Monday, December 4, 2017

Reflections on Haldeman’s Forever War

“Inside each book is a man,” said Fireman Montag in Fahrenheit 451.  The Forever War (reviewed below) was the work of Joe Haldeman as he was 1974. The story was modified by Joe Haldeman of 1997. The current edition, with a Foreword by John Scalzi and endorsements by William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Greg Bear, and Stephen King, came out in 2008. Although George Lucas’s frequent repairs to Star Wars: The New Hope may offer a door into revisionism, ultimately the author stands by the work even though time is unkind.

The apocryphal middle third (Chapters 23, 24, and 25) delivers a world impoverished by war. Early in the story, Pvt. William Mandella explains that their IQs of 150+ put him and his team in the draft, the Elite Conscription Act of 1996. They suffer horrible attrition. No wonder the world is getting worse. We are killing off our own best and brightest.

More to the point, Haldeman apparently accepted the premise that war could be good for the economy. At the end, Maj. William Mandella paraphrases his final debriefing: “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.” The truth is that power and market are dichotomous, contradictory, and mutually exclusive. If you make economic decisions for military or political reasons, the result must be less than optimal: you will lose money; you will become poorer.

Haldeman's assumption rests on deeper beliefs in the efficacy of a command economy. In order to re-establish order, the UN takes over food. Calories (kilocalories: K) become the unit of money. It is not perfect, of course. The system has safety valves in unregulated farms and tolerated black markets. And for all of the authority evident, gangs run rampant; decent people hire body guards for trips to the grocery. But centralized authorities control what Lenin called “the commanding heights of the economy.” It might not be optimal, but it is better than mass starvation. Or so they claim. But the command economy leads to starvation, with those illicit safeties as the only brakes on the inevitable slide. That the novel took both Nebula (1975) and Hugo (1976) awards speaks to the fact that Joe Haldeman is not alone in his universe.

When the book came out, it was “obviously” supposed to be “about Viet Nam.” True enough, Viet Nam was Haldeman’s war experience. But the story does not parallel that war. The Taurans are, indeed, genetic collectivists; and they copy technology rather than inventing it. But Earth is on its own: we have no corrupt locals to defend. While there are hints of resentment, the streets are not filled with anti-war protestors. And no one in uniform questions the purpose for the war or the strategies for prosecuting it. So, this was not really Viet Nam.
Veterans of World War 1, and 2, and Korea and Vietnam are dying off, but the number of veterans of the current wars continue to rise for the next 30 years.
But the idea of the forever war resonates within the ranks of American armed forces today. For them, it is GWAT (“gee-watt”): the Global War Against Terrorism. It is an accepted truth, a clichĂ©, that Afghanistan is not a 15-year war, but 15 one-year wars as troops cycle in and out, never to establish and develop the accumulated personal experiences that become institutional memory. We never learn from our mistakes. We never get a feel for how to do things right. For 70 years, the United States had bases in over 50 nations. Today, that includes a division – 1000 soldiers – of combat troops who are “advisors” in Niger. They are not coming home anytime soon.


1 comment:

  1. I am surprised we've transitioned from "Vietnam Syndrome" to "Forever War" in my lifetime without any discussion or even vague nostalgia.