Fallen angels Essay
Fallen Angels is the story of coming of age, finding one’s place in the world, and survival.
Set in Vietnam, the characters experience the loss of innocence, the reality and morality of war. There would be no winners, just survivors. Their experiences of the outside world would dissipate in the midst of the Vietnam war.When Richie arrives in Vietnam, he is ready to do his part.
He is seventeen years old, right out of high school. Richie joined the army as a way to escape, to avoid dealing with the questions of his future. Richie also thought the war would be over by the time he got there.
Richie is an observer. As narrator, he recounts his first combat mission and describes the men who, for very different reasons, become an important part of his life in Vietnam;“I looked over at Johnson. The one expression he had in the world wason his face.
PeeWee was busy looking out the door. Jenkins had his eyesclosed and his knuckles were white from holding onto the seat.”Richie believed that the army and therefore the war would follow a rational plan. As Richie’s understanding of the war and the part he has in it deepens, so does his understanding of the men he lives and fights with. Jenkins, so fearful that he can barely function, dies as he steps on a landmine on their first mission. These were teenage boys, confronting the reality of war, the loss of life, and the loss of innocence. Richie tries to write a letter home about Jenkins and his death, but it is too difficult to talk or write about.
Richie’s family believes in the war as most would, that the soldiers are fighting a just and noble cause. He is afraid to tell them the truth or of his fear, for they may think less of him. Richie finds himself in this position often. He has horror stories and a need to connect to his family. Inevitably each time he is faced with this, he steps away from the pen and paper and reaches out to a comrade.It seems odd that when writing to the families or significant others about a soldiers death, he could do so.
But those letters were strewn with stories of heroes and stories of victory. It was easier to make up stories than to talk about the truth. It was also easier to lie to others than it was to his family.When faced with opportunity to be removed from battle, because of medical conditions, Richie chooses to stay. He does so out of loyalty and friendship. His feelings about the war and why he is there have changed dramatically.
The experiences of war, looking at the face of a dead enemy soldier and realizing he is human, being involved in the accidental shooting of an American platoon, Richie is struggling with war and the result of war. These realities combined with the careerism of his commanders leave him disillusioned. To know that the “higher ups” were willing to risk lives to boost their own careers, seemed almost unbelievable.These soldiers were prepared to sacrifice themselves for their country. Richie and his comrades are desperately seeking to find some distinction between good and bad. They need to confirm that they are on the “good” side of the conflict. Faced with the horrors he sees around him, Richie cannot help but ask these difficult questions, examining the morality of war and the frequently ambiguous nature of right and wrong. Richie first becomes aware of this moral ambiguity when his squad is sent on a pacification mission to a Vietnamese village.
The stated goal of this mission is to convince the villagers that the Americans, and not the Communists, are the good side. This idea disturbs Richie, who reflects, “That was where we were supposed to start from. We, the Americans, were the good guys.” Richie feels that the Americans should not have to convince the Vietnamese that they represent the good side. Nonetheless, he recognizes why such a mission is necessary.Richie’s experience with the violence and brutality of war are becoming more personal and more traumatic.
Faced with the deaths of Jenkins and Carroll, and having taken the life of another person himself, the horror of war has become a reality for Richie and his squad. The squad increasingly becomes like family, with each soldier fighting not only to save his own life but that of his brother. The love and friendship between the soldiers deepen, and these bonds keep the young men sane and give them reason to fight. Monaco trusts and respects his fellow soldiers so much that he allows them to vote on important decisions in his life; when the squad votes that he should marry his girlfriend, he takes the result as non-negotiable. The love and tenderness between the soldiers become even more apparent when Richie’s first killing traumatizes him. Peewee embraces Richie like a mother, father, or brother would, and they fall asleep holding on to each other.
The bond growing over the course of these events, culminates with Brew’s death. As he is dying, he extends his hand toward Richie, trying to communicate through his grip all the sentiments that he feels unable to communicate through words. Richie realizes that the only unambiguous virtue in war is loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers. The relationship between the soldiers has allowed them to look past the racial tensions or questions of sexuality. Each soldier considers the other an ally, regardless. By their living and fighting so closely, they are able to look past superficial differences. They are recognizing the humanity in each of them.
As the soldiers prepare to return home, Richie writes a candid letter to his brother, Kenny. He tells his brother that he has killed out of fear and to keep the enemy from killing his first. He doesn’t feel like a hero, just a survivor. He writes to let his brother and family know that the war has changed him profoundly and he needs them to be prepared for that. He also writes to correct the stories of war and the myths that surrounded the Vietnam war. He feels compelled to portrait an accurate picture of the war.
“We spent another day lying around. It seemed to be what the warwas about. Hours of boredom, seconds of terror.”One of the most difficult challenges a soldier had to deal with is the lack of control over their own lives. Their wishes will not be considered when they are given their orders. If they face challenges within their squad, such as racism or prejudice, they must endure. There is a strict hierarchy within the military and it is one in which inferiors can never question or challenge the orders of a superior.
The standards of morality during wartime are dramatically different than the morality of civilians. Incidents, such as the exploding child, point out the aspects of war that are simply unthinkable. This act further blurs the line between good and bad, but also serves to remind the soldiers that they are on the good side of this conflict.The soldiers that came to Vietnam, who were full of life and came to defend their country, ship out lifeless. They have lost their innocence, their morality, their hope and their faith.
They are returning home different people than they left.“I also knew when I got back, she would expect me to bethe same person, but it could never happen.”When they board the plane to return home, they will be surrounded by caskets containing their fellow soldiers. Although they are relieved to leave Vietnam, they are not excited to go home. They are both numb and frightened. They know returning home will require almost as much strength as it took to get there.
They will relive the frightening experiences over and over in their dreams. Their families will not understand the experiences they have had.Richie and his comrades did what many of us would do when faced with such horrific experiences. Many of them withdrew from the life they knew at home because it was too hard to face the reality of where they were. It became easier for some to get through the day if not faced with the emotions of the families they had left behind.
Issues of racism disappeared as the soldiers drew closer to each other. They all became soldiers, fighting for each other. None of them understood or saw any other valid reason they were fighting. Issues of communism disappeared in their mind. The confusion they experienced as they realized the South Vietnamese did not know who was good or bad, separates them from the bigger picture of communism. They begin to recognize the anonymity of the battle they have fought and the lives they have lost, as illustrated by the lost dog tags.
There is clearly a sadness in the lives of these soldiers as they return home. They have fought a war without reason. They have lost their comrades, their commanders, and their friends. Those lives that were lost, tragically will be quickly forgotten. They will need the help of their family and friends in re-acclimating to “normal” society, but that will require them sharing their experience the realities of war. They don’t want to talk about it again.