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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

Fallen Angels is a graphic and poignant story that details the coming-of-age of Richard Perry, a young man from Harlem, during his tenure “in country” in the middle years of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, Perry is not immediately identified as African American. The narrator’s race can be deduced by readers,...

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Fallen Angels is a graphic and poignant story that details the coming-of-age of Richard Perry, a young man from Harlem, during his tenure “in country” in the middle years of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, Perry is not immediately identified as African American. The narrator’s race can be deduced by readers, but students tend not to focus on his racial identity until he comes in conflict with both whites and African Americans. Perry is sent to Vietnam due to a “glitch” and is awaiting a medical release because of knee problems resulting from a high school basketball injury. The medical release comes only after Perry has bonded and engaged in striking confrontations with several squad members and has begun to feel a loyalty to them.

The novel contains several extremely explicit and disturbing scenes that delineate the violence and ambiguity of the American soldiers’ position in a country they do not understand: Jenkins dies after stepping on a land mine, Perry positions claymores backwards but ironically still wounds the enemy, “friendly fire” kills Americans, and the soldiers come upon beheaded babies and burning villages. In the process, Perry confronts his own mortality and the insanity of war, as when, in self defense, he kills a Viet Cong—an image that haunts the young recruit.

The heart of the book is Perry’s voluntary stay with his group after being wounded and recuperating. In another episode, Perry and newfound friend Pee Wee Gates become separated from their squad and must strategically and horrifically kill again to preserve their own lives. Both survive with wounds but witness the terrible toll the war exacts on their sense of humanity—as well as in the number of lost lives represented by the parade of silver caskets being sent home. The novel gives no definitive answer to the question of why these U.S. soldiers are fighting in Vietnam. Attempts to answer this question are presented, including answers given during a particularly striking interview by a television camera crew, but none seem satisfactory. The question remains unanswered and gives rise to the perception Perry possesses at the end of the novel: Those not personally involved in the war will never understand what the “warrior angels” have seen and experienced. It is an alienating moment that is depicted in the novel’s final pages, when Perry’s thoughts are back “in country” with those left behind and a man seated next to him in the plane complains about a minor discomfort. The juxtaposition epitomizes the lack of understanding of the war.

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