“War Veteran” was originally published in If in March 1955. It can now be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 253–289.
And old man is sitting on a park bench admiring the scenery, which he says “looks perfect.” He begins sharing sixty year old war stories with some of the soldiers who are passing by. They are mostly indifferent to his ramblings. In fact, no one he talked to seemed to even remember the war.
Vachel Patterson and his passengers Edwin LeMarr, V-Stephens, and Evelyn Cutter are stopped by a major pro-Earth demonstration. Patterson explains that these mobs are being supported and encouraged by Francis Gannet. These pro-Earth militants are a small minority. They start to move away when they see a Venusian girl (Venusians are called “webfoots” for their adaptatios) and attack her. V-Stephens get out of the car and rescues the girl (named V-Rafia), explaining to her that he is a Venusian too. They go toward a hospital.
Late conversations in the car show that the incident incensed V-Stephens who suggests that all Venusians should leave Earth for their own saftery, clearing that they independence to be free. To change the subject, Patterson introduces V-Stephens to the case of the old veteran, whose ID card number has not been issued yet.
The old man, who name is David Unger, is called to the hospital. He begins walking there. When he sees some Venusians he proclaims shock and accusers soldiers of not doing their duty by letting them just walk around. At the hospital he is instructed to see Doctor Patterson. Unger tells Patterson and his colleagues that he was born in 2154, how he entered the military and his long participation in the wars with Venus and Mars. He was there at the battle that broke Earth’s defenses and led to the destruction of the Earth population. Patterson and Cutter know very well that all of the events he is describing will happen in the future. David Unger is a time traveler. If he was born in 2154, he would only be fifteen years old now.
V-Stephens gets the news is soon convinced that Unger’s reports prove that Earth will lose the war against the colonies. He tells Patterson that he will inform Color-Ad (colonial offices on Earth) or return to Venus to spread the news. They will force the war on Earth, knowing they will be victorious. Francis Gannet with a team of soldiers enters, killing V-Rafia and capturing V-Stephens. With Gannet, Patterson and LeMarr explain the projections that Unger provided. The Earth will be rendered uninhabitable due to attacks from C-missiles from Venus and Mars. Lieutenant West, who is accompanying Gannet, is told that he will be commander of the Wind Giant during the final battle. West hopes that Unger will be able to reveal information that will allow them to change their fortunes in the war. Gannet—who earlier promoted pro-Earth sentiment—thinks the best path forward is to avoid war.
LeMarr decides to free V-Stephens from confinement. Stealing LeMarr’s cold-bean, V-Stephens incapacitates LeMarr and escapes on his own and contacts Color-Ad.
Unger is struggling to remember the details of the battle to pass on any information that might give Earth an advantage. West decides that if they can stop a key convoy the battle would be won, but without precision information they could not take the risk of starting a war they could not win. The young man who had Unger’s number reports to serve. The fifteen year old turns out to be named Bert Robinson. Patterson briefly questions him and allows him to be inducted into the military. Gannet, Unger, and West walk toward them. Unger is killed in a massive explosion.
Moments later, as West and Gannet despair that they lost their one means of winning the war. V-Stephens is revealed to be Unger’s murderer. A census reports comes in proving that no man named David L. Unger, with these characteristics, has ever lived.
A lab technician tells Patterson that Unger was not a human, but a very sophisticated android.
LeMarr tracks down V-Stephens, who has since hid his identity by changing his skin color from green in order to hide in Earth. LeMarr gets V-Stephens to reveal the entire plot. Unger was an android created by Color-Ad to frighten Earth into giving Mars and Venus independence and get Gannet’s pro-Earth movement to simmer. V-Rafia was also a Color-Aid agent. V-Stephens, Patterson, and LeMarr reconcile due to their mutual commitment to peace between the colonies and Earth. V-Stephens predicts that cooperation will allow the exploration of other worlds, and then humans from all planets will get to see what a real alien looks like. That will be a history-making realization.
I am beginning to realize that there is as much great material in the longer short stories of Philip K. Dick as there is in his novels. Many of the short stories really are one or two trick experiences (as nice as those tricks are). Yet works like “War Veteran,” “The Variable Man,” “A World of Talent,” and “The Last of the Masters” are as rich in material as The Man Who Japed or Dr. Futurity or really any of his early longer works. All of these could easily have been worked into full novels. It is a shame more scholars do not take the time to read and mediate on these stories and fit them into their analysis of Dick’s work. They really are a gold mine.
“War Veteran” shows Dick considering the relationship between Earth and the colonies at their most intimate level. Previously we have seen wars between Earth and the colonies over trade rights or other differences. Here we see that over a century and a half, the people living on Mars and Venus adapted to the environment. They are still human but they look different (Venusians have webbed feet and green skin). But instead of giving us a simplistic picture of an Earth full of Earthlings at war with a distant colony, we see that the Venusians came back to Earth in large numbers, working various jobs and trying to co-exist. Sure, they want their political independence but they are not eager for war or conflict. Earthlings are deeply divided over the colonies as well. Some are quasi-fascist nationalists who promoted nativism. Others are more liberal voices believing that Earth and the colonies can share the solar system. The news that a horribly destructive war is imminent tests all of these perspectives. The liberals began to grow suspicious of the “foreigners” and the nativists begin looking for ways to compromise.
The main device in the story is an apparently senile old man, claiming to be a veteran of that last war. It turns out that he is an android developed just to spread fear among the Earthlings in hopes of convincing Earth to give independence to the colonies. Actually, the story is clever in both ways. From Unger’s point of view, he is a time travelling veteran. He was implanted with memories as real as any. Some may even prefer the story where Unger is really a warning from the future, testing if Earth can change its destiny. Either way, it is a solid story.
The fears of a war with Venus and Mars is real, promoted by the nativist propaganda of Gannet. This is not the first nor the last time that Dick warned of such reckless nativism. It is very well-developed in The World Jones Made, where Terran nativism is used to life a fascist leader to power. In fact, the Venusians and Martians do not seem to present any real threat, but they are seen by many as a dangerous element. This causes the ranks of the military to swell, war preparation, paranoia among leaders, and many other dangerous trends. Whatever your motive, it is dangerous to fan the flames of war. Gannet comes near to regretting his propaganda campaign when he realizes it may lead to the end of humanity.
We get it only in passing at the end of the story, but again Dick reveals a fundamental optimism about space exploration. As in “The Variable Man,” “War Veteran” sees exploration as a means for humanity to escape its narrow-mindedness and cultural decadence. Lacking a stellar frontier, humans are destined to turn into various sub-sets of humanity, squabbling over a small corner of the universe. Reaching out onto a larger stage means will allow humans to escape their tendency toward parochial conflicts.