Summary: Chapter 1

It is 1967 and seventeen-year-old Richie Perry, a Black high school graduate from Harlem, joins the army. He has few other choices: though he is very intelligent, his single mother, abandoned by her husband years ago, cannot afford to send him to college. Rather than remain in the slums of Harlem, Richie enlists in the army amid rumors of impending peace—he thinks that the Vietnam War will end before he even has to fire a gun. While in basic training, he injures his knee playing basketball, earning him a medical profile that should keep him out of combat. However, due to a paperwork mishap, Richie’s file is not properly processed, and he is sent to Vietnam anyway. His captain assures him that the file will soon be processed and that he will be sent home without ever seeing actual combat.

On the trip over, Richie befriends Judy Duncan, an army nurse, and Harold Gates, a cocky young Black soldier from Chicago whom his friends call Peewee. The plane stops overnight in Osaka, Japan, and due to another bureaucratic mishap, the soldiers are forced to pay for their own dinners and sleep on benches in the airport. Richie feels unease at these signs of what he sees as the army’s general incompetence. He buys a souvenir for his younger brother, Kenny. When he finally arrives in Vietnam, Richie is separated from Judy Duncan, but is assigned to the same barracks as Peewee. Though the sound of artillery in the distance makes him anxious, Richie is somewhat comforted by the fact that the camp in Vietnam looks exactly like his basic-training facility back in Massachusetts.

Summary: Chapter 2

All the other guys in the neighborhood thought I was going to college. I wasn’t, and the army was the place I was going to get away from all the questions.

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Lying in bed, Richie reflects that he joined the army in part to earn money to send home to Kenny, and in part to avoid tough questions about his impossible dreams for the future. Over breakfast the next morning, Peewee tells Richie that he likes the army because for the first time in his life he has exactly what everyone else has—the same clothing, shoes, food, and so on. A large African-American soldier named Rings approaches Richie and Peewee and asks them to cut their skin so that they can all become blood brothers. He explains that they need to stick together as fellow Black people. When Richie and Peewee refuse to do as Rings asks, he calls them Uncle Toms.

Later in the day, Peewee and Richie speak with an experienced soldier who further confirms the rumor of a coming truce. Richie writes a letter to Kenny, telling him that the war is going to end very soon. After killing time at the base for ten days, Richie, Peewee, and a terrified young man named Jenkins are finally assigned to a camp near Chu Lai. On the truck headed for their new squad, Peewee says he is not afraid, but Richie can tell that Peewee is just as frightened as he is. Jenkins begins crying, which calms Richie, who feels braver by comparison.

Summary: Chapter 3

Once they arrive at the base near Chu Lai, the boys meet Johnson, an extraordinarily strong Black soldier from Savannah, Georgia. Johnson takes offense when Peewee mocks Georgia, and there is tension in their relationship from the start. Jenkins reveals that he is in the army only because his father, a colonel, wants him to begin a military career. He confesses to Richie that he is convinced he is going to die, but Richie assures him that most soldiers never fire their guns.

The four soldiers finally arrive at their new base. The commanding officer tells Richie that his medical file has not yet arrived. Richie tries to write a letter home but cannot find the right words. That night, Richie, Peewee, and Jenkins go on night patrol with their squad. Simpson, the squad sergeant, warns the new soldiers not to get him killed because of their inexperience, as he is just four months away from completing his tour of duty. The patrol is more terrifying than Richie had ever expected, but goes smoothly until the very end. Just as they are reentering their camp, Jenkins steps on a land mine, and is killed instantly.

Analysis: Chapters 1–3

The opening chapters of Fallen Angels immediately introduce the stark difference between the romantic, idealized concept of war and the harsh reality of it. Richie, Peewee, and the other soldiers in their squad enlist in the army for reasons that are vague at best, and they have an even less clear idea of what war is really like. Richie believes that the army and war follow a rational plan, which causes him to expect that his medical profile will be processed promptly and correctly and that he will not have to go into combat. He also believes that peace is not far off and that most soldiers do not actually fire their guns anyway. On the whole, in these first chapters, it is clear that Richie does not have a realistic view of the inefficiency, chaos, and hopeless unpredictability of war.

Richie becomes suspicious about the lack of the army’s control during the layover in Osaka. He is frightened by the consequences of the army’s mistakes and begins to suspect that the myths about the heroism and morality of war are as misleading as the myths about military competence and efficiency. When Richie arrives in Chu Lai, he begins to see that the war effort is consistently characterized by petty careerism and fear, rather than by noble or heroic acts. Sergeant Simpson’s only goal is to get out of Vietnam alive, regardless of his men’s safety. Likewise, Captain Stewart, as we see in the next chapter, deliberately and unnecessarily risks the lives of the soldiers in Richie’s company in an attempt to get promoted. Neither of these officers is concerned with the ideals the United States uses to justify its involvement in Vietnam. Rather, the officers care only about their own safety and ambitions. Jenkins’s death reinforces the idea that war is cruel, senseless, and unromantic.

Another major idea in these opening chapters is that of lost innocence. Richie, Peewee, and the others are still teenage boys, even though in Vietnam they must act like adults. They are still largely sheltered and innocent. We learn later that Peewee’s three major goals in life are to drink wine from a corked bottle, to make love to a foreign woman, and to smoke a cigar. Peewee’s aims are stereotypically male goals, showing that he still clings to vague ideas of what it means to be a man and that he has not yet matured into his own person with unique ambitions. Richie is similarly naïve, spending his first days in Vietnam thinking of buying Kenny a souvenir, as if his tour of duty were a vacation. Despite the false comfort provided by rumors of peace talks, Richie and Peewee are frightened and confused, and they react to this fear and uncertainty in childish ways. Peewee copes with his emotions with a mixture of bravado and humor. Richie clings to false illusions, irrationally hoping that his file will be processed and he will be sent home before he has to enter combat. By emphasizing the youth and innocence of these characters, Myers illustrates the tragedyof war—its transformation of teenage boys into killers for a cause that they often do not even understand.

These opening chapters also illustrate the sharp racial and economic divisions in American society during the Vietnam era. The burden of the war fell largely on youth from working-class and minority populations. College students—predominantly from white, middle-class backgrounds—were exempt from the draft. Richie chooses to enlist in the army only because he is too poor to attend college, and Peewee is a high school dropout. The rest of the squad also hails from less affluent segments of the American population, either from minority groups or from rural states. Peewee declares that he likes being in the army because the army is the only place where everyone has what he has. Though Peewee might consider the army a great equalizer, he joins the army and risks his life only because he has so little to begin with, whereas more fortunate boys his age can safely prepare for their futures at college. Myers subtly but effectively emphasizes this often overlooked irony: the men with the least access to America’s freedoms and privileges are the ones sent to war to defend American ideals against Communism. These soldiers are fighting to preserve the American dream—an idea strongly rooted in the acquisition of material wealth—even though this dream is largely unavailable to them.