Monday, February 15, 2010

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré

I did not anticipate the thematic overlap which can be drawn from reading these two novels back-to-back, but there is a definite spiritual affinity between the two which goes well beyond their both being novels of and about the Cold War and the radical unconcern for the fate of the individuals involved in it which characterized the conflict.

Or rather, that affinity may be enough: both novels are, above anything else, intent on examining the separate but equally horrifying methods and philosophies of sacrificing personnel and resources across the Cold War front. More pointedly, both ask how the supposedly individualistic mentality of capitalism/the West finds ways and means of inducing its subjects to throw their lives away for an amorphous, interminable cause?

For Alec Leamas of Spy Who Came in…, this question is posed within an explicit contrast to the supposedly more effective ideology of Communism: the unshakeable belief in the inevitability of history and the rightness and superiority of collective goals which Leamas and Le Carré presume underwrites all Communists (except the defectors) and all Communist institutions is set against the post-Suez, post-imperial crisis of confidence which pervades British society, British government, and British citizens. Alec is incapable of answering an East German intelligence agent's demand to know what drives the men and women in Britain, what philosophy or belief enables them to order deaths or to allow deaths to occur. How can the threat to order which sacrifice presents be contained, be sublimated to a higher purpose? Why do the British accept the necessity of sacrifice when so very little of what they believe seems to permit its logic?

William Mandella of The Forever War exists in a different (post-Vietnam*) stage of the Cold War, one where the machinery of power whereby capitalism forces individuals into self-sacrifice has revealed itself. Mandella and his fellow elite soldiers are conscripts for a war that they never show genuine enthusiasm for, and the carrots (heavy remuneration) and sticks (strict military discipline) which are used are never veiled. Camaraderie is real, but there is maybe only one instance in the book where camaraderie prompts an act of self-sacrifice (more on this in a moment). Again, this lack of secure reasons for sacrifice is set against an other which seems unshakable in its capacity for—even desire for—self-sacrifice. (At the end of the book, this desire is explained in what I thought was a fairly unsatisfying manner.)

Both novels, despite their reservations and crises of confidence, still believe that the West will win and even should win. Or, at the very least, neither is capable of thinking either that the collectivists would or should win. Both, then, turn the Cold War internal: the War is being fought between the good individualists against the bad individualists, who are so bad they have turned individualism into a paradoxical collectivism, who have formed and tamed and chained Leviathan. Even the instinct for self-preservation, as both these novels demonstrate, is always planned for and incorporated into the greater good.

Or, in Haldeman's terms, logistics and tactics have become coterminous, identical:
While I was lying there being squeezed [in preparation for interstellar travel into a combat zone], a silly thought took hold of my brain and went round and round like a charge in a superconductor: according to military formalism, the conduct of war divides neatly into two categories, tactics and logistics. Logistics has to do with moving troops and feeding them and just about everything except the actual fighting, which is tactics. And now we're fighting, but we don't have a tactical computer to guide us through attack and defense, just a huge, super-efficient pacifistic cybernetic grocery clerk of a logistic, mark that word, logistic computer.
The other side of my brain, perhaps not quite as pinched, would argue that it doesn't matter what name you give to a computer, it's a pile of memory crystals, logic banks, nuts and bolts… If you program it to be Genghis Khan, it is a tactical computer, even if its usual function is to monitor the stock market or control sewage conversion. 
The concept of programming, of "remote control" is also a major theme in spy novels, and particularly in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Leamas's natural, individual inclinations are so comprehensively accounted for by his superior (whose title in the novel actually is Control) that their plans are advanced rather than frustrated by his "missteps." There is in both novels a bitter sense of frustration at the limitedness of human nature, that whether the ideology of a society glorifies the collective or the individual, equality or liberty, ruthless central planning works. It absorbs the mass and the individual alike and deploys either for its own ends.

Both novels, I think, provide the same answer: the missing leg of the triad alluded to just now: not equality, not liberty, but fraternity. While I noted above that camaraderie is not terribly effective in The Forever War as a reason for self-sacrifice, it is quite clearly the only thing that Mandella is left to believe in (Leamas never really gets a chance to believe in it, but I think the book implies it was the only remaining option). Both novels suggest that a non-ideological sense of fraternity is the only path out of the stalemate not just of the Cold War, but also of the larger philosophical morass (equality vs. liberty) that was supposedly being fought out in places like Berlin and Vietnam and space. I will have a little more to say on the possibilities of non-ideological fraternity in a few days in a post on Dave Eggers's What Is the What, but for now I think it is sufficient to say that Le Carré and Haldeman's turn to fraternity as the only possible resolution to this conflict is both characteristic of a broad swath of Cold War writers and has been massively influential, particularly in writing about war and violence, well after the Cold War ceased. I think it has of late been written mostly as a tale of simple survival, of which we can already see the beginnings in a book like The Forever War, but, again, I'll be following up on that in my post on Eggers.

On a more mundane level, both novels are structured in three acts, although the first act in The Spy Who Came in… is very short. In both, the pattern is action in the field, furlough, and re-activation or re-insertion into the field. In both, the second act is concerned with the problem of re-adapting to "civilian" society, although in the case of The Spy, this struggle is partially intentional. At any rate, the point largely seems to be a questioning of how effectively fraternity actually can serve as a third way between equality and liberty; the difficulties of returning to society suggest that the war has shattered any social cohesion, much less fellow-feeling, among civilians. 

This is already a fairly long post, but I want to insert a fairly long quotation from The Forever War which I thought was masterful in describing the social effects of a prolonged, almost invisible war. I don't want to rush too foolishly to draw a parallel to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I think it's impossible not to find this a little resonant in certain parts (others, not very or not entirely).
Wars in the past often accelerated social reform, provided technological benefits, even sparked artistic activity. This one, however, seemed tailor-made to provide none of these positive by-products. Such improvements as had been made on late twentieth-century technology were—like tachyon bombs and warships two kilometers long—at best, interesting developments of things that only required the synergy of money and existing engineering techniques. Social reform? The world was technically under martial law. As for art, I'm not sure I know good from bad. But artists to some extent have to reflect the temper of the times. Paintings and sculpture were full of torture and dark brooding; movies seemed static and plotless; music was dominated by nostalgic revivals of earlier forms; architecture was mainly concerned with finding someplace to put everybody; literature was damn near incomprehensible. Most people seemed to spend most of their time trying to find ways to outwit the government[…]
And in the past, people whose country was at war were constantly in contact with the war. The newspapers would be full of reports, veterans would return from the front; sometimes the front would move right into town, invaders marching down Main Street or bombs whistling through the night air—but always the sense of either working toward victory or at least delaying defeat. The enemy was a tangible thing, a propagandist's monster whom you could understand, whom you could hate.
But this war… the enemy was a curious organism only vaguely understood, more often the subject of cartoons than nightmares. The main effect of the war on the home front was economic, unemotional—more taxes but more jobs as well. After twenty-two years, only twenty-seven returned veterans; not enough to make a decent parade. The most important fact about the war to most people was that if it ended suddenly, Earth's economy would collapse.
One last thing—I think it is also important to note that both novels are fairly ambivalent about whether impersonal economic forces or actual, power-mad individuals caused and are prolonging the war, and both novels are a little unwilling to take the cop-out answer of "both." They think it must be one or the other, but they are extremely unsure which. Again, this is a recurring problem in Cold War literature and thought, but I did want to point it out. 

Oh, and of course, both novels are tremendous; Haldeman's in particular is so well and completely imagined in so many intricate and very important ways.

*The novel was published in 1974, so the Vietnam War had not ended, but the outlook (and, of course, chronology) of the book was definitely post-Vietnam.

17 comments:

Tony Christini said...

"One last thing—I think it is also important to note that both novels are fairly ambivalent about whether impersonal economic forces or actual, power-mad individuals caused and are prolonging the war, and both novels are a little unwilling to take the cop-out answer of "both." They think it must be one or the other, but they are extremely unsure which."

Which is just weak, weak, weak, even for the time, however utterly typical.

Andre Vltchek's 2005 novel Point of No Return about the extension of the cold war today has no such weakness, and leaves these two novels to the dust.

Or see Wizard of the Crow (2006) also for great strength in this regard where soldiers and spies are supplanted by police.

Andrew Seal said...

Tony,

Just to clarify, are you saying that the lack of certainty that Haldeman and Le Carré display is "weak, weak, weak?" Or that their desire to have certainty on this question is weak?

Tony Christini said...

"both novels are fairly ambivalent about whether impersonal economic forces or actual, power-mad individuals caused and are prolonging the war"

I meant to make the point that while the causes of the Cold War, as with all wars, are typically mystified by the dominant powers trying to conceal their motives, the actual causal forces of the Cold War and most wars are no mystery, for anyone who cares to check into the careful research and analyses available. Should we excuse the novelists (that is, the novels) for their failure to ascertain, to provide, such vital clarity, on such a central issue? On the contrary. Such failure hurts, guts, such works on an intellectual level, a humane level, also an artistic level.

Andrew Seal said...

So which one is it? Power-mad individuals or impersonal economic forces? Agency or structure?

Tony Christini said...

You're asking me the causes of the Cold War? Why? Don't you know any of the research?

"So which one is it? Power-mad individuals or impersonal economic forces? Agency or structure?"

The above is a false either-or choice. Am I incorrect in thinking that you already know that?

Andrew Seal said...

You can tell me what you think the causes of the Cold War are if you want, but I think we're running aground on a more basic point than historiography.

My point about Haldeman and Le Carré is that they give both structure and agency as answers to the question of "what started and drives the Cold War?", but at different times, and they find this alternation a problem.

At times, they emphasize structural forces that constrain and even prevent any of the actors--even the most elite actors--from having any agency. The war, both writers indicate at times, surpasses the ability of any individual actor to engineer it successfully or even to control their part in it, even elite actors.

But at other times, both writers are very certain that the war and its prolongation is in fact the intentional product of specific actors who have amassed sufficient power to drive their societies to war and to prevent those societies from seeking peace.

Both writers also, it seems to me, are uncomfortable with this inconsistency--they want to be able to attribute the war and its continuance either to structure or to agency--they don't want to say "it's indeterminable" and they don't want to say "it's both." They want an answer and they want one answer.

Now, I'm still not sure (in fact now I'm less sure) which part of all of this you consider "weak." Is it the fact that they don't have a clear answer, that they're mixed-up about the structure-vs.-agency question? Or the fact that they don't have your answers?

In other words, are you asking that Le Carré/Haldeman write with the objective of definitively explaining the Cold War (and possibly provide answers that conflict with yours), or are you asking that they reflect your views? I'm having a bit of a tough time parsing which of the two you're after here.

Tony Christini said...

My comments are interspersed below at arrows --> for clarity. TC

My point about Haldeman and Le Carré is that they give both structure and agency as answers to the question of "what started and drives the Cold War?", but at different times, and they find this alternation a problem.

--> First, why on earth would the alternation between structure and agency be a problem? It's not a conceptual or factual problem. Such alternation happens all the time in many realms.

-->Second, The pursuit of the question "what started and drives the Cold War" (and the hot wars derivative of it) should be undertaken in nonfiction, not fiction. It's a problem essentially for research and scholarship, not art. Dramatizing or otherwise portraying the causes and motors, the findings, is in the proper realm of art, of fiction. As is making use of the findings for extrapolation or exaggeration or other meaningful and engaging work of the imagination. The fundamental and various causes and drivers of the Cold and Hot wars are known entities, though lied about endlessly in dominant realms. Art may then launch or embed itself from or in such basic and crucial knowledge. And what should art do with such crucial knowledge that is so tremendously and terribly covered up and lied about? The question answers itself.

At times, they emphasize structural forces that constrain and even prevent any of the actors--even the most elite actors--from having any agency. The war, both writers indicate at times, surpasses the ability of any individual actor to engineer it successfully or even to control their part in it, even elite actors.

But at other times, both writers are very certain that the war and its prolongation is in fact the intentional product of specific actors who have amassed sufficient power to drive their societies to war and to prevent those societies from seeking peace.

Both writers also, it seems to me, are uncomfortable with this inconsistency--they want to be able to attribute the war and its continuance either to structure or to agency--they don't want to say "it's indeterminable" and they don't want to say "it's both." They want an answer and they want one answer.

Now, I'm still not sure (in fact now I'm less sure) which part of all of this you consider "weak." Is it the fact that they don't have a clear answer, that they're mixed-up about the structure-vs.-agency question? Or the fact that they don't have your answers?

--> I expect artists, as well as critics, as well as any other intellectuals, to keep up with the best knowledge that so directly concerns the realms within which they work.

(continued below)

Tony Christini said...

(continued from above. TC)

In other words, are you asking that Le Carré/Haldeman write with the objective of definitively explaining the Cold War (and possibly provide answers that conflict with yours), or are you asking that they reflect your views? I'm having a bit of a tough time parsing which of the two you're after here.about Haldeman and Le Carré is that they give both structure and agency as answers to the question of "what started and drives the Cold War?", but at different times, and they find this alternation a problem.

--> A problem? These are truisms. What doesn't "structure" and "agency" drive?

At times, they emphasize structural forces that constrain and even prevent any of the actors--even the most elite actors--from having any agency. The war, both writers indicate at times, surpasses the ability of any individual actor to engineer it successfully or even to control their part in it, even elite actors.

--> But of course, even in formal tyrannies, lots happens that is outside the dictators' ability to control.

But at other times, both writers are very certain that the war and its prolongation is in fact the intentional product of specific actors who have amassed sufficient power to drive their societies to war and to prevent those societies from seeking peace.

--> Yes, of course this is the reality too.

Both writers also, it seems to me, are uncomfortable with this inconsistency—

--> There's no inconsistency, that is, no contradiction in these dualities. The fallacy is in setting out an either-or choice in the first place.

they want to be able to attribute the war and its continuance either to structure or to agency--they don't want to say "it's indeterminable" and they don't want to say "it's both." They want an answer and they want one answer.

--> Why? Do you mean they are stupid? Aren't you making them sound like simplistic idiots here? I think you don't mean to, but the way you put it.... Why would ANYONE think what you are stating they think here.

Now, I'm still not sure (in fact now I'm less sure) which part of all of this you consider "weak."

--> Well, I've broken it down quite a bit now, haven't I?

Is it the fact that they don't have a clear answer, that they're mixed-up about the structure-vs.-agency question? Or the fact that they don't have youranswers?

--> See above, no? Also, why not read Point of No Return, that is read an actual geopolitically left novel, and compare. What do you have to lose? I'll send you a copy, if you like. Or reading my Homefront would as well provide a geopolitically left novel point of comparison, on wars both Cold and Hot. Draw your own conclusions.

In other words, are you asking that Le Carré/Haldeman write with the objective of definitively explaining the Cold War (and possibly provide answers that conflict with yours), or are you asking that they reflect your views? I'm having a bit of a tough time parsing which of the two you're after here.

--> Per above.

Andrew Seal said...

I must not have made myself clear: these novels (which I'm not certain you've read, although it may not matter to you) do experience the question of structure-vs.-agency as an either/or, and they do feel frustrated by their inability to decipher which is more determinative.

Or, at least that is my reading. If you have read these books and disagree, please provide an argument about the books with evidence from them. Asking "Why would ANYONE think what you are stating they think here" is not such an argument.

Finally, this constant recourse to books by you or your friends is not helpful to the conversation. You finish nearly every comment by saying essentially, "you will find all the answers in my book, or in this book by my co-editor." A book recommendation is great, but that's all you're doing.

Tony Christini said...

Thanks for advising me on how to discourse. And for carefully explaining what an argument is not.

Yes, you said the novels "do experience the question of structure-vs.-agency as an either/or." And I've said: It's a fallacy. Ergo: "weak, weak, weak." And I've explained why it's a fallacy.

And that answers the question you asked.

Any "frustration" of the novels on this question is irrelevant, as it's based on a mistake. (Which may in fact be causing said frustration. How could it not?)

I've read in both of these novels, and have not seen enough to interest me to read them thoroughly through. That is why throughout here, I've taken you at your word about the novels.

But you've said more than the novels "feel frustrated by their inability to decipher which is more determinative." Haven't you? You've said:

"they want to be able to attribute the war and its continuance either to structure or to agency--they don't want to say 'it's indeterminable' and they don't want to say 'it's both.' They want an answer and they want one answer."

In other words, they want to find that the truth correlates to one side or another of the either-or. (Never mind that it's fallacious.)

Do the novels want that? Fine. I take you at your word. I find it hard to believe, something of an outlandish claim, because it sounds, as you phrase it, that the novels are striving for something so incredibly reductive, simplistic. Are they? I mean that rhetorically. I don't care if they are, because I did not find the novels to be very vital. I'm just commenting on what I find to be an extraordinary claim that you make. I haven't asked you to prove it to me and have made no argument in regard to it. And I have explained my initial comment that you asked about.

Tony Christini said...

I might add, for anyone who may wonder, that the best research shows that what caused the Cold War and its many hot wars is what causes most wars, the desire to plunder wealth: resources and markets.

Take the part of these wars for which we are responsible: the ongoing US conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan, and nations globally by both economic threat and force and military warfare. These are extensions of last century's cold and hot wars, and longstanding US policy.

Both "agency" and "structure" are required to carry this out, and, most crucially, the utter marginalization of the public. This is accomplished by way of the force and deceit wielded by what are essentially tyrannies, corporations, also by the hired and fellow-traveling elements of a reality-show-like heavily funded handmaiden government, and widespread dominant establishment realms, including academia, the media and entertainment, religions, and so on. These structures and agents are not monolithic but they have proven too often too powerful for the public, for majority public will, that is for democracy, to so far destroy or to depathologize. That said, the struggle continues. We see this illuminated in some of the most vital novels not only of our day but over the course of the past centuries. Democracy and enlightenment ideals fighting for life. For life itself. Against the tyrannies throughout society and time.

Andrew Seal said...

Tony,
Yes, I think I have my answer: it is that you expected Le Carré and Haldeman to reflect your views, and that their worth (and evidently their strength, vitality, and intelligence) depended on whether they do or not. You could have just said that when I asked the first time.

Tony Christini said...

Andrew,
But you see, "reflect my views" doesn't mean anything. (And you know it.) Which is why I wouldn't say it.

Let's say I picked up some horribly repellent novel (or piece of criticism) that practically no one likes, it's so pathological, or, say, so mind-numbingly trivial. If I were to say, well, I expected it to reflect my views and it doesn't, and it's worthless because it doesn't reflect my views, well, that may well be true that it doesn't reflect my views, so does that mean that the fault lies with me for not liking the novel? Of course not. It lies with the novel (or the piece of criticism) on grounds one could objectively explain. And that is what I've done.

Others will have to judge.

SciFiBookshelf.com said...

I interviewed Joe Haldeman recently and asked him about The Forever War and winning the Grand Master award. He told me that he doesn’t feel old enough. (If you're interested, you can read my Joe Haldeman interview for free at SciFiBookshelf.com )

Andrew Seal said...

Joe Haldeman has written me to say that Blogger has for its own devilish reasons blocked him from posting the following comment:

"Just a note from one of the two shuttlecocks being batted back and forth here.

"One writer says "both novels are fairly ambivalent about whether impersonal economic forces or actual, power-mad individuals caused and are prolonging the war, and both novels are a little unwilling to take the cop-out answer of "both." They think it must be one or the other, but they are extremely unsure which."

"That's an interesting interpretation, which doesn't seem inaccurate to me. But then a respondent says that this is " . . . just weak, weak, weak, even for the time, however utterly typical."

"So I'm being sneered at (as "utterly typical" of something) for someone else's interpretation of my work? That would not be worth commenting on, but a broader comment made later is more interesting.

"The author of THE FOREVER WAR did grow up during the Cold War, but the book is pretty obviously about Vietnam and other "hot" wars. Yet the same sneerer castigates both books for not properly analyzing or presenting the causes of the Cold War. He rhetorically asks "Should we excuse the novelists (that is, the novels) for their failure to ascertain, to provide, such vital clarity, on such a central issue?" and answers "On the contrary. Such failure hurts, guts, such works on an intellectual level, a humane level, also an artistic level."

"That writer probably won't be affected by anything I say, since by his standards I am not an intellectual (nor by mine, actually), but let me posit something for the other people following this thread:

"Novels may have intellectual content, but they don't need it. A person looking for political meaning in a novel is like a person who expects to get science from science fiction or history from historical fiction. The content is not guaranteed to be accurate, and may even be totally made up, without crippling that novel as a work of art.

"Most compelling works of art don't have a strong argumentative element. "Guernica" says more about war than both of these books, and dozens besides, but it speaks to the heart, not the head.

"Political argument dilutes art. Soviet socialist realism, for instance, can be beautiful and dramatic, but (unless you buy into the message) the beauty and drama are drowned out by the loud propaganda.

"If THE FOREVER WAR causes readers to be moved by its fictional people and their fictional concerns, then it has succeeded as a novel. If people argue about the design of the book jacket, or the quality of the paper, or the presumed politics of the author, they're in some other territory."

jimmy jay said...

Touche Mr Seal. I think he has you there Tony. I stumbled on this while searching for information on the forever war on-line. A very interesting argument I must say. To be honest I'm only halfway through the Forever war and cannot say I've read many of the other books mentioned but I will (thank you very much for the recommendations guys!). Im not even sure I can discourse on such an intellectual level as you guys, but I did want to say that Tony I think it is fine to critisize someonelses work, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but to say these authors' work is weak based on your reasoning isnt fair and actually out of line and I will try to explain why I think so.

I have to agree with Andrews statement
"If THE FOREVER WAR causes readers to be moved by its fictional people and their fictional concerns, then it has succeeded as a novel."

Anyone can research and read to kingdom com and come up with their own ideas about the extension of the cold war that may not even tally with yours, but the idea is that they have thought about it and formed their own conclusions.

It doesn't need to be spelled out to them by the authors. As long as it has stimulated them to consider the issue then I can see no weakness there.
My main point is that I think the weakness is expecting the author to provide you with a certainty that really is at the end of the day still just his interpretation and opinion of the issue. You should do that yourself. It is not the authors responsibility to certainly spell it out for their readers. Providing the certainty you ask is to be honest asking the author to spell out his own opinion about these causes which at the the end of the day will still always be a personal opinion.
The idea is to get people to think about it themselves and form their own idea which I think both men have done very well!

I think that's the problem today and that's my issue. People need start using their own brains (and I don't mean you by the way) rather than expecting someone else to "certainly" form their ideas for them! Joe Haldeman and Le Carre have played their part, providing the inspiration. Now we each need to take that and go and do our own research and do our own reading that will help us form our individual opinions of what we think of war. Rather than expect someone to do that for us in what I think is not a bad novel so far as I read it, with something that at the end of the day no matter how certain you think it is, is still their personal interpretation of those factors and reasons that you say are there in black and white for all to see in your quoted research and analysis.
A lot of people that will read these books are not as well read or intelligent as you sound Tony or sad to say intelligent enough to form their own opinions that easily so I think it would wrong to give them the certainty you ask. Inspiration, yes. They may never have even thought about the issue until they read these books. I think they need to find that themselves.
People need to stop being sheep and maybe our society might improve!!
Thanks, and sorry for any spelling errors or mistakes! I'm not used to posting anything online!
Sorry if what I've said makes no sense either, I'm not as eloquent as you guys but I felt your criticism was unwarranted and more than not fair. these guys accomplished all they needed to do and more. the rest is up to the readers as intelligent human beings to put that to use and form their own ideas. That to me is the idea of being enlightened!

jimmy jay said...

..or should I say that is the only way for us a race to start becoming a bit more enlightened!