How do Richie’s beliefs about war change throughout his tour of duty in Vietnam?
Richie joins the army with illusions and myths about war. He learned about war from movies and stories that portray battle as heroic and glorious, the army as efficient and organized, and warfare as rational. In these movies, the good, skillful people emerge victorious, while the bad people die. What Richie and the soldiers find in Vietnam bears no resemblance to this mythologized version of war. The army is inefficient and fallible. The bureaucracy fails to process Richie’s medical profile for his injured knee, so he gets sent out to combat. Most of the officers who command Richie and his peers are far from heroic—looking out for their own lives at best and their own careers at worst. There are a few noble exceptions, such as Lieutenant Carroll—men who risk their own lives to save the men under them. In the heat of battle, soldiers think of nothing but self-preservation. Paralyzed by fear, they act thoughtlessly, often killing their allies in the process. Battles are far from organized and are instead utterly chaotic. The Vietnamese villagers are not happy to receive help from the Americans, and the Vietcong often kill such villagers for accepting supplies from the American forces.
At the beginning of his tour of duty, Richie clings to the myth that people die only if they are not smart and careful, but he realizes that in battle, life or death is just a matter of chance. There is no way to be smart or careful during such a war. The political ideology behind the war turns out to be similarly unrealistic. Richie is first inspired to think of fighting for his country and for ideals like freedom and democracy, but in the heat of battle, such rhetoric becomes empty. As the men are surrounded by the horrors of war, the neat divisions between right and wrong fade, and the sense of being on the side of good is no longer as easy to maintain. Rather than fight for country or freedom, Richie realizes that the soldiers fight to stay alive.
How do war movies perpetuate the romantic ideals of war? How does Fallen Angels criticize these movies and myths?
War movies exhibit the clichés of war myths common in American popular culture, such as the inevitable tragic death of any baby-faced virgin soldier. The presence of such stories about war is chilling because it reveals a tendency to romanticize real wartime tragedies. Such clichés attach false meaning to deaths that are often senseless and brutal, not beautiful and romantic like the customary myths. In many cases, American soldiers die, and terror makes other American soldiers careless. When Richie patrols with another company, for instance, one American platoon mistakes another American platoon for the enemy and kills more than a dozen friendly soldiers before realizing the mistake.
The romanticized myths of the soldier’s heroism and patriotism may help a soldier’s family deal with his death because it gives the parents a reason for the sacrifice of their son. However, these myths do not allow civilians to acknowledge the brutality and ugliness that American sons must face when they go to war. These myths do not do justice to the soldiers’ sacrifices. They also make it difficult for the soldier to share his burden of fear and suffering with his family. Richie is unable to tell his mother and Kenny the truth about the war because he does not want to upset them or lower their opinions of him. He does not want them to feel the fear and anxiety that he feels during his time in Vietnam.
Faced with the horrors of war, each soldier must either reconcile reality with his personal beliefs or cling tenaciously to comfortable illusions of absolute morality. Richie, unlike many of the other soldiers, chooses the difficult first option, struggling to make sense of his experiences and refusing to turn away from the difficult questions they raise. Richie’s comrades, who are too afraid to come to terms with the reality of their situation, warn him against what they call his dangerous thinking. Each soldier has his own way of blocking out the uncomfortable thoughts and nagging doubts. Richie recognizes that he is alone in his search for truth, reflecting that “the questions kept coming and nobody wanted to deal with them.” Yet just as his friends cannot bear to look the reality head on, Richie cannot bear to ignore it.
Peewee and Lobel both try to understand their role in the war, but do so in different ways because of their different personalities and backgrounds. Peewee responds to fear and confusion with brash humor, making jokes out of any unsettling doubts. When Peewee is momentarily stunned by the Vietnamese mother’s sacrifice of her child, Richie is able to pull himself out of his paralysis by joking, “They got kids over here?” Moments later he casually asks, “Me? Feel bad? . . . Never happen,” showing that he hides his emotions behind a facade of bravado. Lobel, on the other hand, turns to movies as his escape. He views Vietnam as a giant movie set and sees himself as the star of a war film. His obsession with movies is more than a simple diversion—it is an escape from a reality that is too difficult for Lobel to face unprotected. He desperately clings to the belief that the movies are “the only real thing in life,” thereby allowing himself to dismiss the horrible sights he sees around him as unreal. Like Peewee’s humor, Lobel’s obsession with movies helps him filter out the tough questions of morality that plague Richie. By believing that the world of movies is more real than the battlefield, Lobel can pretend that such difficult questions are not even worth asking.
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