We were supposed to smile a lot and treat the people with dignity. They were supposed to think we were the good guys. That bothered me a little. I didn’t like having to convince anybody that I was the good guy. . . . We, the Americans, were the good guys.

Richie expresses these sentiments in Chapter 9, when he is unsettled by the implications of his squad’s pacification mission to a Vietnamese village. This statement reflects Richie’s uncertainty about the morality of the war; he is alarmed by the idea that the American army would even have to convince the South Vietnamese that they are the “good guys,” because it reveals that their goodness is not an obvious or unquestionable fact. Additionally, as the South Vietnamese are not necessarily happy to receive American assistance, the Americans have to convince the South Vietnamese that an American presence makes them better off.

Richie dislikes these questions about the ethics of the American involvement in the Vietnam War because they challenge the comfortable, heroic, and romantic idea that he is fighting on the side of right, acting as a hero to thousands of poor villagers. Richie’s realization of the ambiguous morality of the war is the final—and most damaging—blow to his adherence to the popular mythology of war. Throughout his time in Vietnam, he comes to numerous painful conclusions that change his worldview. He first recognizes that the army is inefficient, fallible, and sometimes dishonest. He then realizes that war is irrational and chaotic and that living or dying is a matter of luck. Later, he accepts that the war is not going to end anytime soon. Finally, he realizes that there is no clear distinction between good and bad in the heat of combat, which causes him to reevaluate his entire understanding of war and life.