The Forever War

July 4, 2014

For many returning from war, they might as well be returning to another planet.

…the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted.

Joe Haldeman’s Forever War is a novel about what it’s like to return from war. The author, a veteran of Vietnam, leans on the notion of relativistic time dilation—how time passes more slowly for you, and more quickly for those back home, when you travel near the speed of light—to explore the disorientation and alienation his narrator feels upon returning home from war in the farthest reaches of space. Mandella, the narrator, explains:

I’d been in the army ten years, though it felt like less than two. Time dilation, of course; even with the collapsar jumps, traveling from star to star eats up the calendar. After this raid, I would probably be eligible for retirement, with full pay. If I lived through the raid, and if they didn’t change the rules on us. Me a twenty-year man, and only twenty-five years old.

Mandella returns from his first harrowing tour of duty ready to start a civilian life, but he’s doubly hit with the shock of how much Earth has changed. Not only does he struggle to function in and even understand a radically different society, but that very difference throws into question what exactly he was fighting for out there.

At one point, even his promised compensation is unmoored from the familiar dollar, converted by the necessities of Earth’s decline into a peculiar unit. Mandella finds out:

Incidentally, the General translated the money coming to you into dollars just for your own convenience. The world has only one currency now, calories. Your thirty-two thousand dollars comes to about three thousand million calories. Or three million k’s, kilocalories.

After blundering for a bit, Mandella reenlists seeking the familiarity of military life, but a promotion puts him in charge of a younger generation of soldiers barely more relatable than the civilians back on Earth:

I was sure I could have handled the pressures and frustrations of command; of being cooped up in a cave with these people who at times seemed scarcely less alien than the enemy…

Ratcheting up the bafflement, after a subsequent tour Mandella returns to find that the Earth he left and fought for is now populated by homosexuals grown in a lab:

“Wait. You mean nobody…everybody in my company is homosexual? But me?”

“William, everybody on Earth is homosexual. Except for a thousand or so; veterans and incurables.”

“Ah.” What could I say? “Seems like a drastic way to solve the population problem.”

“Perhaps. It does work, though; Earth’s population is stable at just under a billion. When one person dies or goes off-planet, another is quickened.”

“Not ‘born.’”

“Born, yes, but not the old-fashioned way.”

It would be easy to imagine someone in his situation growing bitter, even bigoted, but through it all, Mandella remains remarkably collected. Perhaps it’s because his training made him adaptable to alien situations, or perhaps because he never felt at home anywhere long enough to be nostalgic for it.