The narrator, Richard Perry, is an apt describer of events who acts as a camera lens for readers, viewing the action without filter and without judgment—a reader becomes a participant in the experience alongside the naïve yet forthright young man. Perry comes from a poor family, and the Army acts as his “college” of sorts. He writes home to his younger brother, reminiscing about the old life and advising his sibling on life matters. Like so many of the squad members, Perry must find ways to cope with his fears, guilt, and increasing sense of the absurdity and uselessness of this particular war.
Pee Wee Gates provides humor and exciting human interactions. His confrontational style appears to act as his “tonic” for dealing with slaughter and the brutality of his daily experience “in country.” Jenkins, the stereotypical doomed soldier who joins the Army because of family expectations, provides truly felt tragedy when he demonstrates that he is woefully unprepared emotionally for the world of war. His brief appearance is pivotal, forcing readers to question what is required to survive such experiences and underscoring the coping strategies the other soldiers must develop. Lobel deals with the war by visualizing it as a “movie,” thereby abstracting the reality of what he faces. Lieutenant Carroll has coping strategies that include a strong religious faith, prayer, and idealization of the “angel warriors.” It is he who teaches Perry to pray when the young narrator most feels despair and loss.
Through these and other characters, Walter Dean Myers shows that war strains human emotional resources to the limit: Perry hallucinates and experiences an out-of-body episode. He portrays the ability of warfare to destroy the human spirit and the struggle of warriors to preserve their humanity.