Analysis of Major Characters
When Richie Perry first arrives in Vietnam, seventeen years old and fresh out of high school, he is naïve, lost, and confused. He has no grasp on the brutal reality of war, no sense of himself, and no idea of how he wants to build his life. Though he is unusually bright, sensitive, and talented, all of his big dreams—attending college, becoming a writer, giving his brother, Kenny, the opportunities Richie lacked—seem doomed by his poverty. Richie’s father abandoned the family years before, leaving the two boys with a depressed and alcoholic mother who spends most of her measly salary on her drinking habit. Richie sees joining the army as his only chance at escape, a way to avoid unsettling questions about himself and his future.
At first, Richie’s experience in Vietnam makes him only more doubtful and confused. The carnage, senseless murders, and completely antiheroic nature of the battlefield leave him reeling, adding to his doubts about right and wrong and the morality of the war. Richie struggles with these difficult issues but never finds satisfactory answers. He begins to mature without realizing it and starts to become “the man [he will] be” by asking these complicated questions. Richie’s sensitivity and inherent curiosity compel him to reflect on these issues of right and wrong, and also make him the squad’s unofficial therapist. He is the friend to whom every soldier in the squad turns when in need of advice or a sympathetic ear. Richie’s urgent reactions to his battlefield experiences give him the perspective and insight to become a writer, as they instill in him a compelling need to represent the truth in words, regardless of whether the truth is disturbing or uncomfortable. Returning home after several months of combat, Richie is no closer to solving the problems that plagued him when he left. He is still too poor to attend college and has no means to improve his brother’s life, but he has grown from his experiences and started on the path to manhood and emotional maturity.
Hailing from the brutal streets of the Chicago ghettos, Peewee has learned to respond to fear with a brash humor that either disarms or infuriates anyone who meets him. When Richie first meets Peewee during the trip to Vietnam, Peewee seems arrogant, flippant, and even slightly insane. As the two boys share the experiences of war, however, Richie realizes that Peewee is actually deeply caring, kind, loyal, and tender. While never wholly abandoning his bluster and jokes, Peewee reveals his true self more often as the months drag on, most strikingly after he watches a mother sacrifice her own child in the war effort.
Of all the members of the squad, Peewee best illustrates the odd mixture of boy and man that makes up a soldier. He arrives in Vietnam claiming to have only three goals in life: to drink wine from a corked bottle, to smoke a cigar, and to make love to a foreign woman. Yet later, Peewee also hopes to become the stepfather to his girlfriend’s daughter. He is still unable to grow a mustache, and he naïvely puts lotion on his lip to speed its growth. However boyish he is, he also must fight for his country, and he bravely and calmly saves another soldier, Monaco, from death. Like Richie, Peewee leaves Vietnam no closer to figuring out his future, but closer to becoming a man.
As a Jew and a suspected homosexual, Lobel suffers from nearly as much prejudice as his black squad mates. He is thus instantly drawn to Richie and Peewee, and is sympathetic to any racist remarks they receive. The nephew of a Hollywood director, Lobel is obsessed with movies. He incessantly views the war as if it were a movie and at the battlefield as if it were a movie set. He wonders about lighting improvements, set changes, and camera angles. During missions, he imagines himself as an actor playing a role, casting himself as the star of the film so that he is the soldier who does not die. Lobel’s fixation on the movies can be seen as an escape from the harsh reality of war. Lobel finds it too difficult to face this reality unprotected, so he desperately clings to the belief that the movies are “the only real thing in life.” This belief allows him to dismiss or deny the horror of his experience. Like Peewee’s humor, Lobel’s obsession with movies is a way to avoid thinking about the tough questions that plague him—complex questions of right and wrong, good and bad, and life and death. By pretending that the world of movies—not the nightmarish world of Vietnam—is real, Lobel tries to convince himself that such difficult questions are not even important. Despite his escapism, Lobel matures during his time in Vietnam. He begins to worry over his skill as a soldier, to take responsibility for the lives of those around him, and, most impressively, to take a deep interest in issues of fairness. When a racist sergeant nearly tears the squad apart, Lobel takes a brave and loyal stand by declaring his allegiance to his black squad mates.
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