Summary: Chapter 4
“My father used to call all soldiers angel warriors,” he said. “Because usually they get boys to fight wars. Most of you aren’t old enough to vote yet.”
Lieutenant Carroll, the kind and competent leader of the platoon, leads a moving prayer for Jenkins, calling him an “angel warrior.” Carroll explains that his own father, also a military man, used to call all soldiers “angel warriors” because so many soldiers are young and as innocent as angels. Richie tries to write a letter home about Jenkins’s death, but he finds the subject too difficult to broach, and decides to write about Peewee instead.
The next few days are slow, giving the members of the squad time for conversations about their lives and their hopes for the future. An Italian soldier named Monaco tells the others about his days as a star high school athlete, an African-American soldier named Brew discusses his intention to become a priest, and a Jewish boy from California named Lobel talks about his love of movies. Soon, the squad is sent on a public-relations mission, bringing food and medical supplies to a Vietnamese village. Lobel and Richie befriend a young Vietnamese girl named An Linh. Peewee buys a bottle of wine, telling the others that one of his three life goals is to drink wine from a bottle with a cork; the other two are to smoke a cigar and to make love to a foreign woman. Back at the base, Sergeant Simpson complains to Peewee and Richie that the leader of their company, Captain Stewart, wants to embroil them in more dangerous missions for a selfish reason—he can be promoted to major only if he increases the enemy body count.
Summary: Chapter 5
Peewee receives a letter from his girlfriend, Earlene, informing him that she has married another man in his absence. After a few quiet days spent watching and rewatching a Julie Andrews movie and listening to the rumors of peace talks on the radio, the squad is sent on a mission that proves uneventful. Afterward, Lieutenant Carroll approaches Richie about his still unprocessed profile. He gives Richie a chance to remove himself from combat permanently by asking him to assess how bad his injury is. Out of a growing sense of loyalty to the members of his squad, Richie refuses to take advantage of this easy way out of danger.
Summary: Chapter 6
Richie and Lobel are put on guard duty. Lobel, whose uncle is a film director, tries to convince Richie that movies are the only real thing in life. He confesses that whenever he goes on patrol, he imagines that he is playing the part of a soldier in a movie. He dissects the various war movie clichés for Richie. Lobel laments, for instance, that he is still a virgin, since the baby-faced virgin always dies in war movies. He suggests that Richie avoid playing the part of the good black guy who everyone thinks is a coward until the end, when he dies while saving everyone else. Richie confesses to Lobel that he wishes he had a girlfriend so he could have another person with whom to exchange letters. Lobel offers to give him the address of a movie starlet, but Richie is not interested in a pretend girlfriend.
A news crew comes to interview Richie’s squad. They ask each soldier to explain why he is fighting in Vietnam. Each soldier gives a different stock response, citing lofty and slightly abstract goals such as the desire to stem the spread of Communism. When Richie’s turn comes, he tells the reporters that he is fighting in Vietnam to prevent fighting in the streets of America. The news crew later accompanies Richie’s squad on patrol. Monaco, who always acts as point man for the squad, leads the others and kills an enemy soldier, while Richie tries to fire a gun that he forgot to load. Back at camp Richie finds the news crew photographing the dead soldier and is astonished that the enemy is no bigger than his brother, Kenny.
Analysis: Chapters 4–6
Lobel’s commentary on war movies highlights the contrast between the myth and reality of warfare. War movies exhibit the clichés common in American popular culture—the tragic death of the baby-faced virgin soldier and the inevitably positive portrait of the black soldier. Such movies tend to infuse senseless deaths with false meaning, giving us beautiful, romantic representations of our favorite myths about good, evil, and heroism. These romanticized myths can help society deal with wartime loss by providing a justification for soldiers’ sacrifices, but these same myths also gloss over the ugliness and horror that are everywhere in war. In this sense, these myths do not give justice to the sacrifices expected of the soldiers fighting in reality.
These war myths also make it difficult for the soldier to share his burden of fear and suffering with his family, which leaves him feeling isolated and alienated from civilian life. Richie finds himself unable to write a satisfactory letter to his mother and Kenny because he does not know how to communicate his thoughts and feelings. His family’s beliefs about war are in line with the popular, idealized myths. Richie is afraid that they will not understand what he is feeling and that they will think less of him for abandoning the abstract ideals that make sense to them. In his loneliness and intense need to communicate, Richie seizes on the idea of having a girlfriend, thinking that a girlfriend would be able to understand what he has been through and would connect him to the rest of humanity by allowing him to share his fears. Richie also needs to feel that there are people who care about him and understand him, people who will help him return to a normal life after he leaves Vietnam.
Richie, however, no longer believes in the war myths propagated by movies and books. When he turns down the opportunity to be removed from combat, he is not acting out of any false illusions of wartime heroism and abstract ideals, but out of a genuine sense of fairness and friendship. Richie knows that dying while trying to be a hero would be senseless, not brave or noble. Yet he has become close friends with the men on his squad and feels obligated to them. If he were to back out of combat duty, his squad would be short another man and be in more danger during combat and patrol missions. Richie’s combat experiences have replaced his original reasons for fighting the war, such as heroism and patriotism, with the less lofty—but perhaps more substantive—ideals of loyalty and friendship.
Richie’s first exposure to the death of an enemy soldier further shatters his romanticized myths of war. Richie is shocked to see that the soldier is no bigger than Kenny—the enemies are boys, just like the American soldiers. Richie realizes that each side dehumanizes the enemy to justify or rationalize the mass killings involved in war. When he sees the dead Vietcong soldier in front of him, he humanizes the enemy in his mind and wonders what his life was like. When the news crew interviews Richie’s squad, the soldiers give varying reasons for being in Vietnam, but all of them are borrowed from the popular war rhetoric that permeates the American media. After seeing the enemy as human beings, Richie begins to search for his own reasons for being in Vietnam. He wants to find his own meaning in his war experiences. Walowick reminds Richie that the only real goal in the heat of combat is to survive. Communism, patriotism, and democratic ideals are meaningless when a soldier is faced with an enemy rifle.
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