Criticism Through Literature: Science Fiction and a Combat Veteran Writer

One of my favorite books is The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. It’s an allegorical tale of his time in Vietnam, set in the “future” of 1996 (the book was published in the 1970’s). A soldier goes on a journey through multiple planets, engagements and thousands of years to finally reach the conclusion of the war. He survives it all, reaching the end a changed man.

What made this book so great was how true it rang to the genuine military experience. Haldeman could easily have written a thinly veiled critique of Vietnam, basing characters off of popular talking heads from the 60’s and making everything blatantly obvious; he doesn’t do this though, his characters are humans that struggle through war and changing times.

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The original Forever War.

I read this book shortly before my first deployment, and again after my second deployment. I enjoyed it just as much the second time, and pulled as much information and insight from it as I did the first time. I could empathize with a character who felt out of place after spending some time in combat, and I could understand viewing the paternalistic Army as the only true place you’ll ever truly be accepted again. Unlike other Science Fiction Novels (and military novels in general), the main character still maintains a bit of his humanity and dignity and realizes that caught between the changing times and the Army, the service is more of a home than anything else.

The Army and combat are not glorified because there is some fancy new technology, and society does not become a utopia; the worlds in Forever War would be recognizable to any of us who spent a bit of time downrange, or who lived during turbulent times in a changing society. While recognizable though, they are not so blatant that it just makes a mockery out of reality and out of the novel. Haldeman creates new worlds, characters and adventures in his novel; they just happen to be relatable and recognizable to us.

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The version of The Forever War that I fought in.

On the other side of the spectrum is Starship Troopers written by Robert Heinlein. A Science-Fiction classic, this novel is not allegorical as much as it is a cautionary tale. Heinlein saw America turning into a degenerate society, threatening the way of life in America and security for the average citizen. Heinlein also thought America was being too conciliatory with Communist countries and needed to develop a strong military response for possible wars that may occur with the USSR or China. In Heinlein’s work, multiple crisi occur in the near future, causing the downfall of truly democratic society and leading to the formation of a highly militaristic state.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover, or its 1990’s cheesy Sci-Fi Action flick adaptation. 

It is an excellent read for the description and formation of a highly militarized way of life and the development of morals and ethics in both soldiers and youth. Heinlein’s description of boot camp and the grooming and development of young soldiers is not only highly successful in the novel, but also seems familiar to anyone who graduated boot camp: hating life, crushing physical exercises and overbearing instructors, yet somehow, you come out of it better for the experience and with some pride.

Starship Troopers was written before the Vietnam War though, and the protagonist goes through a boot camp, training regime and war more akin to World War II or Korea than to a modern day insurgency. Likewise, The Forever War was written to convey experiences during Vietnam, and the conflict never truly threatens humanity or the existence of humans; it is just a series of campaigns and brushfire conflicts against a faceless, alien foe.

For that reason, I think both of these novels are essential reading. Starship Troopers shows the idealized, utopic militarized world that can protect citizens, conduct effective military operations and fight a war against an enemy. It is not glorified, and the author “pulls no punches” when dealing with the harsh realities of combat, training and moral questions we have to face as a society and as a soldier. The Forever War shows what it’s like to be a cog in the military-industrial apparatus and left without a home when you return from war. The Forever War shows a society that lacks moral fiber, and the characters that have principles and humanity suffer the most in the harsh, unending war of the future.

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10th Mountain, M240 and Carabello Hair…

Both authors are able to show a character that goes through grueling times and lives. Johnny Rico and William Mandela face the harshest training possible, live through multiple, brutal combat engagements, and deal with the disillusionment and loss that comes from war. From my perspective, the main difference is the society each character functions in: Heinlein’s society sets a hugely high standard for the citizens, soldiers and residents of the future, giving Johnny Rico almost impossible ideals to live up to, while Haldeman’s society has turned its back on the veterans, elderly and allowed crime and corruption to flourish from the highest level, down to the streets. Johnny Rico has to live up to ideals and moral precepts that are set before him, that others have lived up to, while William Mandela manages to overcome the corruption, decay and moral rot that he is surrounded with and stay true to his own personal ethos.

Interestingly enough, Heinlein loved The Forever War and Haldeman was more excited about receiving a congratulatory letter from Heinlein than he was on receiving The Nebula Award!

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3 thoughts on “Criticism Through Literature: Science Fiction and a Combat Veteran Writer

  1. Pingback: Quick Hits: Allegory and Writing – Steel and Stylus

  2. Fred Fiedlersohn

    Very good points about Rico and the world of “Starship Troopers.” Having gone through boot camp, and other indoc programs, I always had an appreciation for Heinlein’s reflection about “making it over the hump.”

    I’ll be sure to find and read Forever War, so I can see what you mean about it as well.

    Keep up the good work Steel & Stylus

    Liked by 1 person

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