“Fallen Angels” is a novel about the war in Vietnam, that the author dedicates to his brother killed there. The novel can also be considered partially autobiography: the main character of “Fallen Angels”, Richard Perry, is seventeen when he joins the Army, as Myers was. Both young men, real and fictional, also share the same initial idealism and romantic image of Army and war - that is thoroughly ruined during their service.
But the story isn’t only a depiction of the horrors of war. It also tells the readers about innocence that can live through everything, about courage, inner conflict and growing up. The story is seen through the eyes of Richard himself and we can see every change that happens to his personality after battles, deaths, sparks of hope that die out. Richard’s comrades are as young and innocent as he is, sharing the same ideals and awaiting the war to be a chivalrous adventure, not the Hell on Earth. They are the fallen angels, who named the book. They are destined to either fall in Biblical sense, having their innocence forever lost, or literally, falling in battles.
The idealistic worldview of the young soldiers sharply contrast the explicitly realistic portrayal of the damp, tangled jungle of Vietnam, the language and setting of the Army camp and the war terrors - mutilated bodies, sudden losses of fellow soldiers and constant exhausting awaiting of the attack. This plays an important role in immersing the readers into the time and space of Vietnam war and make them experience a lot of empathy towards the main characters.
Though the main character is black, the racial conflict is underplayed in the novel. There are more important concerns: fear, exhaustion and confusion that the soldiers experience on the war constantly. They forget almost all the factors that divided them before and unite against the real common enemy. The language of the novel is rough to outright vulgar, but it shows the soldiers’ life very realistically. Brushing it up would ruin the feeling of presence that the readers experience throughout the story.
The novel starts not in Vietnam though. The author describes the ordinary life of a black young man. His name is Richie Perry, he is seventeen, he has just graduated from the high school and has no idea what to do next. He lives in Harlem, not the best place to start a brilliant career. So, he allows himself to follow his dreams about honor, glory and serving the Motherland and gets enlisted to the Army. He believes that, as a soldier who is going to Vietnam, he will be respected by the civilians and will get a decent life afterwards as a war hero. He hosts idealistic views about the war, camaraderie and feats of willpower and endurance while undergoing the basic training and his fellow soldiers-to-be support these illusions. They also believe the propaganda and hope to do something noble and significant to be praised for. There are also rumors that the peace treaty is imminent and the war soon will be over, so no one will stick in Vietnam for long.
Richie has a knee injury, so when it’s time to choose a profile, he is sent to study field medicine. This means that, as a non-combatant, he won’t be engaged in direct fight, just going to the battlefield to care for the wounded and help transport them to the hospital. This profession inspires Richie even more: he feels that it is both noble and relatively safe.
Soon Richie arrives in Vietnam to meet his new neighbors in the camp. He quickly befriends two of them, also the newly enlisted young recruits that are assigned to the same squad as he. One is Harold Gates, nicknamed Peewee, and the other is Jenkins. While they are transported to the camp, the recruits are reassured by their new sergeant that their part of the front line is relatively quiet. Everything they should encounter is constant but easy building work, because there wasn’t much fighting around Chu Lai (where the camp of their company is situated) for long. He is very persuasive and the recruits relax a bit.
However it is all a lie. When they arrive to the camp, Jenkins is almost immediately killed by a land mine on the spot. Harold and Richie are deeply shaken by this sudden and stupid death. The shock of Richie is so severe that he can’t even write a letter to his family - his mother and little brother Kenny - describing what he has seen. He doesn’t feel able to write the truth about the war. Neither Richie coped with the initial shock, nor he wants his family to be equally shocked.
The war goes on. The first death seen by Richie isn’t the last one and even not the most brutal one. Gradually his illusions fade and the young man starts to question himself, whether morality exists at war at all? Can someone survive through it still staying a human being with intact soul? Richie sees that American soldiers sometimes commit war crimes, doing horrible things that put them well beyond the line of being “good guys”. But that very line also becomes very blurry, because very morally ambiguous deeds can result in lives saved and battles won. From the other hand, his own commanders are sometimes selfish petty cowards, who care only about their career and not about the soldiers’ lives. The company commander, Captain Stewart, is so obsessed with his promotion that he doesn’t care if the soldiers under his command survive after his orders.
One of such suicidal missions results in killing Richie’s platoon leader, Lieutenant Carroll, who was a decent commander who really cared about his men. This is the last straw for Richie: now he doesn’t search what should be fixed to make the war “right” anymore. He understands that the very concept of war is broken beyond reparation, that it can’t be neither noble nor an adventure. It is always dirt, deaths, betrayals and fight for the mere survival. Richie starts the new search, trying to answer the questions: why did he go here? Why did the others? What purpose this war has at all? His friends tell him that such thoughts bring only pain and erode the willpower. Still, Richie is eager to find a sense of the evil that is happening around. In his quest for purpose of the war he tries to write to his family several times, but he is still unable to express his emotions. He doubts that it is possible at all to explain what the war is to the civilians who have never seen what he saw.
His search brings him to another questions - now about himself. Richie explores his own motivation to choose the army career and to go to the war. He always thought that it was pure altruism and sense of duty, that his intention were pure and selfless, but after the long meditations, Richie discovers the deeper layers of his motivation: he needed money desperately to support his family, and also he wanted to escape his miserable life in Harlem where he saw no future, no possibilities to grow and get what he thought he deserved. The thoughts about Harlem raise yet another problem: what should he do after returning home, back to civilian life in his district? He still has his intelligence, persistence, motivation and the goal to become a writer, but Richie feels that something broke inside him in Vietnam. He also knows that his family has no money to give him the proper education after the college. Richie’s father abandoned the family long ago, and his mother seemingly has a depression and substance abuse issues. This future looks very bleak and Richie is afraid that without earning money in Vietnam he will just end up as his mother, drowning in his griefs and sorrows.
After the series of cruel battles where American forces experience heavy losses, Richie is wounded. He is relatively out of danger and is transferred to the hospital that looks almost like heaven for him. He has no responsibility, can sleep in bed, is fed regularly and doesn’t feel the constant fear of being killed. This sensation of serenity gradually returns to Richie the memories about his civilian life and the joys he experienced before the war. This also makes him to redefine the meaning of the war and, reflecting about the dangers he survived through, understand that war is much, much more incomprehensibly horrifying than he thought while engaged in combat and filled with adrenaline. When he is declared healthy and ready to return to his unit, Richie doesn’t want it anymore. He wonders how he can do it again, after the psychological “decompression” back to normal in the safe space of the hospital. The possibility of going through adjusting to war, all the shock and horror, again, terrifies him. Richie even thinks about deserting the army, but, after the long thinking about it, he gathers all the remaining willpower and rejoins his unit according to the order of his commander.
When Richie returns he sees that everything became even worse than it was before. Sergeant Simpson, his former squad leader, who was rough but just, finished his service and was sent back home. The new sergeant who took his place, Sergeant Dongan, is openly racist. Not only he diminishes black soldiers, treating them as inferior, he also places them into the most dangerous positions, considering their lives less worthy than the lives of white soldiers. When the squad only started their service, there was racial tension and other type of discrimination (by social status or ethnic minority). But gradually the soldiers learned to overcome their prejudices. They understood that, disregarding of race and class, they all are here to protect each other and to help each other survive. Actually, everyone of them saved the life of another one at least once. So, when Sergeant Dongan tries to disrupt the squad’s bond, giving privileges to the whites, all the soldiers band against him. When Dongan gets killed (by the enemy), no one mourns him too much. A new commander is appointed and, to calm them down, he is chosen amongst the members of the squad. Corporal Brunner is a respectable member of the squad and the rest of the soldiers accept him without objections.
But, good commander or not, war is war and soon Brunner is obliged to take his men to a literally suicide mission. They have to track a Vietcong group - the local guerrilla fighters - in the jungle, which is their territory and where traps are set everywhere. The squad has to move along the river. Brunner makes one mistake after another, miscalculating distances and directions. He isn’t guilty for real, he lacks the education officers have and doesn’t know the jungle as well as the locals. Finally, they engage in a fiery firefight with Vietcong. Richie is wounded again, so is his friend Peewee. They are both sent back to the hospital. While recovering after his second wound, Richie gets the note that his medical profile, ironically, is finally processed. His and Pewee’s wounds are serious enough to have them discharged from the Army and sent home. They both board the flight that transports the bodies of the killed soldiers and the two wounded young men have to fly for hours among the metal coffins with the bodies of the similar young men who were slightly less lucky. When arriving back to America, they give each other a silent promise to survive through adaptation to civilian life, PTSD and everything that life has for them, in the name of the new recruits, as young and idealistic as they were, who are just going to fight in Vietnam.