In each of his three books about war — Invasion (2013), set during WWII; Fallen Angels (1988), Vietnam; and Sunrise over Fallujah (2008), the second Iraq War — Water Dean Myers asks readers to immerse themselves in a specific conflict from the point of view of a particular character. These wars are distinct both geographically and historically, and Myers carefully sets each one in its individual context through strong characters and stories. Taken together, however, the three books offer something the individual titles can’t: broad themes and messages about the condition of combat and conflict. Not just one skirmish or one battle or one set of hostilities, but the nature of war in general.
These three books are not, officially, a trilogy, but they do have a common connection through one African American family’s history of military service. Invasion introduces us to Marcus Perry, the pater familias and, chronologically, the first enlisted man of the Perry family. His son Richie serves in Vietnam, and Richie’s nephew, Robin, volunteers to fight in Iraq.
With just a small role in Invasion, Marcus Perry gives readers little insight into his reasons for enlisting. He signs up in 1943 with a hometown friend, Josiah “Woody” Wedgewood, the main protagonist, apparently because it was the thing to do. It’s worth noting that his willingness to oust a German despot comes during a time when Jim Crow ruled his native Virginia, where, at worst, his family could have well been denied the right to vote or, at best, been required to overcome obstacles such as poll taxes or trumped-up literacy tests in order to do so. Twenty-three years later, in Fallen Angels, Marcus’s son Richie enlists right after high school because he sees no other options for his life. The army would provide a steady paycheck that he could send home to help his younger brother, and, because of a basketball injury, he should be excluded for duty in Vietnam. A paperwork snafu shifts those probabilities, and instead he deploys to Southeast Asia. In Sunrise over Fallujah, it’s the horror of 9/11 that propels Richie’s nephew, Robin, to join the army with patriotic purpose, “to do something, to stand up for my country.” But why they decide to serve is less important than how they serve. All three do so with dignity. Each soldier begins his service unsure and mentally unprepared about what to expect. Richie speaks for the Perry men: “All I had thought about combat was that I would never die, that our side would win, and that we would all go home somehow satisfied.”
They learn quickly that war is not what they expected. In each novel, Myers doesn’t shy away from the horrors soldiers encounter. His battle scenes are vivid and fast-moving, and the carnage is graphic. Because of troop segregation during WWII, Marcus and Woody receive different training and different orders. Only by chance do they meet up in France. Marcus drives a truck in the transportation division, bringing supplies to the troops and gathering bodies for burial. But this job is front-line dangerous: snipers fire at the drivers, and enemy troops pound the vehicles with artillery rounds. Marcus’s white friend Woody serves in the thick of battle with the 29th division as it lands on Omaha Beach. After crossing the beach, Woody looks behind him and sees a sea of lifeless bodies left on shore and in the rolling tide, creating what he calls the killing zone. And more soldiers come. They too fall in the killing zone. And even more soldiers jump off the LSTs, only to face the same fate.
In Fallen Angels, Richie’s first mission goes smoothly for his company, but on their return to camp they hit a machine gun trap that kills a fellow soldier, Jenkins. “There was a shard of metal protruding from Jenkins’ chest. The blood gurgled out of the wound it made and sprayed along the concave metallic surface. He tried to bring his hand to it, to touch it…. There were bubbles on the wound as he struggled for a final breath, and then that, too stopped.” In Sunrise over Fallujah, Robin’s first encounter with death comes as his unit crosses over to Iraq. He notices a long line of green. Body bags.
Both Richie and Robin are wounded, and they, as well as Marcus, see friends killed as life changes in an instant. “That’s what it was about, the killing. We ran across the fields and they killed us, or we killed them, and then we got to the next field and did it again.”
In all three novels, friendly fire accounts for some casualties. During one tense patrol Richie’s unit shoots “the shit out of the first platoon,” and although Josiah Wedgewood’s company initially cheers our P-38s flying above a tight battlefield, they stand by helplessly as the pilots kill two American soldiers before the ground troops can warn them of their mistake.
Some of the local residents greet the forces with violence and hatred, while others are incredibly generous and thankful. Richie’s experience “in country” is horrific. A local woman hands her baby off to American troops after swaddling him in explosives; the helpless child blows apart the helpless GI who takes him. Robin discovers there’s little time for life-and-death decisions when a member of his initial patrol hurriedly kills a kid who is probably innocent. One woman begs him, “Treat our lives as if they are as precious as your own.” When possible, Robin does. He organizes a pick-up soccer game with Iraqi children as the joy of sport temporarily erases the judgments of war. Still, at one moment or another, all the Perrys realize that the immediate enemy is composed of young men just like them: scared and wanting to live.
These enlisted Perry men question orders — some because they don’t make sense and others because they appear to be from individuals bucking for promotion — but they carry them out nonetheless. And, as soldiers have done throughout history, they wait. They wait for the action to begin, for orders to come through, for the relief of mail (or e-mails, in Robin’s case) from home, or simply for a decent meal or a safe place to go to the bathroom. They turn to prayer and the comfort of comrades. And collectively their stories offer a message. Since these books are about three wars, one following the other, clearly war does not produce peace.
In thinking about his war, Richie muses, “The real question was what was I doing, what any of us were doing, in Nam.” Robin also wonders about his purpose: “There were many questions and I tried to answer them with some logic. But over and over I thought that we were in a war of complete randomness. Death was hiding in every shadow, lurking along every roadway, flying through the midday air. It came suddenly and randomly.” And when Marcus and Woody talk about “the Good War” — the war, history often tells us, that we entered with clear purpose — they reiterate the sentiments of both Richie and Robin. “It stopped making sense a while back. The killing just floods over you like — I don’t know — like a storm you can’t get out of.” War doesn’t produce peace or crown winners or even make sense.
Richie’s immediate superior, Lieutenant Carroll, speaks of soldiers as angel warriors — young boys who fight. And when the fighting is over, readers are left to wonder, as does Richie, what war is, beyond the killing. Richie admits to himself he can’t see much more to it. And, more powerfully, he concludes, “I had thought that this war was right, but it was only right from a distance. Maybe when we all got back to the World and everybody thought we were heroes for winning it, then it would seem right from there…. 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.”
There are so many American men — Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Adamses — whose contributions are writ large across the pages of our history books. Their decisions engaged our country in war. And the children of these men sometimes served, and served valiantly. But they did so with the privilege of officers’ bars on their collars rather than the stripes of enlisted men on their sleeves. History remembers families like the Perrys only in anonymous tables of soldiers wounded and killed. But Myers reminds us of the real and lasting contributions of these very young angel warriors. When President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Ty Carter on August 26, 2013, he noted that Sgt. Carter’s children wanted to go see the majestic sites of Washington, DC. President Obama commented, “Your dad inspires us, just like all those big monuments and memorials do.” And as do all the men (and women) like the Perrys.