Summary: Chapter 20

I also knew when I got back, she would expect me to be the same person, but it could never happen.

See Important Quotations Explained

During the evacuation, a scuffle breaks out between the Americans and their Vietnamese allies. The Vietnamese want to be evacuated first, so they threateningly surround the American troops. The American choppers, however, notice what is taking place and open fire on the Vietnamese, enabling the Americans to evacuate. Later, back at camp, Monaco suffers terrifying, vivid flashbacks. The squad celebrates what would have been Brew’s nineteenth birthday.

Gearhart writes three copies of a letter to his wife and gives Richie and Walowick each a copy, in case something happens to Gearhart before he can mail his own copy. The letter is an average letter home, but Gearhart asks his wife to tell their children that he loves them. Richie thinks about how deeply he wishes that he had a wife and kids waiting for him at home—someone to connect him with life outside of war, someone who could make him look forward to returning to civilian life.

Richie finally writes a letter to Kenny about the realities of war, dispelling the war-movie myths of heroism and the idea that a stark division always exists between the good side and the bad side. He tells his brother that war is simply about killing the enemy before the enemy kills you. Right and wrong, Richie explains, are concepts that can only be contemplated in safety, far from the heat of battle. After writing the letter, he wonders how he will feel about his role in the war once he is back home and being hailed as a hero by his fellow countrymen.

Summary: Chapter 21

Gearhart approaches the squad members and asks whether they would like to be broken up so that all the squads in the platoon are roughly equal in size. Staying together, he warns, would ensure that they are sent on missions more frequently than the other, more depleted squads. Despite the added danger, the squad refuses to split up. Richie and his friends now realize that the war is not going to end anytime soon and that the rumors of a coming truce have stopped circulating. Richie is unsure how much longer he can last, as his time in the hospital has severely softened him.

The squad is sent to patrol a nearby river where Vietcong activity is suspected. Though Brunner is the highest-ranking soldier among them, it quickly becomes clear that Johnson, with his quiet good sense, is the squad’s true leader. The river seems quiet at first, with no enemies in sight. The squad then spots enemy soldiers hiding in the water among the reeds. Afraid that there are many more Vietcong present than initially suspected, the soldiers turn around to retreat. Richie and Peewee are sent across the river to secure a ridge on the way to the evacuation site. As they cross, they hear a firefight break out behind them.

Summary: Chapter 22

Richie and Peewee become separated from their squad during the confusion and spend the night hiding in a small hole. Peeking out, they realize that an entire battalion of North Vietnamese has been patrolling the river. When an enemy soldier checks the hole in the morning, Richie and Peewee kill him and carefully make their way to the original chopper landing site, hoping that choppers will be sent there to look for them. At the landing zone, they find Monaco sitting alone, looking terrified. They quickly realize that there are enemy soldiers hiding in the bushes surrounding Monaco. The enemy soldiers are hoping to use Monaco as bait to draw in the choppers, and then kill Monaco along with all the Americans who land. When the chopper arrives, however, Peewee and Richie open fire on the enemy soldiers, alerting the choppers to the enemy presence and saving the lives of Monaco and many others. The choppers open fire on the Vietnamese, enabling all the Americans to board safely. Both Richie and Peewee are wounded during the scuffle.

Summary: Chapter 23

Richie, Peewee, and Monaco are transported to a hospital. Monaco explains that he missed his evacuation from the area the night before because he lost consciousness during the struggle. Everyone else in the squad was evacuated safely. The doctors judge that Peewee is wounded seriously enough to return home, and Richie’s medical profile is finally processed. Richie and Peewee are scheduled to return home on the same plane. Monaco receives orders to return to his unit. Upon his return to the front, he leaves a note for Richie, teasingly reminding him that he has to wear a tuxedo to the wedding.

Gearhart calls the hospital to report that the squad is doing well and that Stewart has finally received his promotion. Richie learns that Judy Duncan, however, was killed when her field hospital was bombed. While waiting for their flight home, Peewee and Richie read about the war in the newspapers and are struck by the fact that the stories give no sense of the true costs of the war. The papers report when a hill or village is secured, but do not mention the number of lives lost or the horror and confusion of the battle.

Richie and Peewee finally board the plane home, where they are surrounded by new soldiers just arriving in Vietnam and the caskets of dead soldiers. They hold hands the whole way home and try to adjust to the idea of returning to normal life, where petty concerns are the norm. The realization that he is actually returning to normal life finally hits Richie fully when he hears a fellow passenger complaining about the wine selection on the flight.

Analysis: Chapters 20–23

These final chapters mark the completion of Richie’s development from an innocent youth in Harlem to a soldier who has witnessed violence, death, and fear. After Richie sees the carnage during the last mission with the full company—the burned corpses of his comrades, the lost dog tags, the mutilated civilians—he forces himself to write a candid letter to Kenny. He explains to his brother that he has killed out of fear and a desire to prevent the enemy from killing him first. He does not feel like a hero for what he does, since he wants merely to survive the war. In part, Richie is writing because the war has profoundly changed him in a matter of months, and he is trying to prepare his brother for this change. Like other soldiers, Richie will need his family’s help if he wants to return to civilian life, and this reintroduction will require that those around him know the truth of his war experiences. Yet Richie also writes to Kenny out of a sense of obligation to correct the myths about war. Although these popular myths shield Richie’s family members from doubt and fear, he does not want to lie to them any more. His drive to create a truthful portrait of life in combat suggests that he is becoming a man as well as a more successful writer. He is not content to spout comfortable clichés, but feels the need to present the truth, even if it is ugly.

The final chapters also highlight the tragic cycle of the war: boys ship into Vietnam full of life and brimming with ideals, only to ship out lifeless. The physical juxtaposition of the new recruits and the caskets of the dead soldiers foreshadows the inevitable annihilation these boys will suffer. Peewee and Richie are among the lucky ones, returning with their lives and bodies intact. Nonetheless, they have lost their innocence, their sense of normalcy and morality, their hope, and their faith. Richie and Peewee are returning home to a world that does not want to hear their real story, a world that simultaneously hates them for taking part in an unjust war and yearns to hold them up as valiant heroes. They are returning to a world that does not—and does not want to—understand them. They too are part of the life cycle, victims of a country that turns vibrant boys into corpses or depleted ghosts of their former selves.

The novel’s tone during Richie and Peewee’s return home is striking. Neither boy is jubilant, excited, or even happy. Rather, they are both numb and even frightened. Each knows that returning home will require almost as much strength as surviving in Vietnam. They will need to learn all over again how to live without the constant, foreboding sense of death. They will need to grapple with all the horrors they witnessed in Vietnam, and will need to reconnect with loved ones who cannot relate to what the soldiers have seen and experienced. Their loved ones will likely not understand the new people their experiences have caused them to become. Perhaps most difficult, they will have to reenter a world where petty concerns are treated with the same gravity as issues of life and death. The man on the plane who complains about the wine selection symbolizes this frivolity back home, a frivolity that Peewee and Richie once enjoyed.