The Forever War, Joe Haldeman’s first science-fiction novel, is a significant example of the future war novel and military Bildungsroman. The novel should be read in the context of the Vietnam War, the authors own participation in that conflict, and its analogs in Robert Heinleins Cold War-era novel Starship Troopers (1959) and Orson Scott Cards postdétente Enders Game (1985). The Forever War won both the Hugo and Nebula awards as best science-fiction novel.
The first section of Haldeman’s novel is a science-fictional rendering of American involvement in Vietnam. The subsequent sections of the novel continue the parallels with Vietnam but also expand on the major theme of the novel, the importance of individuality and free will in the face of authoritarian government and social pressures toward conformity. The UNEFs drive toward conformity starts with screening the population for sociopathic traits. The trend continues with the eugenically controlled population that provides the soldiers for Mandella’s strike force and the Kahn-clone humanity that appears at the conclusion of the novel. Government policies are geared toward producing a uniform and predictable population of workers and soldiers for the war effort. This theme is accompanied by a series of images of the increasing mechanization of human society, starting with Mandella’s vision of his relationship with Marygay Potter reduced to copulating fighting suits and his dream of being an animated fighting suit with the UNEF at the controls. These images culminate with Mandella’s realization that wounded soldiers have become “soft machines” to be repaired or replaced in the service of the UNEF.
The ending of the novel is problematic in that, from the UNEF’s perspective, Mandella, Potter, and the other returnees on Middle Finger are maladjusted veterans unable to incorporate themselves into postwar society. From the perspective of Mandella and Potter, however, Haldeman has provided the happy ending impossible for many Vietnam War veterans.