Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Loss of Innocence
The title of the novel Fallen Angels immediately emphasizes the theme of youth and innocence. As Lieutenant Carroll explains in Chapter 4, all soldiers are “angel warriors,” because the soldiers are still young boys and still as innocent as angels. In calling the novel Fallen Angels, Myers implies that the soldiers’ youth and innocence are more important than any of their other aspects, such as their religion, ethnicity, class, or race. The novel is first and foremost a tale of the lost innocence of a squad of soldiers in the Vietnam War. Richie is only seventeen when he enters Vietnam, and Peewee and the other members of the squad are also teenagers—Peewee is unable even to grow a mustache. His three life goals, immaturely, are to drink wine from a corked bottle, to smoke a cigar, and to make love to a foreign woman. Richie and Lobel are both virgins, and they fantasize endlessly about their first sexual experiences.
Though the soldiers enter the war as naïve youths, the war quickly changes them and forces them to develop into young men. Surrounded by death, they are forced to contemplate the fragility of their own lives and stripped of the carelessness and brazenness of youth. The unspeakable horrors around the boys force them to contemplate a world that does not conform to their childish and simplistic notions. Where they want to see only a separation between right and wrong, they instead find moral ambiguity. Where they want to see order and meaning, they find only chaos and senselessness. Where they want to find heroism, they find only the selfish instinct of self-preservation. These realizations destroy the boys’ innocence, prematurely thrusting them into manhood.
The Unromantic Reality of War
Like all the other soldiers in Fallen Angels, Richie joins the army with illusions about what war is like. Like many American civilians, he has learned about war from movies and stories that portray battle as heroic and glorious, the army as efficient and organized, and warfare as a rational effort that depends on skill. What the soldiers actually find in Vietnam bears almost no resemblance to such a mythologized and romanticized version of war. The army is highly inefficient and fallible. Most of the officers are far from heroic, looking out only for their own lives and careers rather than the lives of their soldiers. In the heat of battle, the soldiers think only about self-preservation and ways they can personally survive the onslaught of chaos and violence. Paralyzed by fear, they act blindly and thoughtlessly, often inadvertently killing their allies in the process. The battles and military strategies of the war are disorganized and chaotic, and officers often accidentally reveal their position to the enemy.
Richie, at the beginning of his tour of duty, clings to the myth that the good, smart, and cautious soldiers always survive while enemies, unskilled soldiers, and morally bad people die. The truth is very different, and Richie soon realizes that death is unfair and random, often a matter of pure chance. Richie also has his own personal myths and illusions in addition to the broader societal myths of war. He has, for instance, certain idealized reasons for joining the army: to escape an uncertain and bleak future, to find himself, and to defend freedom and democratic ideals from the threat of Communism. Richie quickly realizes, however, that these preconceived notions about the morality of war are meaningless on the battlefield. When actually in Vietnam, he fights merely to stay alive.
Troubled by this stark gulf between myth and reality, Richie longs to communicate the truth to his family members back home. He wants them to know what war is really like and wants to help them understand what he has experienced. The contrast between the myth and reality of the war makes it almost impossible for him to write to them frankly. He is afraid that they will fail to empathize or understand, since they will cling to the comforting myths they have always embraced. Even worse, Richie fears his family might think poorly of him for failing to live up the unrealistic ideal of the war hero. Though he finally does manage to compose an honest account of battle, he does so only after months of agony.
The Moral Ambiguity of War
Poised to sacrifice their lives for their country, Richie and his fellow soldiers desperately need to believe in a clear-cut distinction between good and bad. They are anxious to confirm that they are in fact on the good side of the conflict, and are not prepared to question whether their cause is the right one. 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. The American army is responsible—though often inadvertently—for killing many villagers and destroying many villages with their advanced weapons. Regardless of whether the Americans’ goal in the war is morally superior to that of their enemies, their localized actions have terrible, immoral consequences.
Richie grows increasingly doubtful about whether American assistance helps the Vietnamese villages, as he sees that the Communist Vietcong retaliate against any villages that receive American aid. Any good that the Americans might do, it seems, leads only to greater evils. As much as they try, the American soldiers cannot protect the South Vietnamese people, and the soldiers’ presence only puts the village in greater danger. Richie is no longer able to believe that he is fighting for any clear moral reasons, and he struggles to find meaning for his stay in Vietnam. He finally decides that his only purpose in Vietnam is to stay alive and to help his friends do the same.
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.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Richie’s Letters Home
The letters Richie writes home symbolize his changing attitude toward the myths of war. At first, he fully believes in these myths and has little trouble writing home, sending carefree and optimistic messages about the coming truce and the souvenirs he plans to bring home with him. Once in Vietnam, as the illusions begin to fade, Richie suddenly finds writing to be a painful exercise. Confused by the sharp difference between the myth and reality of war, he finds himself at a loss for words. His letters strike him as dishonest, since they avoid the difficult issues and take on false and often humorous tones. Richie struggles to reconcile his earlier beliefs with his current experiences and finds himself unable to communicate his thoughts and feelings. As his confusion disperses and he forces himself to see war in all its stark, brutal reality, he is finally able to write a truthful and frank letter. Richie’s letters once again become an honest representation of his thoughts and feelings, indicating that he has sorted out the chaos, gained a clear perspective, and is ready to seek out truths about war and himself.
The Lost Dog Tags
In the midst of one terrible battle, when time is short and the men must evacuate immediately, they are forced to burn the bodies of the victims. In the tumult to escape, they lose the dog tags—military identification tags—of these dead soldiers and are left with no physical evidence of these men’s lives and deaths. The loss of the dog tags is highly symbolic, emphasizing the complete anonymity and obscurity of a soldier’s death. It illustrates the tragedy of any lost soldier; though the myths may claim that each soldier dies with dignity and meaning, in reality some soldiers die in obscurity, with no reason for their deaths aside from pure chance. Richie comes to understand that each soldier’s death swallows up his previous victories and sacrifices, which are anonymous and quickly forgotten.
War movies are full of worn-out notions about war that are common in American popular culture. As such, they are both a primary source and a symbol of the mythology of warfare that pervades civilian life, which includes clichés such as the tragic death of the baby-faced virgin soldier or the consistently positive portrait of the black soldier. These films reveal the American tendency to beautify and romanticize real wartime tragedies, attaching false meaning to deaths that are often senseless, random, and brutal. Such movies also tend to force the two sides of the conflict into clear divisions—black and white, good and evil, right and wrong—even though the nature of war is often highly ambiguous, with the seemingly just or moral cause not always emerging as the victorious one. Lobel’s obsession with movies suggests that he seeks to glorify war. He does not really understand war’s true nature, and he perhaps does not even wish to understand it. Rather, he prefers to believe in a romanticized notion of war in which soldiers are heroic and enjoy the deep bonds of camaraderie with their fellow men in life and are afforded dignity in death.
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