Richie’s discomfort about his unknown future grows worse as his disillusionment with Vietnam increases. He first enters the army to avoid the tough questions about who he is and what he will do with his future. Now, faced with the reality of war, he wants to look forward to civilian life, but finds himself unable to see his future. Though most of Richie’s discomfort about the future stems from his lack of options, it also stems partly from confusion about his identity and his disappointment with the army. Richie has hoped that the army would help him find in himself the man he feels destined to become. As it turns out, he faces nothing but brutality, fear, and chaos, and realizes that he will not find himself in the army. He looks enviously to men like Johnson and Monaco, who seem to have found their true selves in the army—Monaco is the brave point man and Johnson is the strong machine gunner and born leader. Richie no longer harbors any illusions of following in their footsteps and figuring out his true self. Vietnam, he realizes, has none of the answers, and only offers more questions.
Unlike soldiers in almost any other war, the soldiers who fought in Vietnam did not have the benefit of a grateful nation behind them. For their ultimate sacrifice, the soldiers earned mainly disdain and contempt from a public who viewed the war largely as unethical. Lobel’s father’s antiwar sentiments add another touch of cruelty to the soldiers’ situation in Vietnam. Though Brunner angrily rants later on about the “faggots and Commies” back home who oppose the war effort, none of the boys in the squad knows how virulent and widespread the antiwar sentiment truly is. The squad members still cling to the belief that when they return home the nation will hail them as heroes. The brief mentions of war protest scattered throughout the novel deepen our sympathy for the characters by emphasizing another tragic aspect of their position in the war.
Richie is keenly aware of the hypocrisy of the pacification missions—even though he is armed with grenades and automatic weapons, he is supposed to convince Vietnamese villagers that the Americans represent the good side by handing out food and medical supplies. From the villagers’ point of view, the Americans and their allies do not seem any different from the Vietcong guerrillas who punish and torture them for accepting the food and medicine. Yet Richie is upset when Lobel points out that, from the point of view of many Vietnamese, the Americans are just like the killers who ride into town in cowboy movies. Despite his crumbling illusions, Richie still does not want to believe that the war is morally ambiguous. He still wants to believe that the war is right and that he and his fellow soldiers are the good guys.