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 alive.
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.