Memorial Day: Forever War

by Akim Reinhardt

In 1974, noted science fiction author Joe Haldeman published a novel called The Forever War, which won several awards and spawned sequels, a comic version, and even a board game. The Forever War tells the story of William Mandella, a young physics student drafted into a war that humans are waging against an alien race called the Taurans. The Taurans are thousands of light years away, and traveling there and back at light speed leads Mandella and other soldiers to experience time differently. During two years of battle, decades pass by on Earth. Consequently, the world Mandella returns to each time is increasingly different and foreign to him. He eventually finds his home planet’s culture unrecognizable; even English has changed to the point that he can no longer understand it.

Born in 1943, Joe Haldeman is a Vietnam War veteran. He was drafted in 1967, served two years as a combat engineer, and earned a Purple Heart. Many have speculated that the disaffection William Mandella experiences upon returning home from war reflects Haldeman’s own alienation after Vietnam. But there is another element of The Forever War that has recently proven timely 45 years after its initial publication: its title.

The Donald Trump administration appears to be ramping up for a possible war with Iran even as the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan enter their sixteenth year, and the United States maintains a more indirect but important role in wars in Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Lybia. Indeed, just yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence informed members of the West Point Military Academy graduating class that “it is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life.”

Amid such endless U.S. belligerence, the term Forever War has recently emerged as a critique of America’s constant overseas ventures. From major news media such as The Los Angeles Times and Newsweek to smaller media outlets such as the Waco (TX) Tribune Herald; from left wingers at Mother Jones magazine to right wingers at the Cato Institute: the term Forever War has gained currency to describe the seemingly permanent state of U.S. warfare.

That such a critique is gaining momentum 2+ years into the presidency of a man who positioned himself during the 2016 campaign as a protectionist and near-isolationist loudly critical of U.S. entry into the 2nd Gulf War and pledging not to put troops in harm’s way unless vitally necessary, reinforces two important points:

  • Donald Trump is a chronic liar with a semi-incoherent, highly unstable, and reactionary policy agenda.
  • Regardless of any one politician’s agenda, even a president’s, U.S. foreign policy emanates from an enormous and complex bureaucracy that defies simplistic Rational Actor Theory; it is not the work of single person making decisions, but the rather emerges from thousands of professionals spread across numerous branches of government, as well as the press and public.

In other words, the blame for America’s Forever War fiasco cannot simply be laid at the feet of a childishly incompetent president such as Trump, or even entirely in the lap of a war criminal, war mongering president such as George W. Bush. Instead, we must all take at least a modicum of responsibility for our nation’s seemingly eternal warfare.

Thus, on this Memorial Day, as Americans remember the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers who died during war, we must not only share the grieving, but also share the blame for having created the martial culture and imperial society that sent them off to kill and die.

For to be an American in 2019 is, in some ways, very similar to having been a Roman in the year 1, an Aztec in the year 1400, an Ottoman Turk in the year 1500, or an English citizen in the year 1900. We are the proud beneficiaries of empire, finding glory and profits from, among other things, the violence we export beyond our borders. We are the wavers of flags, the singers of anthems, and the saluters of authority who send men, and increasingly women, into foreign lands with guns and bombs and missions, sometimes quite poorly defined, that nonetheless assert U.S. control over the world, its people, and its resources.

They kill and are killed. We celebrate and mourn. And the drums of war will forever pop and boom until we finally stop beating them.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is