The conventional wisdom on this book pigeonholes it as a response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. According to this interpretation, Haldeman’s 1974 anti-war tale is a corrective to the fascist militarism of Heinlein’s 1959 novel.
One might call this the “whig approach” to literary criticism – something akin to what Herbert Butterfield once called the “Whig interpretation of history.” It reduces all the complexities and richness of past fiction to some simple coordinate based on the conventional wisdom as of this morning. So Sappho is only understood in terms of today's view of gender roles; Hemingway is dissed because he falls short on the same scale; Twain moves from being anti- racist and into the racist camp because he didn't know the acceptable "framing" words of the 21st century. Who cares anymore how these writers related to the value systems of their times? We judge them based on the prevailing mood of the most recent MLA. Of course, it hardly occurs to us that we ourselves may be found wanting according future MLA truisms yet to be invented.
Under this sledgehammer approach, novels are either written by progressive authors or reactionary authors, and once you know which bucket in which to toss any given writer, you are no longer obliged to read them. And the Whig view of sci-fi makes Haldeman into the hero and Heinlein into the villain. End of story.
This approach to fiction is, of course, mind-numbing, but in the case of Haldeman and Heinlein it is just plain wrong-headed too. Both The Forever War and Starship Troopers are powerful books, and both are far more nuanced in their presentation than the “whigs” would have you believe. Even more to the point, the attitudes toward militarism, which form only a small part of these multifaceted works, present less a debate between the two authors working within the value systems of our time, but more a chronicle of how the American perspective on war evolved between 1959 and 1974, the respective publication dates of the two volumes. (By the way, Haldeman has often lavishly praised Heinlein and in 2003 joined the board of the Heinlein Society – which sort of blows the whole Whig case, huh?)
No tears here, my friend. I've never looked good wearing a Whig.
The virtues of Haldeman’s novel shouldn't be forgotten in all this noise. It is not a rant. It is a smart, tautly written, creative book that is artfully paced from start to finish. And pacing is a major issue with a novel of this sort--the “forever war” lasts 1,143 years, and even a masterful story-teller could get lost squeezing that into a 280 page book. Heck, Gibbon needed more than 3,000 pages to cover the mere decline and fall of the Roman Empire. To some degree, Haldeman faces the same challenge Asimov undertook in his Foundation series, which required the compression of an enormous timeline into a short narrative without losing the thread or getting lost in the details. A page of “begats” might suffice to fill in the gaps in the Old Testament, but it hardly works in the modern novel.
Haldeman not only pulls this off (perhaps better even than Asimov), but he flourishes in his account of the forever war. We follow the story through the perspective of William Mandella, the only soldier to survive the entire course of the war (his longevity due to the time-space quirks of traveling to battles at faster than the speed of light. Just trust me on this, and don’t ask for details). The narrative voice of Mandella is somewhat reminiscent of the plain-spoken talk of Johnny Rico, the protagonist of Starship Troopers, and it is here that the two books show their greatest similarity. The dialogue and narrative voice are hard-boiled and engaging, and again one is reminded of the way actual soldiers spoke at the times when the books were first published.
Haldeman is especially adept at describing combat. Few authors have ever adequately captured the intricacy and pace of a battle scene in prose. Sometimes (as in Homer’s Iliad) the conflict is reduced to individual fighting between heroes—an approach that may be exciting, but is highly unrealistic. At the other extreme, we have Tolstoy (in War and Peace) who understands the confusion and disarray of real battlefield conditions, and presents this complexity in prose. This approach may be more realistic, but less aligned with traditional narrative forms. With Tolstoy, for example, his discussions of combat sometimes read like philosophical treatises. Haldeman avoids both extremes, and gives the readers, toward the conclusion of The Forever War, one of the best battle descriptions I have ever read.
Over the course of more than thirty pages, he does it all— bringing in tactics, the psychological element, the technology, and the uncertainty and excitement of the back-and-forth action. To add to the mix, he manages to use almost every conceivable weapon, from nuclear bombs to bow and arrows, during this extended conflict. Yet every time the weaponry changes, Haldeman provides compelling reasons for the shift – unlike those ridiculous movies where futuristic combatants rely on some strange antiquated device (for the example the light swords from Star Wars) without any plausible explanation offered. When it comes to future war, Haldeman is the exact opposite of George Lucas. During his battle scenes, his descriptions are both breath-taking and believable.
Don’t let the critics prevent you from enjoying this fine book. It is not a diatribe, as some might have you believe, but a first class piece of story-telling. By the same token, don't assume that Haldeman's success here negates the value of its supposed evil twin, Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Both are important works of conceptual fiction, and their relationship should be seen as a dialogue and not as another type of forever war.