The opening chapters of Fallen Angels immediately introduce the stark difference between the romantic, idealized concept of war and the harsh reality of it. Richie, Peewee, and the other soldiers in their squad enlist in the army for reasons that are vague at best, and they have an even less clear idea of what war is really like. Richie believes that the army and war follow a rational plan, which causes him to expect that his medical profile will be processed promptly and correctly and that he will not have to go into combat. He also believes that peace is not far off and that most soldiers do not actually fire their guns anyway. On the whole, in these first chapters, it is clear that Richie does not have a realistic view of the inefficiency, chaos, and hopeless unpredictability of war.
Richie becomes suspicious about the lack of the army’s control during the layover in Osaka. He is frightened by the consequences of the army’s mistakes and begins to suspect that the myths about the heroism and morality of war are as misleading as the myths about military competence and efficiency. When Richie arrives in Chu Lai, he begins to see that the war effort is consistently characterized by petty careerism and fear, rather than by noble or heroic acts. Sergeant Simpson’s only goal is to get out of Vietnam alive, regardless of his men’s safety. Likewise, Captain Stewart, as we see in the next chapter, deliberately and unnecessarily risks the lives of the soldiers in Richie’s company in an attempt to get promoted. Neither of these officers is concerned with the ideals the United States uses to justify its involvement in Vietnam. Rather, the officers care only about their own safety and ambitions. Jenkins’s death reinforces the idea that war is cruel, senseless, and unromantic.
Another major idea in these opening chapters is that of lost innocence. Richie, Peewee, and the others are still teenage boys, even though in Vietnam they must act like adults. They are still largely sheltered and innocent. We learn later that Peewee’s three major goals in life are to drink wine from a corked bottle, to make love to a foreign woman, and to smoke a cigar. Peewee’s aims are stereotypically male goals, showing that he still clings to vague ideas of what it means to be a man and that he has not yet matured into his own person with unique ambitions. Richie is similarly naïve, spending his first days in Vietnam thinking of buying Kenny a souvenir, as if his tour of duty were a vacation. Despite the false comfort provided by rumors of peace talks, Richie and Peewee are frightened and confused, and they react to this fear and uncertainty in childish ways. Peewee copes with his emotions with a mixture of bravado and humor. Richie clings to false illusions, irrationally hoping that his file will be processed and he will be sent home before he has to enter combat. By emphasizing the youth and innocence of these characters, Myers illustrates the tragedyof war—its transformation of teenage boys into killers for a cause that they often do not even understand.
These opening chapters also illustrate the sharp racial and economic divisions in American society during the Vietnam era. The burden of the war fell largely on youth from working-class and minority populations. College students—predominantly from white, middle-class backgrounds—were exempt from the draft. Richie chooses to enlist in the army only because he is too poor to attend college, and Peewee is a high school dropout. The rest of the squad also hails from less affluent segments of the American population, either from minority groups or from rural states. Peewee declares that he likes being in the army because the army is the only place where everyone has what he has. Though Peewee might consider the army a great equalizer, he joins the army and risks his life only because he has so little to begin with, whereas more fortunate boys his age can safely prepare for their futures at college. Myers subtly but effectively emphasizes this often overlooked irony: the men with the least access to America’s freedoms and privileges are the ones sent to war to defend American ideals against Communism. These soldiers are fighting to preserve the American dream—an idea strongly rooted in the acquisition of material wealth—even though this dream is largely unavailable to them.