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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
The title of the novel Fallen Angels immediately
emphasizes the theme of youth and innocence. As Lieutenant Carroll
explains in Chapter 4, all soldiers are “angel
warriors,” because the soldiers are still young boys and still as
innocent as angels. In calling the novel Fallen Angels, Myers
implies that the soldiers’ youth and innocence are more important
than any of their other aspects, such as their religion, ethnicity,
class, or race. The novel is first and foremost a tale of the lost
innocence of a squad of soldiers in the Vietnam War. Richie is only
seventeen when he enters Vietnam, and Peewee and the other members
of the squad are also teenagers—Peewee is unable even to grow a
mustache. His three life goals, immaturely, are to drink wine from
a corked bottle, to smoke a cigar, and to make love to a foreign woman.
Richie and Lobel are both virgins, and they fantasize endlessly
about their first sexual experiences.
Though the soldiers enter the war as naïve youths, the
war quickly changes them and forces them to develop into young men. Surrounded
by death, they are forced to contemplate the fragility of their
own lives and stripped of the carelessness and brazenness of youth.
The unspeakable horrors around the boys force them to contemplate
a world that does not conform to their childish and simplistic notions.
Where they want to see only a separation between right and wrong,
they instead find moral ambiguity. Where they want to see order
and meaning, they find only chaos and senselessness. Where they
want to find heroism, they find only the selfish instinct of self-preservation.
These realizations destroy the boys’ innocence, prematurely thrusting
them into manhood.
Like all the other soldiers in Fallen Angels, Richie
joins the army with illusions about what war is like. Like many
American civilians, he has learned about war from movies and stories
that portray battle as heroic and glorious, the army as efficient
and organized, and warfare as a rational effort that depends on
skill. What the soldiers actually find in Vietnam bears almost no
resemblance to such a mythologized and romanticized version of war.
The army is highly inefficient and fallible. Most of the officers
are far from heroic, looking out only for their own lives and careers
rather than the lives of their soldiers. In the heat of battle,
the soldiers think only about self-preservation and ways they can
personally survive the onslaught of chaos and violence. Paralyzed
by fear, they act blindly and thoughtlessly, often inadvertently
killing their allies in the process. The battles and military strategies
of the war are disorganized and chaotic, and officers often accidentally
reveal their position to the enemy.
Richie, at the beginning of his tour of duty, clings to
the myth that the good, smart, and cautious soldiers always survive
while enemies, unskilled soldiers, and morally bad people die. The
truth is very different, and Richie soon realizes that death is
unfair and random, often a matter of pure chance. Richie also has
his own personal myths and illusions in addition to the broader
societal myths of war. He has, for instance, certain idealized reasons
for joining the army: to escape an uncertain and bleak future, to
find himself, and to defend freedom and democratic ideals from the
threat of Communism. Richie quickly realizes, however, that these
preconceived notions about the morality of war are meaningless on
the battlefield. When actually in Vietnam, he fights merely to stay
Troubled by this stark gulf between myth and reality,
Richie longs to communicate the truth to his family members back
home. He wants them to know what war is really like and wants to
help them understand what he has experienced. The contrast between the
myth and reality of the war makes it almost impossible for him to
write to them frankly. He is afraid that they will fail to empathize or
understand, since they will cling to the comforting myths they have
always embraced. Even worse, Richie fears his family might think
poorly of him for failing to live up the unrealistic ideal of the war
hero. Though he finally does manage to compose an honest account
of battle, he does so only after months of agony.
Poised to sacrifice their lives for their country, Richie
and his fellow soldiers desperately need to believe in a clear-cut
distinction between good and bad. They are anxious to confirm that
they are in fact on the good side of the conflict, and are not prepared
to question whether their cause is the right one. Faced with the
horrors he sees around him, Richie cannot help but ask these difficult
questions, examining the morality of war and the frequently ambiguous nature
of right and wrong. Richie first becomes aware of this moral ambiguity
when his squad is sent on a pacification mission to a Vietnamese
village. The stated goal of this mission is to convince the villagers
that the Americans, and not the Communists, are the good side. This
idea disturbs Richie, who reflects, “That was where we were supposed
to start from. We, the Americans, were the good guys.” Richie feels
that the Americans should not have to convince the Vietnamese that
they represent the good side. Nonetheless, he recognizes why such
a mission is necessary. The American army is responsible—though
often inadvertently—for killing many villagers and destroying many
villages with their advanced weapons. Regardless of whether the
Americans’ goal in the war is morally superior to that of their
enemies, their localized actions have terrible, immoral consequences.
Richie grows increasingly doubtful about whether American assistance
helps the Vietnamese villages, as he sees that the Communist Vietcong
retaliate against any villages that receive American aid. Any good
that the Americans might do, it seems, leads only to greater evils.
As much as they try, the American soldiers cannot protect the South
Vietnamese people, and the soldiers’ presence only puts the village
in greater danger. Richie is no longer able to believe that he is
fighting for any clear moral reasons, and he struggles to find meaning
for his stay in Vietnam. He finally decides that his only purpose
in Vietnam is to stay alive and to help his friends do the same.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Fallen Angels!