Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The letters Richie writes home symbolize his changing attitude toward the myths of war. At first, he fully believes in these myths and has little trouble writing home, sending carefree and optimistic messages about the coming truce and the souvenirs he plans to bring home with him. Once in Vietnam, as the illusions begin to fade, Richie suddenly finds writing to be a painful exercise. Confused by the sharp difference between the myth and reality of war, he finds himself at a loss for words. His letters strike him as dishonest, since they avoid the difficult issues and take on false and often humorous tones. Richie struggles to reconcile his earlier beliefs with his current experiences and finds himself unable to communicate his thoughts and feelings. As his confusion disperses and he forces himself to see war in all its stark, brutal reality, he is finally able to write a truthful and frank letter. Richie’s letters once again become an honest representation of his thoughts and feelings, indicating that he has sorted out the chaos, gained a clear perspective, and is ready to seek out truths about war and himself.
In the midst of one terrible battle, when time is short and the men must evacuate immediately, they are forced to burn the bodies of the victims. In the tumult to escape, they lose the dog tags—military identification tags—of these dead soldiers and are left with no physical evidence of these men’s lives and deaths. The loss of the dog tags is highly symbolic, emphasizing the complete anonymity and obscurity of a soldier’s death. It illustrates the tragedy of any lost soldier; though the myths may claim that each soldier dies with dignity and meaning, in reality some soldiers die in obscurity, with no reason for their deaths aside from pure chance. Richie comes to understand that each soldier’s death swallows up his previous victories and sacrifices, which are anonymous and quickly forgotten.
War movies are full of worn-out notions about war that are common in American popular culture. As such, they are both a primary source and a symbol of the mythology of warfare that pervades civilian life, which includes clichés such as the tragic death of the baby-faced virgin soldier or the consistently positive portrait of the black soldier. These films reveal the American tendency to beautify and romanticize real wartime tragedies, attaching false meaning to deaths that are often senseless, random, and brutal. Such movies also tend to force the two sides of the conflict into clear divisions—black and white, good and evil, right and wrong—even though the nature of war is often highly ambiguous, with the seemingly just or moral cause not always emerging as the victorious one. Lobel’s obsession with movies suggests that he seeks to glorify war. He does not really understand war’s true nature, and he perhaps does not even wish to understand it. Rather, he prefers to believe in a romanticized notion of war in which soldiers are heroic and enjoy the deep bonds of camaraderie with their fellow men in life and are afforded dignity in death.