Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The 1960s were a time of great racial tension in the United States. The African-American civil-rights movement was gaining momentum, and anxieties were growing on all sides. This tension immediately finds its way into the bunker of Richie’s squad. The American soldiers frequently trade racial slurs, both about the black soldiers in their midst and about the Vietnamese, who are of a different race than most of the American soldiers. Both manifestations of racism lead to physical violence, with some of the soldiers fighting one another instead of the Vietcong. Yet, as the squad members bond, the prejudices begin to evaporate. Living and fighting very closely, they begin to depend on one another and become able to look past superficial differences. The soldiers come to appreciate one another for their fundamental qualities, and they learn to value each other’s humanity and fear for each other’s lives. By the time the squad is faced with Sergeant Dongan—a racist who endangers black soldiers because he considers their lives less important—it has come so far that most of the white members are outraged by Dongan’s unfair treatment and even offer to risk their own positions by taking a stand against him.
Though the soldiers often talk about heroism, it is almost always part of an effort to denigrate or deflate the concept. Peewee calls heroism stupid and Richie calls it empty. They express the sentiment that a soldier should not try to be heroic and never needlessly risk his life. Nonetheless, the soldiers clearly respect heroism when they see it. When Lieutenant Carroll risks his own life to save a few of his men, the soldiers beneath him revere him more than ever. They admire his heroism but avoid referring to it in noble-sounding terms, saying, “When the chips were down, he put his ass on the line for the guys.”
At the same time that they belittle overblown concepts of heroism, the members of the squad also display heroism. Richie repeatedly stresses that he is not a hero. Yet, when given the opportunity to save himself by bowing out of combat duty, he refuses the offer, knowing that his absence would leave his squad short a man, putting them in more danger. Peewee warns Richie not to be “no fucking hero,” but when Richie asks Peewee what he would do in the same situation, Peewee admits that he would do the same. Though the squad members have lost any illusion that they are fighting for patriotism or freedom or any other high ideals, they still fight for one another. In putting each other’s interests ahead of or on equal ground with their own, they are heroic, despite their protests.
As the members of Richie’s squad become disillusioned with noble and abstract ideals such as patriotism, heroism, and freedom, they find a simpler and more powerful virtue in friendship. Rather than fight for ideas they hardly understand, they simply fight for one another. As Richie reflects, they learn “something . . . about trying to keep each other alive,” which supersedes any other reason for fighting. Friendship between the men impels them to incredible acts of bravery. When the squad members are warned that they will be sent on more frequent and more dangerous missions unless they agree to split up, they ignore the warning and stay together. The bond among the squad members grows so strong that they are willing to face greater risks as a team rather than face smaller risks fighting separately. Richie reflects on this bond, because it is this squad of friends that they are really protecting. Without these friends by their side, the squad members have no reason to fight. For them, the war has come to revolve around the squad members.
The growing friendship among the members of the squad also helps them overcome their personal prejudices. When faced with the racist Sergeant Dongan, the squad bands together on the side of the black soldiers. When Dongan questions Johnson about Lobel’s homosexuality, Johnson does not respond, later explaining to Richie that he could not care less whether Lobel is a homosexual because any man fighting by his side is equally an ally, regardless of the nature of his personal life. By living and fighting so closely together, the men are able to overcome their petty biases and appreciate and support one another.