Threshold. I protested but my arguments were shrugged off. I tried to get Marygay assigned to my company, as my exec. They said my personnel had all been allotted. I pointed out that most of them probably hadn’t even been born yet.
“Nevertheless, allotted, they said. It would be almost a century, I said, before I even get to Stargate. They replied that Strike Force Command plans in terms of centuries. Not in terms of people.
“We had a day and a night together. The less said about that, the better. It wasn’t just losing a lover. Marygay and I were each other’s only link to real life, the Earth of the 1980s and 90s. Not the perverse grotesquerie we were supposedly fighting to preserve. When her shuttle took off it was like a casket rattling down into a grave.”
“‘Surviving is a virtue in a private.’ Couldn’t resist it. ‘But an officer should provide gallant example. Go down with the ship. Stride the parapet as if unafraid.’”
“A few lucky souls, about one in eight thousand, are invited to volunteer for combat training. Refusing is ‘sociopathic,’ even though it means signing up for an extra five years. And your chance of surviving the ten years is so small as to be negligible; nobody ever had.
“Your best chance is to have the war end before your ten (subjective) years of service are up. Hope that time dilation puts many years between each of your battles. Since you can figure on going into battle roughly once every subjective year, and since an average of 34 percent survive each battle, it’s easy to compute your chances of being able to fight it out for ten years.
“It comes to about two one-thousandths of one percent. Or, to put it another way, get an old-fashioned six-shooter and play Russian Roulette with four of the six chambers loaded. If you can do it ten times in a row without decorating the opposite wall, congratulations! You’re a civilian.”
“‘Our voyage will require four collapsar jumps and will last some four months, subjective. Maneuvering into collapsar insertion will put us about three hundred years behind Stargate’s calendar by the time we reach Sade-138.’ And another seven hundred years gone, if I lived to return. Not that it would make that much difference; Marygay was as good as dead and there wasn’t another person alive who meant anything to me.”
“‘The idea was to keep people from making babies the biological way. Because, A, people showed a regrettable lack of sense in choosing their genetic partner. And B, the Council saw that racial differences had an unnecessarily divisive effect on humanity; with total control over births, they could make everybody the same race in a few generations.’”
“She cracked the capsule under her nose and took two deep breaths. ‘As a woman, though, I’m all in favor of it.’
“Hilleboe and Rusk nodded vigorously. ‘Not having to go through childbirth?’
“‘That’s part of it.’ She crossed her eyes comically, looking at the capsule, gave it a final sniff. ‘Mostly, though, it’s not … having to … have a man. Inside me. You understand. It’s disgusting.’
“Moore laughed. ‘If you haven’t tried it, Diana, don’t—’ ‘Oh, shut up.’ She threw the empty capsule at him playfully.
“‘But it’s perfectly natural,’ I protested.
“‘So is swinging through trees. Digging for roots with a blunt stick. Progress, my good major; progress.’
“‘Anyway,’ Moore said, ‘it was only a crime for a short period. Then it was considered a, oh, curable …’
“‘Dysfunction,’ Alsever said. ‘Thank you. And now, well, it’s so rare … I doubt that any of the men and women have any strong feelings about it, one way or the other.’
“‘Just an eccentricity,’ Diana said, magnanimously. ‘Not as if you ate babies.’”
“‘It’s not as though we’d be actually lost,’ he said with a rather wicked expression. ‘We could zip up in the tanks, aim for Earth and blast away at full power. We’d get there in about three months, ship time.’
“‘Sure,’ I said. ‘But 150,000 years in the future.’ At twenty-five gees, you get to nine-tenths the speed of light in less than a month. From then on, you’re in the arms of Saint Albert.”
“It made you wonder how many soldiers had gotten out of the war in just that way. There were forty-two strike forces lost somewhere and unaccounted for. It was possible that all of them were crawling through normal space at near-lightspeed and would show up at Earth or Stargate one-by-one over the centuries.”
“Most of them either had English as their native tongue or as a second language, but it had changed so drastically over 450 years that I could barely understand it, not at all if it was spoken rapidly.
“Fortunately, they had all been taught early twenty-first century English during their basic training; that language, or dialect, served as a temporal lingua franca through which a twenty-fifth century soldier could communicate with someone who had been a contemporary of his nineteen-times-great-grandparents”
“My duties were more varied but offered little satisfaction, since the problems that percolated up to me were of the ‘the buck stops here’ type; those with pleasing, unambiguous solutions were taken care of in the lower echelons.”
“Evidently the Taurans had the same problem — or they had copied the process from us in the first place — because they had also scaled down to nova bombs that used less than a hundred kilograms of degenerate matter. And they deployed them much the same way we did, the warhead separating into dozens of pieces as it approached the target, only one of which was the nova bomb.”
We have met the enemy and they are us. Here is where I suspected that, due to relativistic effects, we were fighting ourselves—or perhaps Marygay?
“The Taurans hadn’t known war for millennia, and toward the beginning of the twenty-first century it looked as though mankind was ready to outgrow the institution as well.
“But the old soldiers were still around, and many of them were in positions of power. They virtually ran the United Nations Exploratory and Colonization Group, that was taking advantage of the newly-discovered collapsar jump to explore interstellar space.
“Many of the early ships met with accidents and disappeared. The ex-military men were suspicious. They armed the colonizing vessels, and the first time they met a Tauran ship, they blasted it. They dusted off their medals and the rest was going to be history.
“You couldn’t blame it all on the military, though. The evidence they presented for the Taurans’ having been responsible for the earlier casualties was laughably thin. The few people who pointed this out were ignored. The fact was, Earth’s economy needed a war, and this one was ideal. It gave a nice hole to throw buckets of money into, but would unify humanity rather than dividing it.”
“It took all of my money, and all the money of five other old-timers, but we bought a cruiser from UNEF. And we’re using it as a time machine. So I’m on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you.
“All it does is go out five light years and come back to Middle Finger, very fast. Every ten years I age about a month. So if you’re on schedule and still alive, I’ll only be twenty-eight when you get here.
“Hurry! I never found anybody else and I don’t want anybody else. I don’t care whether you’re ninety years old or thirty. If I can’t be your lover, I’ll be your nurse.”
“If you had friends or lovers lost in the relativistic maze of the Forever War, you could wait for them on the Time Warp, a converted battlewagon that shuttled back and forth between Mizar and Alcor fast enough to almost halt aging.”