Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
Fallen Angels Wikipedia page
Currently Number 11 on the ALA Banned and Challenged List
Richie Perry is a young man from Harlem who enlists in the US Army and gets sent to fight in Vietnam, despite not being eligible for combat. His circumstances in life affect his options. With his mind and his gifts he should have been bound for college. Because of his financial situation and his responsibilities to his family, he wound up enlisting in the Army.
He's got a sports related knee injury which is supposed to keep him out of the war and especially out of combat. Somehow he manages to be sent right into the thick of things. Here is this kid who gets none of the breaks and winds up right on the front line. On his first day he sees one of his fellow new recruits/soldiers killed.
Myers creates a strong, sane, intelligent young man with character and compassion. The reader gets a look into the mind of a soldier. What happens when you put a gun in an 18 year old by's hand and you tell him to kill? What happens to that young man when he watches his friends die? Or, when he has to come to terms with being a killer? (For a modern take on this, see Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds).
Richie is a young man with a conscience. Not only is he surrounded by death, but some that he's responsible for and some involving people he knows and/or cares about. He has to find a way to come to terms with all of it. He has to find a way to understand why, despite the fact that someone he knows is dead. He can not shake the feeling that, more than anything, he's just glad it's not him. He has to do his job, remain human and make it out alive. That just seems like an awful lot to ask of a boy.
I found this book to be very thought provoking. Can you even imagine being right out of high school, flown halfway across the world, handed a gun and told to just shoot? How do you keep a healthy sense of the value of human life? This was a huge problem for all those damaged young men who came home from the Vietnam War and we've been seeing it over and over again in the flood of patriotic young people who raced to enlist in the armed services after 9/11. Now, we've got a whole new batch of underserved and needy young people who survived the war, but are no longer equipped to function in the world. So very very sad.