THE LITERARY WORK
A young-adult novel set in war-torn Vietnam in 1967; published in 1988.
A seven teen-year-old African American learns about (ife and death while serving as an infantry soldier in the jungles of Vietnam.
Walter Dean Myers was born on August 12, 1937, and after his mother died during his infancy, he was raised by family friends in Harlem, New York. In his third year of high school, Myers realized that he would not be able to attend college for financial reasons. He proceeded to join the army at the age of seventeen. After returning to civilian life and to Harlem, Myers began writing books for young adults. He created the novel Fallen Angels as a tribute to his younger brother, who was killed in the Vietnam War. The novel’s descriptions of the interactions among soldiers and the long periods of inactivity they experience are based on its author’s own military background.
The Vietnam War
American concern over Vietnam began in the 1940s, when the French colonial powers, who had held the Southeast Asian land since the nineteenth century, began to experience resistance from Viet Minh revolutionaries. Led by Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh was a coalition of nationalists and communists united against the French. Elections in 1946 brought Ho Chi Minh a landslide victory over conservative opponents in northern Vietnam. Later that year, French attempts to reassert control in the north sparked an all-out war for independence.
The U.S. State Department feared yet another communist regime in Asia and began looking into how devout a communist Ho Chi Minh was and how strong his connections to the Soviet Union were. In 1949, U. S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson abandoned any thoughtful research into the issue, stating that Ho Chi Minh was an “outright Commie” because he “fails to unequivocally repudiate Moscow connection and Commie doctrine” (Acheson in Young, p. 23). As the war continued between the French and Vietnamese, the United States granted aid to the French. This aid increased dramatically after Chinese communist insurgency leader Mao Zedong (Tse-tung) won a substantial victory that same year and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Feeling that French control of Vietnam was the last wedge against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, the United States assured the French that every resource, except for American combat troops and nuclear weapons, would be at their disposal. Despite this promise, U.S. aid did not materialize at the crucial moment, and the French were crushed by the Viet Minh at Dienbienphu in May 1954. Following
this loss, the French declared a cease-fire and withdrew from Vietnam. The country was partitioned into the communist North and nationalist South, with national elections to determine a final outcome.
The South, however, proclaimed its independence in 1955, and won the support of the United States despite the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. The South Vietnamese leader was an unpopular ruler whose cruel tactics against the growing number of communist sympathizers and outright rebels in South Vietnam increased in proportion to his lack of solid support. In 1961 the Kennedy administration, worried about the possible fall of South Vietnam to the communists, sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson there on a mission to bolster the morale of Diem’s government by promising American aid. By December of 1961 there were 675 so-called “advisers” (troops) from the United States in Vietnam; this number increased to 11,000 in 1962. When President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were 16,700 American troops in Vietnam.
When he assumed the presidency Johnson also inherited the war in Vietnam and immediately became determined that South Vietnam would not fall to the communists during his term. Johnson said of the conflict, “If I left the war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe” (Johnson in Young, p. 106). Johnson’s attitude led to an increase in the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, which prompted further deployment of North Vietnamese troops, causing the conflict to escalate rapidly.
Black soldiers in Vietnam
During the Vietnam War, 2.15 million men went to Vietnam; 1.6 million experienced combat. The soldiers who fought and died in the war were disproportionately poor, uneducated, and minority. Especially during the years 1965 to 1967—the year in which the novel is set—black Americans suffered more than their fair share of combat horror, injuries, and death. Responsible for much of these hardships was a special U.S. government program called Project 100,000. Between 1966 and 1972, this program called to service over 300,000 young men previously considered ineligible for the military because of their low written test scores. Many supporters of the project extolled the benefits it brought to young black Americans. One supporter, Harvard sociologist and presidential advisor Daniel Patrick Moyni-han, spoke highly about the project’s opportunities for blacks, saying:
Given the strains of disordered and matrifocal family life in which so many Negro youth come of age, the armed forces are a dramatic and desperately needed change, a world away from women, a world run by strong men and unquestioned authority, where discipline, if harsh, is nonetheless orderly and predictable, and where rewards, if limited, are granted on the basis of performance.
(Moynihan in Young, p. 320)
Of the new recruits brought in by Project 100,000, 41 percent were black. Most of these men had dropped out of high school, could read only at less than sixth-grade level, and were sent directly into combat. These men were also court-martialled at twice the normal rate, and most emerged from the military with no practical training, skills, or benefits. The characters of Richie Perry, Peewee Gates, and most of the other soldiers in Fallen Angels share a similarly disadvantaged background.
Combat in Vietnam
Every war has unique and terrifying battlefields: World War I was riddled with the muddy trenches and foxholes, while World War II featured the bloody beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, among others. The Vietnam War had its own horrifying battleground—the endless jungles of Southeast Asia. Sitting water from heavy rainfall turned the jungles into nightmarish worlds of mud and ceaseless mosquitoes. Long exposure to the climate resulted in severe discomfort, rashes, and other more serious skin disorders commonly called “jungle rot.” Another difficulty experienced by American combat troops was the blurry lines of combat. The Vietnam War was a war of intense guerrilla fighting, with few conventional frontline maneuvers. During many battles, American troops did not even see the enemy, and outside of combat American soldiers were not even sure who the enemy was. The farmer in the rice paddy could be a guerrilla fighter by night, and “friendly” villages could be secret havens for the Viet Cong. Because of this, soldiers in the field lived in a constant state of nervousness, wondering who their enemies were and where they would strike next.
When soldiers engaged enemy troops in the jungles, the battles were fierce and chaotic. Small squads of American troops were sent into the jungles to find enemy targets. In some cases, once Viet Cong soldiers were located, American ground troops would be assisted by air support or artillery fire that would rain heavy explosives on enemy positions. Unfortunately, however, in most cases such small squads of American troops were forced to face the enemy on their own. These squads, which sometimes numbered as few as five men, were typically armed with automatic rifles and one heavy M-60 machine gun known as the “pig.” In addition to engaging in direct combat, American soldiers faced countless dangers from landmines and other booby traps laid by Viet Cong. The most infamous type of trap set by the Viet Cong was a small pit set with sharpened bamboo stakes and then concealed. Soldiers would fall into the hole and onto the stakes, or “punji sticks,” which were often coated with excrement in an attempt to immediately infect the wounds.
BLACK PROTEST OF VIETNAM
In rnid-1965, when youny blacks in McComb, Mississippi, learned that a classmate of theirs had been killed in Vietnam, they distributed a leaflet that read: “No Mississippi Negroes should be fighting in Viet Nam for the White man’s freedom, until all the Negro People are free in Mississippi. Negro boys should not honor the draft here in Mississippi. Mothers should encourage their sons not to go” (Sevy, p. 165).
In the novel, Perry is involved in numerous combat skirmishes in the jungle, and in almost every case while on patrol with a small five-man squad. Perry also witnesses the uncertainties of Vietnam’s jungle combat, finding hostile Viet Cong soldiers in a “friendly” village and seeing a soldier from his unit die in a Viet Cong landmine explosion. While simply fighting in the tangled jungles was horrifying enough, such additional dangers particular to the guerrilla nature of this war made life a living hell for American combat troops.
Richie Perry, a seventeen-year-old black soldier, is sent to Vietnam via plane along with other military personnel. During the flight he meets Judy Duncan, a young army nurse, and Peewee Gates, a tough black youth from Chicago. In Vietnam, Perry and Peewee are assigned to Alpha Company along with several other soldiers: Johnson, Monaco, and Jenkins. Perry, who has a bad knee from a basketball injury, is worried when his medical papers exempting him from combat duty fail to arrive. Alpha Company is transported to a small base in the jungle, or “deep boonies,” as the soldiers call it. At the base, they meet their commanding officer, Lieutenant Carroll, and at their barracks they meet Sergeant Simpson, who is counting down his last 120 days. During Perry’s first guard patrol, Jenkins is killed when he steps on a Viet Cong landmine just outside the base. The death troubles Perry when he realizes that even though he feels sorry for Jenkins, he feels relieved that it was Jenkins instead of him.
Perry and the other Alpha Company soldiers get their first taste of combat when a news crew comes to the base and goes out on patrol with them. After a wild gunfire fight, they find one dead body. Ironically, Perry later realizes that the dead soldier is not the enemy but from South Vietnam’s army, the ARVN, or Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Following this initial encounter, Alpha Company is sent out constantly on patrols. Perry realizes that Captain Stewart, one of the base commanders, is volunteering Alpha Company for combat in an attempt to get promoted to major before his tour of duty is over.
During a night patrol, Lieutenant Carroll is killed when Alpha Company’s ambush on a group of Viet Cong soldiers fails. Asked to write a letter to Carroll’s wife to inform her of her husband’s death, Perry finds it a painful experience. On another patrol, the Alpha Company raids a village suspected of aiding enemy Viet Cong troops. Perry kills a Viet Cong soldier in self-defense and is disturbed by the incident, his first confirmed kill. The raid becomes chaotic, culminating in the destruction of the entire village. The worst fighting occurs when Alpha Company is sent into combat with several ARVN companies. Ambushed by large companies of Viet Cong, the ARVN soldiers and Alpha Company are forced to retreat, suffering heavy casualties all the way. During another patrol, Perry and Peewee are both wounded and hospitalized. While in the hospital Perry finds out that Judy Duncan, the young nurse with whom he flew into Vietnam, was killed when her hospital got hit by mortars. Perry and Peewee both receive Purple Heart medals and learn that they are being sent home; Peewee needs additional surgery, and Perry’s original medical papers have finally arrived. They leave Vietnam on the same plane, happy to be returning to their homes, and to life.
Why are we in Vietnam?
One of the more prominent issues in the novel is the uncertainty felt by the soldiers about their role in Vietnam. After Lieutenant Carroll’s death, Perry struggles to understand the reasons for the death and destruction in Vietnam. He also begins to question what his role is there as a soldier, and if this role is right or wrong. Perry tries to understand the reason for Carroll’s death, musing that he “wanted to talk to everybody about it, but nobody could deal with it. Lobel had thought it was his fault. He said if he had shot more maybe he would have got the guy that got Carroll” (Myers, Fallen Angels, p. 138). Perry continues his self-questioning: “But why was Carroll even here? What was he doing so far from Kansas City? So far from his bookstore on Minnesota Avenue?” (Fallen Angels, p. 138).
Later in the novel, Perry talks to Johnson about their purpose for being in Vietnam. As he tries to sort it out he tells Johnson, “You talk about Communists—stuff like that—and it doesn’t mean much when you’re in school. Then when you get over here the only thing they’re talking about is keeping your ass in one piece” (Fallen Angels, p. 149). After killing the Viet Cong soldier in the village, Perry continues to think about the reasons for his being there. Finally he writes a letter to his younger brother Kenny: “I just told him that the war was about us killing people and about people killing us, and I couldn’t see much more to it .... I had thought that this war was right, but it was only right from a distance .... But when the killing started, there was no right or wrong except in the way you did your job, except in the way that you were part of the killing” (Fallen Angels, pp. 269-70).
These feelings and questions faced by Perry were common among American troops in Vietnam. The war was ostensibly being fought for the purpose of preventing the spread of communism and protecting the South Vietnamese, yet many American soldiers found themselves hated by the South Vietnamese people and fighting battles that seemed to accomplish nothing. In her essay “A Different War,” Myra MacPherson quotes an American GI asking, “What am I doing here? We don’t take any land. We don’t give it back. We just mutilate bodies” (MacPherson in Sevy, p. 53). One Vietnam scholar, Marilyn B. Young, poses this same question in her book The Vietnam Wars, and writes, “There was no conceivable justification for the horrors daily inflicted on
and suffered in Vietnam” (Young, p. ix). In Fallen Angels, Perry, Peewee, and the other members of Alpha Company arrive at the same conclusion.
Sources . Fallen Angels was inspired by the death of the author’s younger brother, Thomas Wayne Myers, in Vietnam in 1968. To create a realistic story, Walter Dean Myers based many details in the novel on his own experiences in the army in the mid-1950s. Myers was not in Vietnam and never in combat, but he understood the bond between enlisted men. Thinking back on his military service, Myers recalls learning “something about killing. I learned something about dying. I learned a lot about facilitating the process, of making it abstract” (Myers in Senick, p. 185). Myers instills some of this attitude in the character Richie Perry, who struggles to come to terms with his feelings about death throughout the novel.
Myers’s army background also taught him about the long periods of waiting that separated action in the military and incorporated this reality into the novel; it pays a great deal of attention to the interactions between the men of Alpha Company as they wait for their next assignment. Another real-life parallel arises from the fact that Myers spent much of his noncom-bat time in the army playing basketball, just as Perry does in the novel.
American troops returning from the war in Vietnam experienced a homecoming different from any in American history. Unlike the soldiers of the two world wars or the conflict in Korea, Vietnam veterans were not welcomed back with parades or celebrations honoring their sacrifice. Instead, they returned to the United States to encounter apathy and sometimes even hostility. In “A Different War” Myra MacPherson writes, “Ticker tape parades and the generous GI Bills of the past were forms of absolving the soldier of anything he may have done in the course of battle, as well as signs of societal commitment .... All of this was absent after Vietnam” (MacPherson in Sevy, pp. 54-5). As MacPherson explains, “Societal indifference was a form of punishment instead; this was symbolized in the punitive attitude toward everything from meager GI benefits” to the Pentagon’s inattention to the dangers of Agent Orange, a chemical that had been used to defoliate trees in Vietnam and that was linked to subsequent medical problems (MacPherson in Sevy, p. 55). So angry were antiwar activists about U.S. participation in the fighting that some of the veterans were spat upon by war protesters when they returned from Vietnam. By 1991 one-quarter to one-third of America’s homeless population would consist of Vietnam-era veterans, approximately 500,000 men. Returning from the war with no skills or training of use in their own country, many came to realize that their service in Vietnam had even put them at a disadvantage. Many were plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which causes an estimated 700,000 veterans to suffer from symptoms including flashbacks, severe sleep disorders, depression, and rage. Related to this psychological trauma is the inordinately high suicide rate among Vietnam veterans. More veterans have committed suicide since the war than died in it, at least 60,000 in contrast to the 58,000 known to have been killed in action. Over a thousand more have been classified as missing in action in Southeast Asia.
Attitudes toward Vietnam veterans have slowly changed for the better, as indicated by the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982. The monument, consisting of two black granite walls in the shape of a V, lists the names of all 58,152 Americans in the armed forces who died or disappeared in Vietnam between July 1959 and May 1975. Unfortunately, this gradual change in opinion has occurred too late for many Vietnam veterans, who may never be able to overcome their experiences both in Vietnam and the United States. In the novel, as Perry prepares to leave Vietnam, he thinks about himself and Peewee: “We had tasted what it was like being dead. We had rolled it around in our mouths and swallowed it and now the stink from it was coming from us. We weren’t all right. We would have to learn to be alive again” (Fallen Angels, p. 304).
Since its publication in 1988, Fallen Angels has received high praise from the general public and critics alike. Reviews lauded Myers’s ability to create sympathetic characters to whom the reader can easily relate and situations that draw the reader directly into the story. Maria V. Salvadore writes about Richie Perry, the novel’s central character, “His first-person narrative provides an immediacy to the events and characters revealed. His experiences become readers’ experiences, as do his fears and his insight about this war, any war” (Salvadore in Senick, p. 191). Ethel L. Heins, writing for Horn Book Magazine, praises Myers’s “skill, maturity, and judgement” and compares the novel to a classic: “With its intensity and vividness in depicting a young soldier amid the chaos and the carnage of war, the novel recalls Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage” (also covered in Literature and Its Times) (Heins in Senick, p. 192). Another critic, Alison Hurst, applauds Myers’s technique in creating characters. “The dialogue is so convincing,” she confesses, “that American accents rang around my head as 1 read” (Hurst in Senick, p. 193). A general critical consensus described as the novel’s chief merit its clear and realistic portrayal of the lives of America’s young soldiers in the Vietnam War. The story, noted some reviewers, captures these soldiers’ greatest hopes and fears as they struggle to become men and to survive.
Appy, Christian G. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Goff, Stanley, and Robert Sanders. Brothers: Black Soldiers in the Nam. Novato, Calif.: Presidio,1982.
Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen Angels. New York: Scholastic, 1988.
Senick, Gerard J., ed. Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 35. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Sevy, Grace, ed. The American Experience in Vietnam. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Taylor, Clyde, ed. Vietnam and Black America: An Anthology of Protest and Resistance. Garden City,N.Y.: Anchor, 1973.
Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.