Fifty years ago at this time, life was good in this part of the world. The economy was thriving, unemployment stood at less than 5%, and Canadians were basking in the afterglow of the 100th anniversary of their country. The year 1967 had been filled by many months of celebrations all across the land, and as they looked to the future, Canadians were united as never before by a sense of pride and optimism about the nation’s future.
South of the border, however, the prevailing mood was very different. As the year 1968 dawned, Americans found themselves mired in what seemed like an ever-deepening quagmire in Vietnam. Notwithstanding the rapid escalation of the U.S. military presence over the previous three years, no end to the conflict was readily in sight, and Americans back home were becoming increasingly uneasy and divided over the legitimacy of fighting an inconclusive war in a backward country most of them had never even heard of just a few years earlier.
The end of January 1968 was marked by one of the most pivotal events of the Vietnam War, and one which would later prove to seriously undermine the American public’s willingness to keep up the fight. On January 31, all of Vietnam seemed to suddenly explode as Communist forces unleashed a massive, nationwide uprising intended to deal a crushing and decisive blow to the American forces. The Tet Offensive, known by that name because it coincided with the start of the Vietnamese lunar new year, saw some 100,000 NVA and Viet Cong unleash attacks at dozens of cities and towns all across Vietnam.
Though the Americans were initially caught off guard, they fought back ferociously, and in the end the Tet Offensive accomplished little from a military point of view. Nonetheless, the psychological damage inflicted was significant, and as a result, the subsequent course of the Vietnam War would be forever altered. In The Odyssey of Echo Company, Doug Stanton tells the story of those terrible days as seen through the eyes of Stan Parker, a 20 year-old U.S. soldier who had arrived in Vietnam barely two months earlier.
Growing up in Middle America, Parker’s family moved around following his father, an ironworker and Second World War Air Corps veteran. After graduating from high school in Indiana, Parker immediately joined the U.S. Army. His decision to enlist was motivated partly by a thirst for adventure, and also partly by a desire to follow his elder brother, who was already serving as a paratrooper. Initially assigned to a posting in West Germany, Parker lobbied vigorously for orders to Vietnam, where he arrived two weeks before Christmas 1966.
By the time his tour of duty ended a year later, Parker went home a seasoned soldier, but also a profoundly changed man. During the year he had spent in combat, he had seen many close friends killed or wounded, and had also survived multiple brushes with death himself. In one memorable incident in February 1968, Parker had been laying face-down in a pool of water, having sustained multiple wounds from a grenade. An NVA soldier suddenly appeared, and leveled his rifle directly at Parker’s head. For reasons, that will never be known, the enemy lowered his weapon and turned and walked away, thus sparing Parker’s life to fight another day.
Parker was also destined to bring home memories that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Not long after arriving in-country, while conducting a reconnaissance mission in a Vietnamese village, Parker encountered an obviously destitute child who was no more than six or seven years of age. Taking pity on the little girl, he gave her the only thing he could, a can of peaches kept in his haversack. Moments later, after resuming his patrol, he suddenly heard a gunshot. Turning back, he was shocked to discover the prostrate body of the girl he had helped, apparently slain by a group of fleeing NVA. In anger and frustration he emptied his own weapon at the killers, but the vision of the murdered innocent would remain seared in his psyche for decades thereafter.
After his return Stateside, Parker wanted to remain in the service, but was denied the opportunity to re-enlist. He attempted to settle down into civilian life, marrying a girl he had known in high school, and seeking work in the same occupation as his father. But he continued to feel the lure of Army life, and when policies were changed in the mid-1970’s he returned to the colours, this time in the Special Forces branch of the National Guard. Eventually, he went on full-time active duty and saw service in multiple hot spots around the world, including a tour in Afghanistan as a Sergeant-Major in 2005.
One of the most remarkable encounters of Parker’s life took place in 2014 when, in search of inner peace and reconciliation, he and a former comrade made a visit to Vietnam. Accompanied by Doug Stanton and a Vietnamese interpreter, at one point the two old warriors had the opportunity to visit the village of Trung Hoa, which had been the site of a furious firefight in February 1968. The group was surprised to discover that an obelisk had since been erected to commemorate that event.
An even more astonishing revelation was to come when it was learned that the elderly occupant of a nearby house had, over 40 years earlier, been the NVA commander on that day. In an increasingly animated conversation with Mr. Sinh, Parker vividly recalled the events of the battle. Decades after the fact, the two men, who as 20 year-old soldiers had once tried to kill each other, now warmly embraced and parted company as the best of friends.
Overall, The odyssey of Echo Company is a compelling and highly readable book. It is not intended to offer an intellectual analysis of the causes and outcomes of the Vietnam War, but what it dos deliver is an excellent – and oftentimes heartrending – grunt’s-eye view of the dangers and privations that U.S. soldiers endured out the field, and also of the subsequent trials faced by the ones who were lucky enough to make it home. This book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in learning more about the realities of the Vietnam conflict, as seen from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers who did the fighting and dying.
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