Fallen Angels | Study Guide

Walter Dean Myers

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Course Hero, "Fallen Angels Study Guide," December 20, 2019, accessed September 28, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Fallen-Angels/.

Fallen Angels | Themes


Morality of the U.S. Army

Throughout the novel, Myers takes an unsparing look at the U.S. Army, challenging the reader to think critically about the morality of the Army's policies and administration. First, when Perry arrives at his unit, he is surprised to see the significant proportion of African American soldiers. He notes that there are more "brothers" than he expects but does not think much more about it. The reader, on the other hand, has a different vantage point and can question why so many African Americans are soldiers on the front lines in some of the most remote and dangerous areas. The answer lies in the Defense Department's policies that encouraged men from poor backgrounds, especially minorities, to join the military in the hopes of bettering their lives. Whatever the intentions of the government may have been in instituting these policies, their effect was to cause a disproportionate risk of death, injury, and psychological trauma to African American men.

Another recurring topic likewise questions the morality of the Army and its commanding officers. Lieutenant Carroll's prayer for fallen soldiers calls them angel warriors because the soldiers fighting in wars are typically very young. This prayer is repeated several times, and the young age of the soldiers like Perry—who is too young to vote and admits to the reader that he is still a virgin—is seen as a terrible tragedy. The reader, knowing the eventual human toll of the Vietnam War and its lack of a decisive victory for the causes that Perry and his cohort believe they are fighting to support, must consider whether the cost of the fight is acceptable. In particular, the reader is left to question whether all of the human lives lost were necessary; the novel includes numerous commanding officers whom the soldiers believe send the squads on dangerous missions for the sole purpose of increasing their body count as a means of achieving promotion to a higher rank. Myers challenges his reader to evaluate the decisions that led the United States into the war and the motivations underlying the officers' choices during the war.

Race and Racism

Race and racism play a significant role in Perry's experience of the army and the war. The moment that Perry arrives in Vietnam, he notices how many more African American soldiers there are than he expected. Before he is assigned to Alpha Company, another soldier approaches him and suggests that the African American soldiers needed to bond together on the basis of the "common African blood" because the white soldiers will not truly protect them in a life-or-death situation. Perry does not take this man's warning seriously, but his words constitute a kind of foreboding prediction that is fulfilled throughout the novel.

During his time in Vietnam, Perry experiences and sees other African American soldiers experience casual, systemic, and overt racism that is insufficiently addressed by his commanding officers. Johnson and Brunner get in a fistfight because Johnson calls Brunner a "farm boy" and Brunner responds by calling Johnson a "cootie," which is a slang term for head lice that has racist connotations. They stand before Captain Stewart for punishment, but Captain Stewart eventually tells them that they should just not talk to each other. Sergeant Dongan selects African American men in the squad for the most dangerous positions, even though there are other soldiers more experienced in those positions. The soldiers cannot complain because they know nothing will be done to prevent this. Eventually, the African American men—along with the Italian American Monaco and "the Jew" Lobel—choose to rely on one another, even when it means risking punishment for disobeying their superiors' orders. No matter that the army had been integrated since 1948 and units were no longer segregated by race, racism was very much a part of American society. The achievements of the Civil Rights Movement—which fought for equal rights under the law for African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s—were still ongoing when Perry was at war in 1967.

Inexpressibility of War

Myers takes an unsparing look at the war, and he writes of atrocities that shock the reader, yet at the same time, his main character often feels that war is unspeakable to anyone outside of it. Perry is a writer, and writing letters to his family is one of the central ways that he processes the horrors of war. Still, most of these letters go unfinished or unsent. Instead, the reader sees Perry frequently thinking about what to write and trying to understand how he would convey something he is feeling to his little brother Kenny or his mother.

Putting words to his feelings helps Perry to understand himself and what he experiences, but it also gives the reader a glimpse of his internal world. However, the fact that Perry never sends these letters provides an important insight. Myers is at pains to establish how difficult it is even for Perry—a wordsmith the whole squad relies upon to write letters to their girlfriends or to the loved ones of a deceased comrade—to communicate with his family. Perry cannot speak about what he truly sees and feels with Kenny or his mother. Likewise, when he sees Judy Duncan at the field hospital, he feels like all of his words are "too loud or too strange for a world in which people did normal things." The full experience of war remains, throughout the book, something unspeakable, unwritable, and simply impossible to communicate.

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