The story concerns the experiences of William Mandella during a protracted interstellar war between humanity and an alien race known as the Taurans. The novel begins in 1997, when the war already has been escalating for some years. Mandella has been drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force (UNEF) under the terms of a conscription act intended to select the physical and intellectual elite of Earth to defend humanity against the Tauran menace. Among the UNEFs more unusual policies are toleration of drug use and compulsory sexual promiscuity, enforced through rotating rosters of bunkmates.
Mandella’s first combat mission is an attack on a Tauran base located on a planet in a system near a collapsing superdense star. This mission includes capturing a prisoner. On its march to the target, the strike force encounters a group of alien creatures. When Sergeant Cortez gives the order to fire, the soldiers slaughter what turn out to be members of the sentient indigenous population, creating tremendous guilt in Mandella, Marygay Potter, and other soldiers. Cortez triggers a posthypnotic suggestion to the soldiers to kill indiscriminately when the time for the actual attack arrives. The result of the first campaign is at best ambiguous, because the soldiers fail to capture a Tauran and a number of soldiers go insane after realizing what they have done to an almost helpless enemy.
Because of the time-dilating effects of travel at near the speed of light, when Mandella and Potter return to Earth after their first combat tour, they discover that twenty-six years have passed on Earth while they have experienced only two years in their own frame of reference. The two have fallen in love despite the UNEFs attempts to regulate personal...
(The entire section is 716 words.)