The Odyssey of Echo Company
Surviving the meat grinder of Vietnam
By Steven Martinovich
In many ways Stan Parker, the son of an iron worker who moved across the United States as work demanded, was the stereotypical American boy. Despite a horrible childhood that saw him mocked daily by adults and children alike for his family’s itinerant nature, Parker grew up loving the things that boys of the early 1960s tended to love which included family, country and his girl. Hanging over all of this, however, was the growing spectre of the Vietnam War. With a brother already serving his nation, Parker hatched a plan to join himself without his parents’ knowledge and fight in Vietnam – for patriotism and in search of adventure.
Doug Stanton uses Parker to explore the wider story of Echo Company, a component of the 81st Airborne Division, a recon unit tasked with long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) in The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War. The LRRP units were small and heavily armed groups who patrolled deep inside enemy territory. Echo, and Parker, arrived in Vietnam just in time to enter the crucible of the Tet Offensive, the overwhelming American victory that was sold back in the United States as a sign the war had gone wrong.
Parker led in some respects a charmed life in Vietnam. Wounded several times in various battles; he survived a harrowing charge against a heavily defended bunker, the crash of a helicopter that had been sent to evacuate him, encounters with NVA and Viet Cong soldiers that should have been fatal and mass attacks against American positions by suicide bombers. Parker’s faith in his mission is heavily tested as the meat grinder of the war becomes more inhuman by the day; some days it is only his vow to his fellow soldiers that sees him carry on, one bloody day blending into the next.
By far the most difficult section of the book was Parker’s breakdown after a young Vietnamese girl whom he had gifted a can of peaches was killed by NVA soldiers, leaving her body out in the middle of the street as a message to others who would interact with the Americans. Parker relates how he essentially went mad for a day, defending with his M-16 rifle the young girl’s body from rats in search of an easy meal, fed magazine after magazine of ammunition by his platoon mates as he poured fire down on the vermin. It’s tempting to use this incident as a symbol for war in general and our capability for inhumanity but it is merely one incident in a long train that Parker observed and fueled his increasing desperation to survive the war.
"The intention had not been to kill civilians, but Stan can hear them wailing. He feels increasingly that his mind's not right, that he's having trouble thinking ... That night, hunkered in a shallow hole in the yard of an abandoned school, Stan sits and listens to the wailing, wishing with all his might that it would stop,” Stanton relates at one point.
Readers will not be surprised to learn that after Parker had a difficult transition when he returned from Vietnam but will be when he rejoins the military eight years later in the Army Reserve Special Forces, spending another three decades in conflict before mustering out as a Command Sergeant Major. As happens with many veterans, they do not miss war so much as they do the greater sense of purpose and comradeship. It was in this second act as a soldier that Stanton met Parker when both happened to be in Afghanistan, one a soldier the other a reporter, the former suggesting to the later that he should turn his talents to the Vietnam War. That odyssey for Stanton included accompanying Parker on a trip back to Vietnam in the book’s emotional conclusion where the former American soldier met a Vietnamese counterpart and discovered a personal connection between them.
There are some legitimate criticisms of The Odyssey of Echo Company; chief among them that a book about Echo Company spends the vast majority of its time telling the story of one man. Although a sprawling story often needs a central character to hang its narrative on, one never really learns much about Parker’s peers in battle. We get names and some basic details, but they recede into the background so often that we never really learn much about them. And although Stanton opens the book stating that he was forced to recreate some conversations and rely in part on memories of those who were there, some of those in Echo Company have called into question some of what Stanton has related – including troop movements and specific historical details. Whether those alleged inaccuracies can be blamed on fading memories, interpretation or debate amongst those who were there will be up to the reader to decide for now.
That said, as with his previous efforts – In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers -- The Odyssey of Echo Company shows Stanton to be masterful at combining story telling with research to create a history that is both personal and insightful on a grand level. To be sure, this latest book from Stanton is not an easy read, Parker’s struggles with what happened in Vietnam make for an occasionally heart-breaking read. That said, The Odyssey of Echo Company is also an important read. Although America seemed to go through its soul-searching about the Vietnam War back in the 1980s thanks to some highly regarded movies and books, it has always seemed that there was more appreciate and learn. This book is another vital step towards that.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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