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                                 Tinker Bell 47, 2002
The Search for a New Narrative of Manhood in Myers's Fallen Angels


I The National Narrative

The Vietnam War (1954-73) has been narrated variously in American literature and film. In Vietnam War narratives, narrators / protagonists are more often than not veterans, who depict their gruesome combat experiences for adult readers. However, there are comparatively few young adult novels on this subject. Walter Dean Myers's Fallen Angels (l988) is one such narrative. In his review, Mel Watkins notes, "Fallen Angels is a candid young adult novel that engages the Vietnam experience squarely" (29). Judging from the fact that the average age of American combat soldiers in Vietnam was 19.6 years-old and that blacks comprised more than 20 % of the combat soldiers in 1967, the year when the novel is set, it is not surprising that Myers should write a novel about a black soldier for young adult readers.*1

Fallen Angels is mostly based on Myers's own experience in the army in the mid-fifties and motivated by his brother's death in Vietnam (Bishop 9, Authors & Artists 204,213), which means it does not communicate the author's direct war experience. Therefore, Watkins's conclusion, "ln a sense the novel is as much about [the protagonist's] coming of age as it is about the Vietnam War" (29), sounds appropriate. In other words, the novel deals with the rite-of-passage of an adolescent protagonist in which his spiritual death and rebirth, and his gender identity formation are explored. Reading the Vietnam narrative as a rite-of-passage story is vital not only in analyzing the psychological development of individual characters, but also in examining the process of the narrative change.

It is generally considered that the communal narrative links members of society together, and this is also the case in America, where the national narrative in which an innocent American hero performs his mission in the wilderness has served to bind Americans together.*2 John Hellmann and Walter T. Davis, dealing with the Vietnam experience of veterans in representative narratives, maintain that the traditional narrative was deconstructed in Vietnam. According to Davis, the national narrative contains two subplots: "the stories about freedom, democracy, opportunity, plenty, and justice" and the plot about the imperialistic "American Dream," or "American Exceptionalism" (7). The protagonists in Vietnam War narratives lose faith in the righteousness of the war and cannot find significance in their traditional identity formations by following the ideal war hero. It may be worth examining how the national narrative dies and an alternative narrative is constructed for the black male protagonist in Fallen Angels. In this sense, I find Davis's collage of two concepts useful: the cultural anthropological concept of rite-of-passage and that of narrative in narratology as you see in figure 1.


II Observer / Onlooker

  In Fallen Angels, Richard (Richie) Perry, a seventeen-year-old black high school graduate from Harlem, New York, narrates his war experience in the Vietnam jungles. Fatherless Richie has chosen the army to support his family, suspending his dream of college and a writing career. In Vietnam he encounters black soldiers, named Peewee and Johnson, who have also been driven to Vietnam by poverty from what they call "the World." Richie also meets other white soldiers who have come to Vietnam for different reasons: to prove their manhood, to meet their fathers' expectations, or forcibly sent there after unsuccessfully evading the draft.

  Richie's narration at first has an observant and neutral nature among these polyphonic voices. His attitude is derived from the bystander posture of his own life because he feels powerless to help his family who is struggling with poverty after his father left them. His English teacher, Mrs. Liebow, points out that Richie has to get out of himself because he is "too young to be just an observer in life" (35). And Richie admits, "l was fifteen, and painfully aware that I was 'just an observer in life"' (35). He can only get out of himself when he plays basketball in a basketball court, a stereotypically comfortable place for a black youth. Moreover, his suspension of a college education worsens his feeling of helplessness. Thus his enlistment in the army comes to be "a kind of defeat" (14). He has no hopeful story of his own in which he can take the subject position. Looking for something real and new, Richie lands at Tan Son Nut airport in Vietnam in 1967. Myers uses Richie's onlooker's pose as a literary tactic. It is functional partly because readers can face the murderous combat life through his observant and sensitive narration (Bishop 85) and partly for a narratological reason: readers expect how and when he will end his autistic attitude and connect himself with others, especially with black soldiers, and create a new life storv of his own.

III Angel Warriors

  When asked about his mission in Vietnam by a television crew, Richie gives a commonplace answer: "I said that we either defended our country abroad, or we would be forced to fight in the streets of America, which everybody seemed to like" (77). As Dennis Vellucci points out, Richie has no firm belief in the rightness of America's involvement in Vietnam (212), nor is he critical of the ideal war heroes in the national narrative. Richie is no doubt one of the "angel warriors," innocent underage combat soldiers dubbed by his platoon leader, Lieutenant Carroll. Probably the most representative angel warrior is Private Jenkins. He has volunteered for the army following his father, a colonel, who blueprints his son's life as a career soldier. Contrary to his father's expectation, he cannot overcome the feeling of fear, and is killed in the field by stepping on a mine. Thus, Jenkins becomes the first "fallen angel" in Richie's platoon.

  Meanwhile, Lobel has joined the army to prove his manhood to confront anti-Semitism and the homophobic prejudice against him. He is obsessed with the macho type of manhood often portrayed in Hollywood war movies. His gender role models are all from the silver screen, and he resists the fearful reality of the Vietnam battlefield, saying, "Anyway, I was playing Lee Marvin as a tough sergeant. That's my best part" (72). But his borrowed self-images from movies are totally shattered when he shoots and kills his enemy at point-blank range. "'I killed him!' Lobel was shaking. He had killed his first man up close. He had seen [a Cong] die. It was personal. He was a killer" (281). When Lobel acknowledges himself as a killer, not a war hero, the meaning of the national narrative becomes obsolete. In a difference sense from Jenkins he also becomes a fallen angel.

  Cynically enough, Lieutenant Carroll himself joins the group of fallen angels when he is killed in battle. He is the pride of his farmer father in Kansas. Richie says, " [H] is father was proud of him being an officer in the army. He'd told us that . . . twice. It was like he didn't know what to make of it" (59- 60). When Richie first meets him he has already been confused about his identity saying, "I'm just not that sure who I am anymore" (45). Obviously he is uncertain if he can meet his father's expectation and pride. So, when Carroll is killed the term "angel warriors" bears broader meanings. His death signifies the death of an ideal war hero in the traditional American narrative. It is hinted at in Richie's words:

  The war was different now. Nam was different. . . . Lieutenant Carroll was inside of me, he was part of me.
  Part of me was dead with him. I wanted to be sad, to cry for him, maybe bang my fists against the sides of the
  hooch. But what I felt was numb. (136)

  When we direct our attention to the black soldiers, Peewee's consciousness of and motivation for the war are apparently different from those of the above white angel warriors. Peewee, a high school dropout from Chicago, is driven to Vietnam by poverty and does not believe in the great cause of the war. Despite the subtle but pervasive racism in the army, he dares to say that the army is a democratic place because, in his estimation, "this is the first place I ever been in my life where I got what everybody else got" (15). He compares the Vietnam battlefield with the Chicago slums because he thinks he has to fight for his own survival in either place. Johnson has volunteered for the army because of unemployment. He is portrayed as a man sensitive to racism who often protests the attitudes of other platoon members. For him Vietnam is another battlefield where he cannot avoid fighting racism. Although the stances of Peewee and Johnson seem to be different, they reflect the status quo of military service for black soldiers in Vietnam. " [T] he Armed Forces," Wallace Terry maintains, "seemed to represent the most integrated institution in American society," but that integration took its toll in higher black fatalities compared with the 11 percent which blacks represented in the American population (xiii-xiv). In other words, as Clark Smith says, black soldiers had to confront racism: "an older adversary" other than the Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers (ix). Thus the military service became "a locus of institutional racism in whichcompetence challenged prejudice" (xi).

IV Bureaucratic War

  In Richie's depiction of his Vietnam experience, the loss of the national narrative's significance is best represented in bureaucratic war terms such as "body count" and "pacification." Since the Vietnam War was a guerrilla war with unclear front lines where geographical victories are often unreliable indices of progress, the U.S. government came to depend on the body count - the number of Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers killed - in evaluating the development of the war.*3 In her study on gender and the Vietnam War, Susan Jeffords points out the performative characteristic of the war: "The inability to identify clearly marked goals .. . translated the strategies of the war into question, not of whether it was being won but whether it was being well fought - questions, therefore, of performance" (7). Also, the army often went on a pacification mission in order to root out the guerrilla infrastructures in villages through U.S. soldiers' assistance in promoting education, health, and agricultural technologies. However, pacification sometimes ended in massacres of villagers as the novel implies in the words "pacify them to death" (120).

  Richie discloses the inhuman nature of body count and pacification. Closely seeing an enemy's body for the first time, he is suddenly exposed to the ugly reality of body count: the dead Vietnamese soldier is no longer a human being, but just a thing, a trophy. Counts, moreover, are often duplicated or exaggerated so that officers will receive better efficiency reports. Thus, the performativity of the war, as Jeffords maintains, became the vital aspect in evaluating soldiers' masculinity (1-22). Also, on a pacification mission Richie begins to realize the deception of pacification when he sees things from conflicting viewpoints: the American and the Vietnamese. He sees himself as one of those friendly Americans who are willing to help them, and at the same time uneasily recognizes himself as someone looking like a villain in a Western movie.

  The people were the same. Small, withered women, skin creased over
  onto itself; dark, life-weary eyes that had seen everything.
  I felt huge walking among them. I towered over them. I was huge, and I was armed to the teeth,
  and these were not my people. (111-12)

This uneasiness comes to materialize later as the platoon is sent back to the same village for pacification to root out Vietcong and massacre all the villagers. Richie agrees with Johnson who says, "Vietnam don't mean nothing, man ... We could do the same thing someplace else. We just over here killing people to let everybody know we gonna do it if it got to be done" (149).

V Tet Offensive

  ln Fallen Angels the deconstruction of the national narrative culminates during the Tet Offensive in which Vietcong and North Vietnamese (NVA) soldiers assaulted American and South Vietnamese forces throughout the country. Historically, the Tet Offensive ended in as many as 40,000 battlefield deaths for NVA and the Vietcong, compared to 1,100 for the U.S. and 2,300 for South Vietnam. On the part of America, the Tet offensive depressed national morale, and led the American government to grope for an "honorable" way out instead of winning the war.*4 In Fallen Angels, it is during this period that Lieutenant Carroll becomes a fallen angel and the ideal war hero cherished by his platoon members dies.

  During the Tet Offensive Richie goes over the "threshold" in the ritual process of his growth. After a life-or-death battle, he squarely sees the dismembered body of the enemy soldier he has just shot at point-blank range for the first time. Richie feels he has lost his innocence and has to leave his childhood behind to enter the world of men. He says, "Maybe I could sift through the kid's stuff, the basketball, the Harlem streets, and find the man I would be. I hoped I did it before I got killed" (187). As important as the first kill is the relationship Richie develops with Peewee. Richie narrates that he starts crying in his bunk that night, and that Peewee silently comforts him holding him until they both fall asleep. As is symbolically shown in his behavior, Richie positively accepts Peewee's view of the Vietnam War and starts to fight as a grown up for survival. The brotherhood Peewee and Richie share later develops into solidarity among the black soldiers, which Johnson clearly announces shortly after they face Sergeant Dongan's racist attitude toward them.

  In the meantime, their brotherhood contains a serious self- contradiction: the black soldiers, victims of racism, ironically victimize Vietnam citizens including women, children, and old people who are driven to the margin of poverty and exhaustion because of the war. Richie is shocked at this contradiction. which parallels with that of black people in Harlem, New York who victimize younger children for their own survival. The contradiction is best represented in the guerrilla incident in which two children are killed. It takes place when a suspected vietnamese woman with her two children is brought to the u.s. camp for examination. seeing the children, peewee starts to make a grass doll for them, but one of them has been mined and explodes in a soldier's arm when she is handed to him. Richie narrates the scene, "l turned and saw peewee walking away. The doll he made lay face down in the endless mud" (231, emphasis added). His individual goodwill is totally powerless in rescuing the innocent children from ,,the endless mud, of the war.

  After this episode, peewee stops eating and secludes himself denying the event saying, .Never happen" (232). For peewee denial is the only means preventing him from collapse, now that the contradiction within him is exposed. A similar thing happens to Richie. suddenly in the middle of the battle, he repeatedly feels his mind is separated from his body.

  Suddenly I wasn't there. It was as if I were out of my body and looking down at us. . .
  Suddenly I wasn't there. There was somebody running in my boots, but it wasn't me. . . .
  Suddenly I wasn't there. There was a sign in front of me, and I stared at bodies trying to
  move across an open field. (257 -59)

  This chapter where Richie describes his recurrent denial of the inhuman and savage reality of the war ends with his desire to see people as human beings.

  I walked away. people were not supposed to be made like that. People were not supposed to be
  twisted bone and tubes that popped out at crazy kid's-toys angles. People were supposed to be
  sitting and talking and doing. Yes, doing. (261)

This view sharply contrasts with the bureaucratic view of humans shown in body counts and pacification, and paves a way to construct a new narrative. However, this view necessarily does not dissolve the contradiction deeply embedded in Peewee. He recognizes that he has no pride of a war hero because he has turned into a "beast" in Vietnam, and it is only natural that he should tell his captain he left his pride in Chicago (27l).

VI Communitas - Spider Hole

  The most metaphorical representation of their death and rebirth in the midst of their agony and contradiction is the overnight experience Richie shares with Peewee in a spider hole. They are hiding in a small hole "like an open grave" (287) when they stray from other platoon members. It should be noted that a tomb is often associated with a womb, a place of birth. In the ritual process of Richie's growth the spider hole bears "liminality," which belongs to a transitional time and space, according to the cultural anthropologists Arnold Van Gennup and Victor Turner, where life and death interface and unconventional social relationships are produced.*5

  A Vietcong soldier, a young boy, inspects the hole and thrusts a knife into it hurting Peewee, but is shot and killed shortly thereafter by Richie. The boy falls down into the hole, and for a while Richie and Peewee are forced to stay in the small space with the dead body. Thus the spider hole, a tomb, contains the dead and living. Later the Vietcong soldier is expelled as the dead; meanwhile Richie and Peewee narrowly escape death. In this sense, the Vietcong soldier is the double of both Richie and Peewee. Richie's later words, "We're all dead over here" (300), support this reading.

  Also noteworthy is that during this period Richie and Peewee often hold hands and embrace each other, partly because of the size of the hole and partly because of the fear they share. This male bonding has continued since Richie passed over the "threshold" into manhood, and continues to expand to the brotherhood of other black soldiers after the spider hole experience. Holding his hand with Peewee on his way back to the World, Richie reconfirms his love for other soldiers including Johnson and Monaco. Turner calls this particular community "communitas," where "an essential and generic human bond" is recognized during the liminal period, and differentiates it from the geographical meaning of community (97). Whatever name we call it, community, communitas, or brotherhood, Richie begins reconstructing his life based on this male bonding.

  In his study of black masculinity in the 1980s, the sociologist Clyde W. Franklin II supports S. Stryker's theory that black masculinity is constructed through interactive social relationships. Franklin points out that black males construct their manhood under the influence of three groups: first the "black men's peer group," second "the subcultural reference group" or black community, and third the "societal reference group" or the larger social system. Franklin emphasizes in conclusion that if black men are to survive, the black man's peer group must be united with the black community (155-69). It should be remembered that physically and psychologically fatherless Richie has had no place of his own in any of these three social groups before coming to Vietnam. He has been just an onlooker and has had no subject position in his life story. In his liminal experience he finally comes to find his place in the peer group by loving and caring for his "brother." In other words, he has found his subject position in his new narrative that will continue to be told in the World where they will have to fight a racial war waged against African Americans. In order to form his identity he is ready to construct a new narrative of manhood that is based on nurturing and love, elements previously excluded from the conception of manhood. It should be noted that this masculinity presents a striking contrast to the performative masculinity signified in the body count. It is very symbolic to end the novel with the two adolescents holding their hands firmly heading for the World. The novel ends assuring the reader that Richie's brotherhood for Peewee, Johnson, and other soldiers, as Franklin suggests, will be united with the black community,*6 and that Richie's other fight in Harlem will not be like the one in Vietnam because he has learned to love human beings.
(This paper is based on the oral presentation at IRSCL 2001 in the Republic of South Africa.)


1. The median age of American combat soldiers in World War II was over 25 years old (Davis 12). For black soldiers and the Vietnam War, see Betonamu Senso no Kiroku (Tokyo: Otsuki-shoten, 1988), 190.
2. See Walter Davis, Shattered Dream (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1994), 16-17; Kamei Shunsuke, American Hero no Keifu (Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1993), 19-20.
3. See James S. Olson ed. "Body Count," Dictionary of the Vietnam War (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988), 46.
4. See "Tet Offensive," Dictionary of the Vietnam War, 442. Victor Turner supports Van Genep's rites of passage theory that consists of three phases: separation, margin, and aggregation. Turner especially focuses on the intervening "liminal" period dur-ing which " [s] ecular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenized," and whose characteristic is "likened to death, to being in the womb . . . to the wilderness, . . ." (95).
6. Myers's novel, Scorpions (1988), illustrates how a youth is driven to self-destruction under the influence of three malfunctioning social groups.

Works Cited

Bishop, Rudine Sims. Presenting Walter Dean Myers. New York: Twayne,1990.
Commire, Anne. Authors and Artists for Young People. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research. 1990.
Davis, Walter T. Shattered Dream: America's Search for Its Soul. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1994.
Franklin II, Clyde W. "Surviving the Institutional Decimation of Black Males: Causes, Consequences, and
  Intervention." Ed. Harry Brod. The Making of Masculinities. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987.
Hellmann, John. American Myth: Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
Jeffords, Susan. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington, IN: Indiana
   UP, 1989.
Kamei Shunsuke . American Hero no Keifu. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1993.
Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen Angels. New York: Scholastic, 1988.
- - - . Scorpions. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
Olson, James S., ed. Dictionary of the Vietnam War. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988.
Smith, Clark, Goff Stanley, and Robert Sanders. Brothers: Black Soldiers in the Nam. Novato, Canada: Presidio, 1982.
Terry, Wallace. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War By Black Veterans. New York: Ballantine, 1984.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. 1969. New York: Cornell UP, 1977.
Vellucci, Dennis. "Man to Man: Portraits of the Male Adolescent in the Novels of Walter Dean Myers," African-American Voices in Young Adult Literature: Tradition, Transition, Transformation. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1994.
Watkins, Mel. Rev. of Fallen Angels. New York Times Book Reuiew. 22 Jan.1989: 29.