Uncertain of his future goals, seventeen-year-old Richie Perry, a black high school graduate from Harlem, travels to Vietnam to fight in the United States Army. When Richie leaves basic training for Vietnam, he harbors a host of illusions about the war and the army. He confidently believes that the medical profile he has received for a knee injury will be properly processed and prevent him from engaging in combat. He also believes in the flurry of rumors about imminent peace and in the prevalent romantic myths about warfare.
When Richie first arrives in Vietnam, he befriends Harold “Peewee” Gates and Jenkins, two new recruits assigned to the same squad. A sergeant assures them that they should encounter only easy, light work, as there is not much fighting near Chu Lai, where their company is stationed. These rumors prove to be wishful thinking, however, when the three new soldiers arrive at their camp; Jenkins is killed by a land mine during the squad’s first patrol. Richie is deeply shaken and longs to communicate his terror and horror to his family, but he finds himself unable to write the truth to his mother and his brother, Kenny.
As Richie witnesses ever-increasing levels of destruction and brutality, he begins to doubt whether there is any straightforward morality in war. He sees that the line between good and bad is often ambiguous. He also becomes disillusioned with the selfishness of his commanding officers, particularly the company commander, Captain Stewart, who is more concerned with earning a promotion than he is with the safety of the soldiers under his command. When Richie’s platoon leader, Lieutenant Carroll, is killed during a combat mission, Richie begins a serious search for answers to why he and his fellow soldiers are even fighting in Vietnam in the first place. Though his friends insist that such thoughts are futile and dangerous, Richie feels compelled to find meaning within the chaos. He also longs for some way to communicate his confused thoughts and emotions to his family, but he remains unable to do so. Richie is not sure how to sort out the emotions he feels or how to communicate them effectively to civilians who have never seen combat.
As Richie searches for meaning in the war, he also searches for his own sense of self. He struggles to unravel his motivations for enlisting in the army, wondering whether his reason was a selfless one, based on the desire to earn money to provide for Kenny, or a selfish one—simply to escape from the hard life he faced in Harlem. Richie also forces himself to confront the uncomfortable question of what he will do when he returns to civilian life. Though he is highly intelligent and highly motivated and has ambitions to become a writer, his family is too poor to send him to college. Richie’s father abandoned the family years ago, and his mother has since become an alcoholic. Richie is afraid that without an education he has no career potential, and he is unsure what he has to look forward to if he survives.
Richie is wounded in a battle and transferred to a hospital. During the peaceful weeks spent recuperating, he begins to remember the joys of safety and gains a new sense of the horrors of war. When he is declared healthy and ordered to rejoin his unit, he wonders how he can possibly go back into combat and considers deserting the army. In the end, though, he rejoins his unit as ordered.
Back with his unit, Richie learns that the old squad leader, Sergeant Simpson, has been sent home. His replacement is the racist Sergeant Dongan, who always places black soldiers in the most dangerous positions. Early in their tour of duty, there are racial and ethnic tensions among the squad members, which frequently result in physical confrontations. As the squad’s bond grows stronger, however, petty prejudices begin to fade, and the squad bands together against Dongan’s racism. Soon, Dongan is killed, and the squad is placed under the command of one of its own soldiers, Corporal Brunner.
Brunner leads the men on a deadly mission to track down a group of Vietcong—North Vietnamese guerilla forces—along a river. After a series of mistakes and miscalculations, a firefight breaks out, leaving both Richie and Peewee wounded. Richie’s medical profile is finally processed while he is recovering, and Peewee’s wounds are serious enough to earn him a discharge from the army. Peewee and Richie fly home on the same plane, along with caskets containing dead soldiers. They try to stand tall for the new recruits, who are just arriving in Vietnam.