The Vietnam War is an interesting thing when it comes to storytelling. For previous wars, particularly WWII, there are no shortages of fascinating stories of bravery and tide-turning battles, how some soldier, or some company, or some event contributed to victory. In Vietnam, the battle plan for American soldiers was simply to survive. The usual war objectives didn’t exist. A successful day of survival never seemed to count towards any kind of victory.
How do you make sense of such stories where a larger meaning is so elusive?
The Odyssey of Echo Company is non-fiction, drawing on interviews with survivors of the company, along with research trips to the specific locales discussed in the book. Ultimately, the story is told through the eyes of Stanley Parker, a member of Echo Company. In fact, it’s less about the whole company and more of a character study about him.
Beginning after high school graduation in Gary, Indiana, in 1966, we meet Stanley, his family and friends. Like many young men, he views joining the military through the lens of history. It’s a noble rite; America always wins. He wants to go to Vietnam to be a part of something bigger, to be part of something to make his forefathers proud. Like many young men (and the American public in general), he doesn’t understand the reality of the war.
As you can guess, Stanley gets his wish and makes it to Vietnam. What happens to him is at times terrifying, tragic, and outright bizarre. You can’t help but think he shouldn’t be alive. You get the feeling he believes it, too. The meat of the story takes place during the Tet Offensive of 1968, which encompasses Parker’s time in Vietnam. It was a hell of a time to show up. During his tour, a microcosm of almost everything that could happen to a soldier happened to him. I won’t spoil the details, but I think the reality of it will confound you.
In an effort to build the main character, author Doug Stanton takes the reader back and forth in time, illustrating both how Parker’s upbringing shaped him into the man who landed in Vietnam, and how his experience there shaped the rest of his life. Sometimes this method of storytelling can disrupt a good narrative. Thankfully, the back-and-forth is never distracting or confusing. It’s well thought out, bolstering the events in Vietnam and providing depth to the man who’s story we’re following.
On the downside, we don’t really get enough of a sense of the rest of the company. In terms of Parker’s story, it’s works, because we’re seeing the Vietnam experience through his eyes. But the author refers to several secondary characters often, and even provides epilogues for them at the end. But without the same depth we get with Parker, it lacks some emotional resonance. It’s still interesting, though, and does add a layer to the overall long-term impact on the lives of soldiers who served in Vietnam.
The frightening thing is, Parker’s time in Vietnam has a beginning, but no middle, and no real end. It’s like it exists in a dream state, like where suddenly you find yourself in the middle of the night. You’re there, things happen, and then you wake up, with no understanding of what just happened or why. There’s no meaning to your actions, only unseen consequences.
That dream-like state is perhaps why the author begins the book with a disclaimer about memory. His interviews with survivors led to conflicting accounts of events. He says he related the version that is most consistent with each account. It might make one think that maybe this isn’t all true. But as I read the events of Parker’s time in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but wonder, who would make this kind of thing up? There’s no glory; only strange and terrible things.