The first time I read The Forever War was when I was in University. While I was first reading it, it didn't make an impression until after I put it down and I found myself thinking about it for a long time afterwards. I have now read it several times, and each time I get something new from it.
The author, Joe Haldeman, uses his experience in Vietnam War, as well as his education in Physics, to craft this tale of a futuristic war between humanity and a vaguely understood enemy named Taurans.
Basic plot: Near the end of the twentieth century, humanity discovers the 'Collapsar Jump,' which allows ships to travel vast distances in a fraction of second (from the crew’s perspective). Mankind begin to colonies space- but one day, a ship disappears, with an alien ship in the vicinity. Many old military types are in positions of power, and with Earths economy stagnating, they use this disappearance as justification to start a war with the unknown species. The United Nations (in the book, the U.N. is the unofficial world government) passes the Elite Conscription Act and the protagonist, William Mandella, is conscripted to the U.N.E.F. (the United Nations Exploratory Force). All conscripts are in peak physical health and fitness, highly educated and with IQ’s of 150 and over. They undergo rigorous training on Earth, the Moon and later on a planet called "Charon", which lies beyond Pluto.
They are then shipped off to their first battle in 1997- which turns out to be a massacre as the enemy is totally unresisting, has no concept of fighting and is slaughtered by the human forces. This expedition last two years from the soldier’s point of view, but due to time dilation, the soldiers arrive back on Earth in the year 2024. William Mandella, alongside fellow soldier and lover Marygay Potter, leaves the army, but both re-enlists due to how intolerable things have become on Earth, as well as the death of their parents (their only remaining family).
William survives four more subjective years of service- with over a millennium passing in ‘real’ time. He attains high rank through solely through seniority (when he argues with his superiors over his promotion, telling them he has only been in four campaigns, he is bluntly told “That is still three and a half more than the average soldier survives.”) William is in essence a pacifist, who continues to be a soldier because he feels he does not have the talent to do anything else in the ‘modern’ world.
Promoted to the rank of Major, William is eventually separated from Marygay, and given command of his own company. Commanding them is difficult- they are racially homogenous and uniformly homosexual. The now Major Mandella is despised by the troops under his command because the soldiers have to learn twenty first century English to communicate with him and because heterosexuality is seen as an ‘emotional dysfunction’ and a sign that he is a sexual deviate. After nearly years on the planet they are garrisoning they engage the enemy in battle- which turns out to be another massacre, this time for both sides. The enemy is totally wiped out and the human soldiers suffer an 88% causality rate. Returning to command (after seven hundred years due to time dilation), they find that peace has been reached and that the war has been for nothing. There is some good news for our hero, as Marygay has survived the war and is waiting for him on a planet called MF.
Now for the review: An excellent read and social commentary on the nature of the military and how troops can feel isolated from the civilian population upon their return from combat, and this sense of isolation only grows as the war goes on and society changes so drastically- both on earth and on other planets humans have colonized.
There is a sense of gender equality in the book- both women and men have to opportunity to be front line troops, with equal access to promotion. Early in the book, there is no bar on a person serving due to sexual orientation- one of the officers is openly gay. I loved the way the author dealt with the changes within society. In the beginning, the population is apathetic towards the war. They dislike that is takes so much tax to support it, but can accept that because the war means work. Later, it is reported that they have revolted against the war, but lost. This patter is cyclical- going from apathy to revolt several times during the course of the thousand year war.
Overall, I found The Forever war to be a brilliant read. However, I do have two major complaints about the book.
One: The views of homosexuality have not aged well. In the book, homosexuality is seen more as a personal and socially directed ''Choice'' than just been part of who a person is.
Two: The way women are treated. Yes they are equal in many ways- they can do the same jobs as men, they are open to the same promotion opportunities etc- but there is one scene which, to me, undermines this. As part of their military training, the original company of soldiers are sent to a plant which will (in time) become the strategic and logistical command center for the entire war and are ordered to help build improvements- the idea being that they will need to know how to build these same structures on the planets they will be fighting on. However, a large part of the company which is already stationed there is male. The woman of the 'new' company are "required by military custom, and law" to be compliant to any potential sexual partner. I don't think I have to elaborate on this topic. The book looses a star because of it.
Overall, a five star book that looses a star because of the above. An excellent read for the most part.