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Before he joined the army, Richard Perry's teacher told him to stop being an observer. He's always been an outside-looking-in kind of guy. Which, by the way, is a handy quality for a narrator.
Perry's one non-observer activity had been basketball. He'd been good—good enough to play for his high school team—and could have even played in the army…at least, before he hurt his knee.
But, he thinks, "Sometimes, when I was tired and the competition was really rough, things would change for me. There would be a flow of action around me and it would seem as if I were outside of myself, watching myself play ball, watching myself try to establish a place for myself on the hard park courts. It was then that I would feel the pressure to give in, to let a rebound go over my head, to take the outside shot when I knew I had to take the ball inside." (3.116)
So, going to Vietnam, inside Perry is this tendency to throw a game, to give up when things get hard.
This tendency rears its ugly head early on in the story. Perry isn't supposed to be in active combat because of his medical profile, which has a record of his bad knee. But when the medical profile gets lost in transit, Perry doesn't fight very hard to be removed from active duty, even when Lieutenant Carroll gives him that chance:
"Look, I don't want to avoid the issue," he said. "If you tell me you can't go on patrol, I'll see if you can get transferred to another outfit. If you tell me that you can go on patrol, then we'll just wait until the profile comes down and take a look."
"I'll wait for it," I said. (5.136-137)
What are you doing, Perry? Carroll's giving you an out. Why not take it?
Perry never explains this decision. It's like it's easier for him to risk his life fighting than it is to make waves. Risking your life, by the way, is never actually easier.
"Don't think" is something Perry hears a lot. Mark it down under Advice He Can't Follow. (Not to mention Advice You Should Think About Before You Take.) But unlike some of the other guys in his platoon, Perry can't seem to turn his brain off while on patrol. It's a quality that would make for a good writer or philosopher—which is what Perry used to want to be when he grew up. But it doesn't necessarily help him be a good soldier.
And a great soldier, Perry is not.
For instance. He forgets to load his gun (6.129) and aims a claymore at his own men (13.152-153) in the heat of the battle. Oops. And when he and Peewee are cut off from the platoon, Peewee's the guy with all the ideas of how they should survive. Perry just follows. Not so much for the thinking on that front.
Another unfortunate side-effect of thinking too much, but not about soldier-like stuff? Questioning whether you're doing the right thing by fighting in the war. Perry sees the Vietcong soldiers as being a lot like him—young and scared. It makes it very hard for him to get behind killing them, even if those are his orders. He keeps looking for a reason to justify what he's doing:
"There might be a good reason to be over here," I said.
"That's for people like you to mess with," Johnson said.
"I don't know about that."
"Then why you messin' with it?" (12.48-51)
But the platoon's assignments get worse and worse, and in order to stay alive, Perry has to focus on survival.
Perry's smart. He had the grades to go to college, just not the money. So it makes sense that he's good at the not-so-fun task of writing to the families of his fellow soldiers to tell them they died. He's so good, in fact, that Stewart would have given him a desk job if only he knew how to use a typewriter.
But letters to dead men's families aren't the only letters in Perry's life. He keeps writing to his own family—his mom and younger brother—and sends them money whenever he can.
His letters aren't exactly what you call honest. They're all about protecting his fam from the horrors he's facing—that, and not letting them get too scared that he'll die. Even when he's wounded in the hospital and writes his mother a letter, he "tried to make it funny." (16.92) He protects her, instead of asking her for comfort.
Not that she was really a comforting figure to Perry before he went to the war, either. When he told her he enlisted, she said he didn't have to go, "like a little girl hoping that I wouldn't leave." (6.56) He also hints at a problem she might have: "There was liquor on her breath." (6.56) That sounds like someone who needs help, not someone who can give it.
But through their letters, Perry comes to appreciate his mom more than he did when they were living together. When she writes to his friend Peewee, asking him to tell Perry she loves him, Perry admits to himself:
"I always had a small war with Mama. I was always the bright one and she always the one that didn't understand what I needed. Now all I could think of was how much I needed her." (11.149)
He writes to his mom directly that day, telling her he loves and misses her. He's still protecting her, but he's being honest, too. And that's a little thing called character development.
As the war drags on, Perry figures out a way to be okay with killing people—temporarily, at least:
"But it meant being some other person than I was when I got to Nam. Maybe that was what I had to be. Someone else." (16.128)
For the most part, for the rest of the book he abandons his questions and devotes his limited energy to staying alive. But being someone else comes at a cost. In the worst parts of combat, Perry dissociates from his body.
That means watching himself from the outside, and it's a psychological reaction to intense horror. Yeah, he's definitely not okay.
But he stays alive. If war is a game, he doesn't throw it. He learns to value life more:
"People were not supposed to be twisted bone and tubes that popped out at crazy kid's-toy angles. People were supposed to be sitting and talking and doing. Yes, doing." (18.84)
Notice that last word—doing. Doing, not observing.
Perry is sent back home at the end of the book. He's messed up, and he still doesn't know what he wants to do for work. But you can bet he's not planning to be an observer his whole life. He survived, and now he's going to really live.
Now isn't that inspiring?