Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Winner of Hugo and Nebula awards.
The Forever War was written in the shadow of the Vietnam War and reflects perceptions of war in that context. By modern standards, the Vietnam War was a long war - lasting longer than WWI or WWII, for instance. Here, Joe Haldeman envisions a war that drags on for longer than the Hundred Years War, at least as far as the years are counted back on Earth.
Earth is at war with extraterrestrials. A human colony spaceship disappeared. A military investigation attributes this to the alien Tauran race. Earth has no intention of letting anything stand in the way of human expansion in the galaxy. Earth's military starts sending its troop ships to the various interstellar "jump" locations to control space travel and to eliminate aliens who might try to stop us.
All of this interstellar travel takes time, especially back at the home worlds. If a troop ship from one side has been out traveling for a while, relativistic time dilation means those on the ship experienced relatively short periods but many years passed on the home planet. The ship's technology will be what was current the year they set out. If that ship encounters a ship from the other side which has just begun its tour, its technology may be more advanced. When the troops land on a planet and try to defeat the aliens there, they don't know before-hand how obsolete or advanced the aliens' technology will be.
The soldiers don't age much, but long stretches pass on Earth. Few family members or friends remain. Society is different and unfamiliar. The war economy isn't making things better either. It doesn't seem like "home" to the soldiers anymore.
As centuries pass (by Earth standards), new recruits to the army become very different kinds of people. For instance, homosexuality becomes an encouraged way of life (as a means to control population).
We're shown an army of men and women, where it is common for them to share bunks. We're shown a war that seems endless, that alienates soldiers from their society. And, perhaps, a meaningless, unnecessary and tragic war.
Haldeman shows us a war that is tragic to both sides, has meant innumerable deaths, has taken young people away from their families and friends – never to see them again. Yet, he has managed to do it without demonizing individuals – none of the military officers or other characters are shown as essentially evil or heartless people. The characters we get to know have good qualities. The military and political figures we only hear about act according to the approaches such leaders see as for their society’s narrow and current advantage. That makes The Forever War an extraordinary statement.
The story was first serialized in Analog, which insisted on part of the story being modified. When the book came out in 1974, it was in the modified version. Those who read the book in the 1970s or 1980s may be interested to know it is now available with the story as Haldeman originally intended it.
The method of FTL used in The Forever War is pretty implausible. The fact Haldeman describes how it “works” is unfortunate. However, I have to grant him these points. First, black hole physics were much less understood when he wrote it. Second, his story depends on a combination of FTL and relativistic sub-light travel, and the method he describes provides that background.
It’s interesting to see the predictions Haldeman made in 1974 about what technologies we would have in 1997. He envisions heavy duty fuel cells, laser weapons, relativistic spaceships capable of carrying 100 soldiers, neutrino communications, etc. Humans do seem to have a tendency to either under-estimate or over-estimate progress…