The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
William Mandella has issues, and he's going to deal with them frankly. A conscript for an interstellar war against the Taurans, he finds himself flung through collapsars to distant maybe-battles, engaged in automation-mediated combat that wipes out most of his unit. Finally making it back to Earth and out of the service, he finds it impossible to adjust to a civilian life that has changed markedly in the twenty-one Earth-years that he has been gone (aging only a couple years himself due to lots of near-relativistic-speed space travel). Completely out of his element, Mandella re-ups with the force and continues the fight for 1,143 years, with pretty much the same clarity of purpose. Will it be worth it?
Joe Haldeman's book is best read in the context of the author's life. Haldeman, a Vietnam veteran, wrote "The Forever War" in 1974, and the book has often been read as a commentary on that conflict. However, I found critiques that would apply to our now-decade-long incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Haldeman's account gives the reader the soldier's perspective, and does not attempt to justify the overall objectives of the conflict beyond a criticism of the simplistic explanation provided by the leadership. Mandella lives through near-suicidal assignments, training that is as dangerous as the enemy conflicts, promotions that take him momentarily out of his depth, and horrific injuries. The book ends with a marvelous passage of comic storytelling reminiscent of the dark irony of "Catch 22" or the writings of Vonnegut.
The writing reflects a military viewpoint from the 1970's, before women served in combat roles and before Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell. By this I mean that Haldeman intentionally subverts the period's sexual mores with a narrative of both military-organized heterosexuality and society-mandated homosexuality. These mores change over time for Mandella, as he moves through time and becomes one of the "old timers" born in the 1970's who leads conscripts from the 2800's. These issues are dealt with from the perspective of the soldier, not the officer or the social philosopher, and Mandella is very much a heterosexual man of his times. Clearly sexuality is an important secondary theme of the book, but "The Forever War" is primarily a great example of military science fiction, and is a very worthwhile read.
Reviewed by Scott Curtis