Review Essay: Is “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman an appropriate analogy for Afghanistan?

By Aaron P. Jackson

Estimated Reading Time: 14 Mins

I first heard of Joe Haldeman’s 1974 book The Forever War almost five years ago, while I was researching the war in Afghanistan. I can no longer find the paper that first brought the book to my attention, but no matter; it’s a common linkage. A quick Google search of the book’s title plus the word ‘Afghanistan’ brings up multiple comparisons. Journalist Dexter Filkins even gave the same name to his 2008 non-fiction book about the American wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, although he didn’t credit the original source of the title.

After first seeing the comparison between the war in Afghanistan and Haldeman’s book, I subsequently continued to see it on a semi-regular basis. My curiosity piqued late last year and I bought the book. Several months later and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it – and I’m glad that I did! This review essay focuses on the aspects of the book that may make it appeal to a contemporary military audience, as well as addressing the question of whether or not it constitutes an appropriate analogy for the war in Afghanistan. (Also: spoiler alert).

The book follows the story of William Mandella, a conscript drafted into an elite military unit to fight against an alien species, the Taurans. Mandella is conscripted at the start of the war, and the initial part of the book focuses on the training he receives and the first combat action of the war, in which he participates. This aspect of the book has elements that resonate and others that seem far-fetched. Amongst those that resonate is the nature of the military training, which varies between arduous, challenging, exciting, daunting, dangerous, boring and confronting, and is sometimes more than one of these at once. Ultimately, Mandella’s training is very different to the nature of the combat mission that follows, which takes the soldiers to a very different planet to the ones they had trained on. This dichotomy resonated with me, as did Haldeman’s description of the bond that develops between the soldiers during training.

These elements of the story reflect Haldeman’s own military experience. A Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, he wrote The Forever War as an analogy for his experiences in Vietnam and his return to American society thereafter. The profound effect that this experience had on Haldeman can be felt throughout The Forever War, and the book has been frequently cited as an anti-war counterpoint to Robert A. Heinlein’s militaristic Starship Troopers. Yet it is hard to agree with this simplistic contrast, as The Forever War weaves a complex conceptual tapestry that is difficult to neatly categorize using black-and-white labels such as ‘anti-war’. In Haldeman’s own words, the book is primarily about ‘dealing with people who are fundamentally different from you [in terms of] appetites, tastes, philosophies, who still have to work together.’ For me, the simplest possible interpretation of the book is that it is about the experience of soldiering. Yet even this interpretation, which overlooks several other aspects, implies exploration of a range of complex social and philosophical issues.

The elements of the early part of the book that I found far-fetched tend to reflect things that Haldeman would probably have found reasonable in light of the nature of the US Army during his time in Vietnam. For example, in the book smoking marijuana has become a legalized and acceptable practice as long as soldiers do it off duty, reflecting a regulatory response to a significant problem confronting the US Army in the mid-1970s. Although theoretically a plausible solution, this is very different to the rigidly enforced prohibition and illicit substance testing regime that was eventually implemented instead.

The full gender integration of combat forces described in the book was highly controversial at the time of publication and was one of the reasons Haldeman initially found it very difficult to find a publisher (the book was rejected by at least seventeen potential publishers before it was finally accepted by a then-minor publishing house). In contrast, full gender integration of combat arms has now happened in many militaries, so this does not seem controversial today. The sexual relationships depicted between the soldiers, on the other hand, seem ridiculous. During basic training there is a ‘sleeping roster’ that pairs male and female recruits with a different partner each night, and it is illegal to refuse consent. This could not be further from current practice, wherein fraternization between deployed personnel is strictly forbidden. Fortunately this aspect of the story is not the ridiculous male fantasy that I initially suspected it may have been. On the contrary it becomes a central point of contrast to developments later in the book, which I will revisit shortly, and the early detailed discussion of relationships between male and female recruits is vital to development of the storyline.

Following completion of two combat missions, the surviving personnel are discharged and return to Earth. Thanks to relativity, the near-light speeds at which the soldiers travel has resulted in the slowing of time for those travelling relative to the ‘objective’ time experienced by the rest of the universe. The result is that Mandella and his fellow soldiers, having been away for two years in their own ‘subjective’ timeline, have been absent for twenty-three years objective time. A lot has changed when they reach Earth. Conditions have worsened significantly, with food shortages, overpopulation and the transition to a war economy being particularly impactful. Most noticeable, however, is that governments have begun to encourage homosexuality as a means to control population growth. Mandella and his girlfriend Marygay, also a former soldier, find adjustment difficult and ultimately re-enlist because life in the military has become preferable to the unknown civilian society they have found themselves in.

In terms of plotline this part of the book is the weakest, having been re-written several times through different editions due largely to editorial impositions. A series of neatly-timed calamities, including the death of Mandella’s mother due to illness and of Marygay’s parents due to a criminal act, sever their remaining ties to Earth and make reenlistment seem not like a preferable option, but instead like the logical or natural choice. One can’t help but feel that this detracts from Haldeman’s point about the otherness to veterans of what used to be ‘home’ before their service. This point may have been better made if Mandella and Marygay had reenlisted despite retaining some connections to Earth through people they chose to leave behind when they reenlisted.

Choosing to stay in or return to the military despite deep attachments too and love for some of the people you are leaving behind is an issue that faces all who have returned to the military after an initial period of service. This choice is not saying to these people ‘I do not love you,’ nor is it saying ‘I prefer to not be with you.’ Rather, it can be a choice to return to a home-like familiarity that provides a deep sense of comfort, stability and belonging, even at the cost of facing further separation from loved ones. Perhaps this more than most other aspects of the book is something it is hard for those who have not served to understand. While the book captures well the sense of alienation that many veterans feel when they return to society, the death of Mandella’s mother severs his only deep and personal link to the now-alien society he has found upon homecoming. The book thereby loses a powerful opportunity to more deeply explain the internal conflict that resides within those veterans who choose to return despite having to again leave their loved ones behind to do so.

After his reenlistment, the remainder of the book follows Mandella’s military career through the rest of the war. Due to relativity he serves for a further five years or so in his own time frame while centuries pass for the rest of the universe. By luck more than anything else he lives to become one of the half-dozen or so veterans who survive from the beginning to end of what becomes an 1143-year-long war. He is also the only person to have fought in both the first and the final battles of the war. The description of the final battle and the lead up to it are brilliantly written, and Haldeman’s own combat experience shows through on every page. He is particularly good at capturing the emotional highs and lows of those experiencing combat, as has been noted elsewhere.

Yet what most captured my attention here was the book’s depiction of technology. Due to advancements in weapon systems and countermeasures, by the time of the final battle the most advanced technology has been superseded by countermeasures and the battle is decided primarily through the use of medieval weapons such as swords, shields, and so on. Given the bias Western militaries have for technological solutions one can’t help but draw a parallel to the effect that our adversaries’ move into complex terrain had at the outset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the high-technology ‘revolution in military affairs’ promised during the 1990s evaporated in the face of urban insurgencies that eluded technological solutions. No matter how advanced one’s technology may become—and that depicted in The Forever War is very advanced—war ultimately remains primarily a human experience. Haldeman depicts this vividly.

Societal changes continue to occur alongside Mandella’s ongoing service, and as new recruits enter the military that were born centuries after him they become almost as alien to him as the enemy. This is where the early depiction of military sexuality becomes a vital plot mechanism. To reduce then regulate the population, homosexuality continues to be encouraged by governments and the use of eugenics eventually leads to all humans becoming homosexual. Mandella, a company commander by the time of his final mission, has also become the only heterosexual in his company. Following a forced separation from Marygay due to them being posted to different units, he faces the prospect of never again being able to enter into a romantic partnership with another human being. Deprived of any chance of living what he considers to be a normal life, Mandella takes what has by then become the only logical option open to him. He continues to serve because this remains the lesser of two evils in comparison to again discharging into an even more alien society.

This part of the book resonated with this reviewer, who despite being an ‘xenial’ is now old enough to have to make a conscious effort to understand the generational perspective of newly-enlisted subordinates. Indeed, in only a few more years some of those subordinates will have been born after my own enlistment date. Despite the frequent emphasis placed on the shared aspects of military service and the bonds it creates between those who have served, in some ways we are all alone in our experience of service as we post between different units, serve in different theaters, and see and experience different events. Haldeman, who was explicit in his intent to examine the separation between veterans and society, perhaps by coincidence is also one of the few authors who explores feelings of separation between veterans themselves.

When the war finally does conclude, it is revealed that it began due to a misunderstanding. As the human race evolves it eventually develops the ability to directly communicate with the enemy, which was not possible at the outset of the war. This misunderstanding is followed by a gung-ho response on the part of humanity. After the war had begun, its huge and ever-increasing cost led to the development of a war economy that become so central to the functioning of human society that it soon became too difficult to stop the war for fear of causing complete economic collapse. Although the initial cause elaborated within The Forever War is reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that led to the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, this aspect of the book is not a good analogy for the causes of the war in Afghanistan. By contrast, Haldeman’s subtle commentary about the role of the military-industrial complex seems to have been overlooked by most other reviewers, yet this aspect provides much food for thought about the economic aspects of contemporary warfare.

Returning in conclusion to where this review essay began, is The Forever War an appropriate analogy for the war in Afghanistan? Inconclusively, the answer is ‘sort of’. Contributing to this answer, some of the key areas where the book’s story either does or doesn’t seem to relate to the war in Afghanistan were highlighted above. Eighteen years into that war and with no end in sight, it is certainly understandable that the title of the book is an appealing label, regardless of whether the rest of the book is analogous or not. This is even more so if one takes the perspective that the current war is merely the latest in a 200 year-long series of foreign interventions that may have much more in common than is usually assumed.

One final, overarching observation is worthy of mention. Science fiction as a genre provides an excellent means to explore the issues of today through the application of creative licence to isolate, exaggerate, and then view these issues from a different perspective. If readers find that this book helps them to understand or even simply to come to terms with the war in Afghanistan, it can only be of benefit to them. The analogy is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, and it does not have to perfectly align with reality to be worthwhile.

Ultimately this book is most useful not as an analogy for the war in Afghanistan, but as a means to confront and better understand the human aspects of war itself. In this way, it remains as useful for the current generation as it was for the generation that fought in Vietnam. For a veteran seeking to come to terms with their own experience and the changes they have seen around them, or conversely for a civilian seeking to better understand veterans, this book remains as useful today as it was when it was written. Plus it’s an exciting, excellently written story that grabs and holds one’s attention. For this reason alone, I thoroughly recommend you read it, if you have not done so already.

Dr Aaron P. Jackson is Joint Operations Planning Specialist in Defence Science and Technology Group, part of the Australian Department of Defence. He is also a serving member of the Australian Army Reserve. He has deployed as a civilian on Operation Accordion (Middle East region) and as a military officer on Operations Astute (Timor Leste) and Resolute (Australian border security). The views expressed herein are exclusively his own and do not represent those of the Australian Department of Defence, or any part thereof.

The research was towards the following paper: Maryanne Kelton & Aaron P. Jackson, ‘Australia: Terrorism, Regional Security and the US Alliance’ in: Gale A. Mattox & Stephen M. Grenier (Eds.), Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance, Stamford: Stamford University Press, 2015, pp. 225-241.


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