When Perry and his fellow soldiers arrive in Vietnam, they are completely unprepared for the stark change from their civilian lives and being in the military. The jungles, temporary barracks, monotonous food, and constant barrage of enemy fire makes it nearly impossible for them to believe that Vietnam and the United States exist on the same planet. Lobel approaches this disparity by repeatedly insisting that his experience in Vietnam is a Hollywood movie. Lieutenant Carroll exchanges letters with his wife to work out the details of their life after his return to ‘the World,' which is his way of holding onto his other reality. Perry also struggles to distance himself from the atrocities unfolding around him, but his pensive and thoughtful nature does not allow him to hide behind denial. Ultimately, each soldier in the novel must create his own version of reality in order to avoid the questionable morality of the American mission in Vietnam.
Myers often uses sound as a way to engage the reader in Perry's wartime experience. These aural descriptions function on many levels. First of all, the noise often serves to interrupt Perry's introspective narrative; he cannot ignore the deafening artillery fire, the wails of dying soldiers, of the slashing chopper blades. The sounds become increasingly intense during high-stress situations, making it hard for Perry to prioritize the mission over his human instinct for survival. Additionally, experts and historians often cite the VC's guerrilla tactics as the reason for the American failure in Vietnam. Perry and his squad mates are often firing blindly in the general direction of an enemy they cannot see. Therefore, they must rely on their other senses to direct their attacks.
Race and Class
In Myers's portrayal, the military serves as a great equalizer across race and class. The Vietnam War coincided with a period of intense racial tension in the United States and many African American men, like Perry, enlisted in the army because it was one of their few options for professional advancement in a world where a large chunk of society considered them to be inferior. Perry observes that is a proportionally large number of African-American soldiers in Vietnam. With the exception of Lieutenant Dongan, each commander treats the soldiers equitably, regardless of class or race. In the end, they all become brothers as they try to protect and save each other. Furthermore, the structure of the military minimizes class differences, as well. Peewee cites the military as the first time in his life that he has the same opportunities and belongings as his peers. Meanwhile, Jenkins does not receive preferential treatment even though his father is a colonel.
Throughout Fallen Angels, each soldier struggles with his identity. While Lobel tries to cast himself as a character in a Hollywood film, internally he considers whether or not being a soldier will in fact convince his father that he is not gay. Meanwhile, Perry is one of the "good guys" back home in Harlem, the star student and athlete who helps take care of his younger brother and alcoholic mother. However, in Vietnam he is forced to see himself as a bad guy - a killer, even. When a news television crew asks Perry and his squad mates why they are fighting, Perry realizes that he does not have a real answer. He emptily claims that he wants to prevent war from reaching American streets, but he doesn't even seem to believe it. Ultimately, he just wants to get out of Vietnam and go home. All of the soldiers in the novel who come to Vietnam looking to find their way end up even more confused.
Expectation Vs. Truth
The soldiers in Fallen Angels are unprepared for nature of the war that awaits them in Vietnam. World War I and World War II represented massive victories for the United States. Both of these events strengthened the myth of war as a glorious pursuit. In those wars the enemy was obviously evil and the Americans were obviously heroes, and so soldiers were welcomed home with parades and fanfare. Yet the Vietnam War was a different conflict altogether. Many Americans (and the international community) disagreed with the U.S. involvement with the war. It quickly became clear that the Americans would not be able to win easily because even though the VC were not as well-equipped, they had perfected guerrilla tactics that allowed them to remain mostly elusive. The American soldiers could not kill those whom they could not find, and ended up killing innumerable Vietnamese civilians as a result. Myers portrays the chaos and desperation in the American army through characters like Captain Stewart, who cares less about the conflict and more about his own promotion, and the visiting news crew, who try to spin a single dead VC soldier into proof of the war's effectiveness.
Youth and Innocence
The title of the novel, Fallen Angels, introduces the theme of youth and innocence. Lieutenant Carroll coins this descriptive term to describe the young boys who die on the battlefield, simply innocent pawns in a fight between men. Most of the American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were under 21 years old and many, like Perry, were not even old enough to vote. In the novel, many of the young soldiers come to Vietnam thinking of themselves as noble patriots serving their country. However, the moral ambiguity of the mission in Vietnam quickly breaks down any myths about heroism. Many of the young soldiers become collateral, some become monsters; many become killers; and for the most part, none of them know why. Perry and his squad mates do not ask the hard questions until is was too late. Even though Perry is on his way home at the end of the novel, it is clear that he now possesses an inner darkness he will not soon forget.
Morality of War
During the Vietnam War, the VC's guerrilla tactics allowed them to stay hidden from their enemies. As a result, many American soldiers started to feel unsure about whom they were fighting and why. The media was a big part of "selling" the Vietnam mission to the American public, despite the chaos and uncertainty on the ground. Initially, Perry believes that as an American soldier, he is supposed to be protecting the South Vietnamese civilians. However, this notion proves to be much more complicated than Perry had expected and he starts to see himself as a killer rather than a hero. During the squad's first patrol, each soldier fires his weapon, but not one of them even catches a glimpse of a Viet Cong soldier. However, during their brief face-to-face encounters with "charlie," Perry notes the youth of the young Vietnamese men and wonders about their families and their their motivations to go to war, while many of his superiors see simply view their bodies as marks of victory. Perry feels broken after his first point-blank kill, but Captain Stewart has no qualms about shooting even suspected VC and inflating his company's body count.
Fallen Angels Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fallen Angels is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.