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 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.
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.
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[…]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.
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.
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.