Four decades after his masterpiece The Forever War was first published, Joe Haldeman tells Jonathan Wright how writing helped him find salvation
Meet the bestselling SF author who once had to fish out grenades from beneath corpses in Vietnam.
In 1967, Joe Haldeman’s life changed irrevocably. With American involvement in Vietnam escalating, he was called up to the army. “I was not clever enough to try to fool the government,” he says, recalling a time when many went to huge lengths to avoid fighting. “I thought, ‘ Well if you get drafted you get drafted…’”
Nothing in Haldeman’s life had prepared him for the reality of combat, experiences that played into his most famous novel, The Forever War, published 40 years ago. “It’s shocking at first,” says Haldeman. “The first time you see people who are killed in your company, that’s a real lesson in mortality that you don’t get going to see granny before she dies and so forth, that civilian kind of grieving. Soldiers don’t have time to grieve. If a guy dies, they send his body to the rear – and go on and kill the next one.”
As the Vietnam conflict passes into memory, Haldeman’s words serve as a stark reminder that many veterans still have vivid memories of front line experiences. “You are a soldier, you just killed a solider, but that’s part of the job description at the time,” he says. “You either get along with it or you don’t. We had two people in my company who had complete psychiatric meltdowns just from combat stress and I felt close to it a few times myself.” It was especially stressful, he says, on those days when the Vietcong attacked again and again. “Snipers keep changing positions and shooting at you, you’re stuck in a trench, it’s like World War One in many ways,” he says.
But even when Haldeman wasn’t under fire, there were other risks associated with his work as a combat engineer. “I had to go check the enemy dead for booby traps, and that’ll make you very nervous,” he says. “In order to move on, I would have to put my hand under the bodies and feel for hand grenades. All you need to do to booby trap a body is pull the pin on a hand grenade and move him so that his weight holds the lever down.”
So can anyone ever truly get over such experiences? “Some of it gets totally enclosed, like a wound that won’t heal properly, but you don’t have to be an artist to have that kind of a sensibility,” he says. “In many ways… ordinary people have a worse time of it, because they can’t express what’s happened to them, and they can’t tell their family what they’re going through. And everybody is like, ‘ Oh, there’s John, he never gets up and does anything, he just sits around and stares at the wall, what the fuck is wrong with him?’ Well, it’s pretty obvious actually.”
the long road
How did Haldeman avoid such profound and long- term damage? In part, he didn’t. After he got home, he couldn’t sleep and “had visions of terrible things that I had seen”. Then came a panic attack, which led to Haldeman going to see a shrink. “He was not a very good psychiatrist, talking to me he’d get all nervous, so I helped him a little bit and he helped me a little bit, and the VA [ United States Department of Veterans Affairs] paid for it all,” he laughs. “After a year- and- a- half of that, I got out of the worst symptoms of panic, seizures and that sort of thing, and I suppose most of it’s just living through it and coping with life.”
As he’s already hinted, Haldeman’s writing helped too. Famously, The Forever War transposes its author’s experiences of combat to space as it follows William Mandella into action against the alien Taurans. The effects of relativity mean the soldiers grow ever more alienated and isolated from other humans. It was an instant success, taking the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Scattered throughout the text are telling parallels with Haldeman’s own life. Mandella, for example, is a physics major, Haldeman studied physics and astronomy, and might well have become a scientist had things worked out differently.
At the very least, suggests SFX, it must be strange that such traumatic experiences played into a book that made his name. “Once I had written a few stories, and once I had written poems about my combat experience, it opened up my imagination in a way that it wasn’t open before,” he says. “I think a lot of my fiction that doesn’t have anything to do with war is at least metaphorically or in some unobvious way caused by combat.”
A new life
And there has been a lot of fiction. Perhaps because The Forever War looms so large in SF literary history, Haldeman’s other books can get overlooked; he’s written around 30 novels and taken a slew of major awards and, in 2009, he was selected as the 27th – and youngest ever – Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He’s a familiar and popular figure at conventions, albeit perhaps a slightly less expansive and gregarious one since a life- threatening brush with acute pancreatitis a couple of years back.
This isn’t the career he expected. “I never thought I’d make a living from [ writing] when I was younger,” he says. “I wrote a lot of poetry, and most poets don’t make a living from their writing. Of all of my life models, only Robert Frost made a living from his writing. But then, when I was a senior in college I took a writing course.” He completed three short stories. On returning from Vietnam, back to civilian life with his wife Gay, whom he married in 1965, he was given 30 days leave.
“To be realistic, it was basically to let your family take care of you with the stresses of getting back to civilian life rather than the army have to deal with you,” he says. Haldeman spent his time re- writing two of his short stories. He sold both, one before he’d even left the army, but still accepted a place in graduate school to study science. Then he sold his first novel. “I suddenly didn’t have any doubt at all about being a writer as a career,” he says. “The idea of being a scientist wasn’t exciting at all anymore, and I wasn’t that good at science really. I love and loved physics and astronomy, but I was never brilliant at mathematics and if you aren’t brilliant at mathematics you shouldn’t go into the physical sciences.”
He laughs but doesn’t entirely disagree when SFX suggests he’s like a gambler who gets hooked for life after his first two horses come in. Whatever the truth of this, it’s worked out. “It would be harder for me not to
“I had to go check the enemy dead for booby traps”
write a novel than to write a novel, so I don’t worry about it,” he says. Living comparatively modestly in Florida and supplementing his writing with teaching – latterly three months a year at MIT – he’s by and large been able to ensure these are novels he wants to write rather than working to pay the bills.
He’s as fascinated as ever by his craft, even in his 70s. “I’m most interested in studying writing at the very smallest quantum, the sentence, the quatrain,” he says.