Alientation, PTSD, Politics, Sci-Fi and The Forever War10 min read
I read in the news today that actor Channing Tatum has been attached to star in an adaptation of the classic sci-fi book The Forever War by author Joe Haldeman. The screenwriter for the movie Prometheus is involved. This news story came out March 2015 in Variety magazine. I’m 6 months behind. I was not a fan of that Ridley Scott movie and I’m not a fan of Channing Tatum.
For anyone who has read Haldeman’s book they’ll recall its’ complex and profound story. Though The Forever War (TFW) story takes place light-years in the future it essentially draws on the author’s military experience during the Vietnam War. Haldeman wrote about his culture shock and the alienation he felt upon returning stateside after time spent in the jungle. Many veterans today, after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, are likely able to relate to Haldeman’s sentiments. Even in our day and age where technology allows connectivity to others via Facebook, Skype, and email, veterans still feel disconnected when they return home. Why is this?
Haldeman noted in the foreword to TFW that it is, “mainly about war, about soldiers and about the reasons we think we need them.” I read it forty years ago in ’74 and it is still as prescient a novel today as it was back then.
Haldeman approached more than a dozen different publishers before finding one that was interested in publishing his book. His ground breaking space-opera novel, written in 1974, is about a young soldier’s conscription into military service during a war against an alien species the humans name Taurans. Though large portions of the story had been cut out before publication it went on to win the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
The book begins by telling the story of a conflict between the alien Taurans and humanity. This conflict arose due to a misunderstanding created when humans used instantaneous star travel to cross vast distances. This time travel has time-warping effects on our hero William Mandella. (the name Mandella is an anagram of Haldeman’s name). The soldiers will skip through years and decades while experiencing just days or weeks through time dilation and relativity. Mandella will have aged just one year normally yet 27 years will have passed between his first military draft and his homecoming. As the centuries pass Mandella chooses to reenlist as he shuttles from battle to battle because he realizes that he cannot adjust to Earth after being away from home for so long.
Mandella rises through the ranks and becomes a high ranking leader of soldiers. As he continues to reenlist the world goes under further changes and becomes more alien. I recall a story I read in the Vietnam war book Bloods where a solider recounts how he was fighting in the jungles of ‘Nam one minute and was stateside two days later. After a tough year-long rotation he found himself wandering around a big city American without an explanation to what he experienced or a veteran outreach program for reintegration. Culture shock isn’t the only thing that affects servicemembers. It has been said that, “War ages you.” Though he will have aged only a decade Mandella will have existed for nearly twelve centuries.
Back pay and compound interest have made Mandella a billionaire but in the world of the future many of Earth’s customs have changed. In order to control the population society has adopted selective breeding, eugenics and homosexual relationships. All of this is encouraged by the world’s nations. Mandella’s mother has become a lesbian. Mandela’s lover Marygay is a heterosexual soldier. Marygay fights in the same war as Mandella but serves on a different front from him. They each use time dilation to slow their ages down in the hope they will one day reunite to stay permanently connected. Their attempt to reunite may prove fruitless.
Overpopulation which created rationing on Earth has also created massive class wars. He and his fellow soldiers have difficulty fitting into a society that has evolved almost beyond their comprehension. The world is too violent, extremely destructive weapons are too easily obtainable, and few understand what Mandella has gone through.
Unemployment is rampant in the future. All of these things cause Mandella greater culture shock and a feeling that he doesn’t belong. He becomes the oldest survivor of the war. His senior staff and subordinates cannot comprehend his heterosexuality. Mandella commands soldiers who are exclusively homosexual and this further compounds his feeling of alienation. They resent him because they must learn a 21st century English to communicate with him and he barely understands them.
Humanity has taken another extreme step by cloning itself. This new collective species is simply called Man. They are able to communicate with the Taurans. It is here in the novel where it is discovered that the thousand year long war started due to a misunderstanding. The book ends its story in the year 3148. Just in case the evolutionary change the world created is a mistake Man established colonies of heterosexual humans. Mandela settles in one of the colonies and finally reunites with Marygay. The couple end up having one child.
Haldeman’s book is a strong metaphor for his Vietnam experience. There are many ideas in TFW that are relatable to our own current day and human condition; culture shock, alienation, class wars, unemployment, military service and obligation, homosexuality in the military, wars controlled by a political structure that gobbles up it troops and uses them as machinery to fight its battles without taking responsibility for it, distance from loved ones due to deployment, loneliness and depression.
Ridley Scott did a revisionist spin on the movie Kingdom of Heaven. The Forever War may turn out to be a very successful movie. It will be interesting to see if he stays loyal to the book material or if he will pander to Hollywood as he normally does by injecting his political agenda.
Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch film director of Starship Troopers, did just this when he injected fascistic elements and heavy satire into Robert Heinlein’s book in order to ridicule right-wing militarism. He intentionally loaded his film with good looking jockish actors. The book was first published in 1959 and the movie came to theaters in 1997. Though many military members love the film Verhoeven’s intention was to criticize the military-industrial complex and to ridicule our American foreign policies because he felt we as a nation are jingoistic; he felt we used violence in place of diplomatic conversation to solve problems.
It is interesting to note that Starship Troopers continues to be accused of glorifying war, being fascistic, racist and also utopian; all of these views have been debunked. Many film critics, including Roger Ebert didn’t understand the movie, and thought it glorified war rather than understanding it was meant to be satirical. Dutchman Verhoeven also directed the more liberal leaning Soldiers of Orange. It is a wonder then the Netherlands which lauds itself on being a bastion for liberalism, excellent dialogue and diplomacy has seen its’ own countryman and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh murdered because his non-diplomatic Muslim killer didn’t believe in anything but repression and violence.
Robert Heinlein believed that ‘no Department of Defense’ ever won a war and he makes much reference to it in his novel. In fact in his book Heinlein posits that control of the government should be done by decision makers who had served in the military because they were the only ones who could be trusted to appreciate the responsibility of governing. Ask any military or law enforcement veteran for that matter how they feel about duty and service to this country and a sense of pride will fill their chest.
Heinlein agreed that Starship Troopers was militaristic however he felt that war was to be endured and not enjoyed. Heinlein noted that his book indeed “glorifies the military … Specifically the Poor Bloody Infantry, the mudfoot who places his frail body between his loved home and the war’s desolation – but is rarely appreciated… he has the toughest job of all and should be honored.” It is a good military that ends the wars, while reckless politicians stoke the flames…Veterans understand veterans and it is difficult to understand or relate to those who would rather take than sacrifice.
Civil service just ain’t going to cut it fellas in the eyes of many veterans when it comes to understanding service, sacrifice and fighting for a cause. Are we are now living in a time where too many citizens feel little obligation to serve our nation? More people are demanding more from our country while giving it less. The killing of multiple police officers and the Obama Administration’s silence on the matter has many people wondering if the ‘hits’ are going to keep on coming.
Obama releasing five high level Taliban for one alleged American deserter or the lies of Benghazi have done much harm; veterans continue to scratch their heads and wonder where this country is headed. When is the insanity going to end? Is it any wonder that many veterans are left feeling frustrated after serving multiple tours overseas? Not only are they dealing with PTSD, TBI, and possibly unemployment but they have to read the ridiculous in the news. Speaking of veteran issues:
Within 3-4 months of returning home about 30% of troops develop mental problems. Of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan 20% of those veterans turn to drugs or heavy drinking. Veterans are also affected by traumatic brain injury (TBI) between 10 and 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will deali with suicidal thoughts and changes in personality. Anger is an emotion they will struggle with. The number 22 is mentioned a lot. That is because in 2010, an average of 22 veterans committed suicide every day.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most common mental health problems faced by returning troops. Anxiety and depression is something they will struggle with. Some of the symptoms of PTSD are: exaggerated startle response, and sleep disturbances (lack of sleep, oversleeping), lack of interest/apathy, difficulty concentrating, feelings of detachment, loss of appetite, or hypervigilance. Divorce, loss of child visitation rights or the death of a family member back home compound their problems even more.
2 thoughts on “Alientation, PTSD, Politics, Sci-Fi and The Forever War”
I’m a SciFi fan and have read the books the author refers to. Great books and one decent movie mock the politics and societal apathy that destroy (or at least harm) a soldiers psyche.
Jim. Agreed. Great books. I didn’t care too much for Forever Peace or Forever Free but did enjoy reading Lest Darkness Falls. Troopers was a fun movie to watch. I felt Heinlein’s book was excellent. Thanks for your comment.