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
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.