How a Vietnam Draftee Became an Award-Winning Sci-Fi Author

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Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman

The last thing Joe Haldeman wanted to do with his life was get drafted to fight in Vietnam. Rather than go he even considered going to Canada -- or even jail.

But in the end he did his duty anyway, and the kid raised on John Wayne movies and GI Joe comics became Joe Haldeman the Army combat engineer, arriving in Vietnam on Feb. 29, 1968.

Little did he know it was his Vietnam War experience that would color the rest of his non-military life.

"In my work, it always comes back to the jungle," he once wrote in "Proceedings," the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Haldeman went on to become a renowned science fiction writer, penning the award winning sci-fi classics "The Forever War" and "The Hemingway Hoax."

Prior to receiving his draft letter he was far from some hippie, prospective draft-dodger who liked to write as a hobby. Instead, he was thinking about pursuing a career at NASA, perhaps becoming an astronaut, and already had a degree in astronomy. But he knew if he opted out of going to Vietnam, his NASA dreams would disappear. Besides, despite his pacifist beliefs, he wanted to prove he could be a soldier.

Arriving in Vietnam as an enlisted private in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, he and other members of his platoon were hit by a booby-trapped munitions cache. The wounded Haldeman would receive a Purple Heart and a ticket home for the incident.

Joe Haldeman in Vietnam. (Joe Haldeman)

Upon returning home, he found that the pastime he once wished to explore, writing, suddenly became a passion -- and his work was now colored by his experiences during the war.

"And a lot of us, like me, had been drafted against our will and wound up fighting, even though we either cared nothing about the politics or we were on the other side of the fence," he told NPR in 2011.

The budding young author soon attended the Milford Writer's Workshop, a science fiction writing conference that has been held since the mid-1950s. Getting immersed in a creative environment and surrounded by fellow writers was the turning point for the young Haldeman.

So instead of pursuing a post-Army career in computer science, Haldeman used his connections at Milford to get his first book deal for a fictional story inspired by his combat experiences in Vietnam.

Called "War Year," the 1972 book is about a combat engineer in Vietnam who struggles with the war he sees there. This reflective book comes from the things he wrote to his wife while deployed, things even he had trouble talking about.

"There was no designation for what we had," Haldeman said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. "I went to a psychiatrist and tried to find some sort of solution. And through a combination of talk therapy and less and less powerful psych drugs, I wound up getting the better of it, I think."

The cover of Joe Haldeman's "War Stories."

In his following books, be they sci-fi or traditional fiction, a pattern emerges in the stories he tells. His protagonists are often pacifists, sometimes in Vietnam but just as often on another planet or in a distant galaxy. The influence of the young pacifist's experience in Vietnam weighs heavily on the author's mind and he transmits his wartime experiences onto a page.

Although today's veterans may not know what it's like to fight in the jungles of Vietnam, the wartime experience is still very similar. There's something in Haldeman's work for everyone, veteran and civilian alike.

"I think younger readers can read the book and enjoy it without seeing any parallel with Vietnam, which is ancient history, of course," Haldeman told NPR

Read more of Joe Haldeman's reflections on his works at The Portalist.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com.

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