The human element of war can fade as time goes on, a trend Walter Dean Myers chose to counteract in his novel on the Vietnam War, Fallen Angels. Hoping to understand the death of his brother, Myers wrote a story about a young soldier and the truth of war. In this interview, Myers discusses the impact of this work after 25 years and how his opinions on war have changed.
Zola: What was the reaction to Fallen Angels when it was first published and has it changed over the years?
Walter Dean Myers: The initial reactions to the book were mixed. Some people were put off by the profanity, others to the references to race, and some to the sheer brutality depicted. The book took on a life of its own, being passed from hand to hand, and acquiring readers along the way.
Zola: How did its publication impact you?
WDM: When it was first published, I had a listed telephone number. I started getting phone calls from veterans throughout the country (usually after the third or fourth drink) offering condolences for the death of my brother, or just wanting to share their stories. There were so many calls that I got a new, unlisted number.
Zola: Are there any letters relating to Fallen Angels that have stuck with you?
WDM: The first hint I had that the book had more weight than I expected was the reaction of women who had heard about the book, had read it, and had given it to their sons. One heartfelt letter stated that a young man wanted to quit high school to join the military. The mother stated that she begged her son to at least finish high school and he said that he would. In the interim, he read every book on war that he could get his hands on. Eventually, he came to Fallen Angels. The mother was writing to thank me for writing a realistic book on combat that changed her son’s mind about quitting school and about joining the Army. The majority of the letters I receive are from teenaged boys, who respond to the adventure of war aspect. But increasingly letters come from women who read the book as teenagers and have given copies to their sons or husbands. This was totally unexpected.
Zola: Why do you believe Fallen Angels has remained popular 25 years later?
WDM: The popularity of the book deals with our efforts to understand and emotionally absorb the idea of war on a human level. Most wars are discussed in the history books in general terms – A Company took this hill, or this regiment was assigned to protect a certain territory. Fallen Angels depicts the feelings of the actual young men as they face death and the challenges presented to them in combat. I lived through the Vietnam era, the protests, the controversies, and the traumas. But the death of my brother in that war turned my thinking to questions like, How did he die? What was he thinking? How did those last moments feel for him? I tried writing short stories about Vietnam to deal with his death. They helped, but they didn’t resolve the emotional issues I was facing. Writing Fallen Angels, for me, was the answer.
Zola: Has your perspective on war changed since writing Fallen Angels?
WDM: Fallen Angels was written from a young man’s perspective. When I was helping to train Vietnamese soldiers (they were supposed to fight the damned war) it was as an eighteen-year-old. The camaraderie expressed in the work was based on the friendships I had when I was in the Army. My perspective now encompasses a larger view of war, and a decidedly pessimistic outlook that I didn’t have even twenty-five years ago.
Zola: Have you gone back to re-read Fallen Angels since its debut?
WDM: I will occasionally reread a passage if one is mentioned in a letter.
WDM: Memories of wars fade away, even from those who fought in them. In interviewing WWII vets for Invasion, I could see how often films, newspaper accounts, and documentaries influence the recollection of actual events. Heroes are created decades after the events, and stories are retold to fit the mood of the country. The human elements are often lost because they don’t fit the shifting momentums of the times. Books like Fallen Angels help to counter this trend.