A look at Joe Haldeman's Forever Peace, an eerily prescient sci-fi classic



If the Federal Reserve had a dime for every loony science fiction prophecy that came true, well, we'd still be flat broke. However, a recent New York Times article on advancements in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) hints at a possible payoff for sci-fi veteran Joe Haldeman.

Since September 11th and the start of American military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the use of UAVs has skyrocketed. According to the Times piece, America's drone fleet has grown from less than 50 a decade ago to around 7,000 today. In addition to saving American lives on the ground, officials claim drones were instrumental in tracking Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and have helped disrupt Al Qaeda operations. There are also smaller, more sophisticated drones in development, ones that mimic hawks, hummingbirds, and even swarms of insects.

The military's commitment to the program is significant. This year the Air Force will train more drone pilots than fighters and bombers combined, and has requested $5 billion from Congress for the purchase of more UAVs. Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, is even quoted in the article, calling drones "a growth market."

Back in 1998, Haldeman published a prescient meditation on this very subject with Forever Peace. The book, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards (the sci fi Oscars and Golden Globes, respectively), describes a not-too-distant future wherein America and an alliance of central powers are engaged in a global, asymmetrical campaign against a vaguely defined insurgent movement who the government claim is responsible for a massive attack on American soil some years before. The story bears an eerie similarity to 9/11 and President Bush's "with us or against us" diplomacy. When the story begins, America has abandoned the use of human troops in favor of remote-controlled "soldierboys," deadly Terminator-style killing machines that create more ill will than they extinguish through indiscriminate collateral damage.

Though the New York Times article acknowledges the potential "disconnect" that will occur when human beings no longer fight their own wars, it barely scratches the surface of the issue. Haldeman saw the danger beyond the battlefield; the psychological distress inflicted on the pilots, as well as the growing tension between third world countries who bear the cost of war and the wealthy nations who can pay for robots to do their fighting for them.

As Haldeman describes this Earth of 2043, the similarities to 9/11, the War on Terror, civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this new push for drone warfare become unsettling.

In an early scene, soldierboy pilot Julian Class checks for news of the ongoing war:

Our little sortie wasn't even mentioned. Two platoons of soldierboys took the towns of Piedra Sola and Igatimi, in Uruguay and Paraguay; supposedly rebel strongholds. We did it with their governments' foreknowledge and permission, of course and there were no civilian casualties, equally of course. Once they're dead they're rebels. La muerte es el gran convertidor, they say Death is the great converter. That must be literally true as well as a sarcasm about our body counts. We've killed a quarter-million in the Americas and God knows how many in Africa. If I lived in either place I'd be a rebel.

The situation bears a strong similarity to the recent drone strikes in Pakistan where there have been conflicting reports from officials over the number of civilian casualties, as well as whether or not the victims were in fact Taliban fighters.

We're still a long way from the fully realized anthropoid killing machines Haldeman describes in Forever Peace, but his warnings seem worth heeding, now more than ever. As Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War, told the Times: "We are at the Wright Brothers Flier stage of this."

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.