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‘Odyssey of Echo Company’ runs rings around Ken Burns
“The War That Never Ends” was a fitting headline for a recent New York Times story about “Vietnam,” the 10-part, 18-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and its 612-page companion book, “The Vietnam War.”
The photography and graphics in the $50 book by Geoffrey Ward are stunning, sumptuous and disturbing — often at the same time. However, it’s a textbookish read with a dull, emotionless tone.
By coincidence, a new, more light-footed book by Michigan author Doug Stanton has also been added to the groaning shelves of books on the Vietnam War, and its arrival couldn’t be timelier.
“The Odyssey of Echo Company” follows 46 members of an Army reconnaissance platoon of the 101st Airborne Division during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The story is told primarily through the eyes of one soldier, Stan Parker, who is wounded repeatedly during his time in Vietnam.
Compared to the straightforward narratives of Ward’s book, “Odyssey” is an often brutal, hazy and disturbing tale of young men trying to survive what Stanton calls an “asymmetric and chaotic war.”
Stanton weaves interviews, official reports and letters from soldiers into a larger, terrifying tale, told from a perspective of 18 to 20-year-olds. He takes the war to a personal level by drilling in on individual stories, a technique he used in his first war book, “In Harm’s Way,” about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
“During the Vietnam War, all Americans saw on TV images of fighting, but no one ever heard about the pain or sense of brotherhood of individual soldiers,” Stanton said in a phone interview.
“When they came home, no one wanted to listen; no one wanted to hear about the pain or the times punctuated by their life’s most joyful moment — staying alive. So the Vietnam veterans lived in isolation when they came home.”
Stanton does not avoid pain, either physical or emotional, in his book. In one chapter, “The Girl with Peaches,” he retells one of Parker’s more difficult moments when Stan happens upon a little Vietnamese girl: He “feels he needs to do something for her ... And then he has what can only be described as an epiphany, an awakening. He is able to see the whole lousy war through her eyes.”
Parker then shares a tin of peaches with the girl: “He has this overwhelming desire to make the girl safe.” As Parker is running to catch up with his unit, he hears gunshots. The next few pages of the book describe the terrible madness that descends around Parker when he learns the little girl has been shot. It is one of the more horrific and psychologically difficult war scenes you will ever read.
Every page of Stanton’s book leads to another incongruous moment. Just a few short weeks after Parker’s arrival in Vietnam, he finds himself in a firefight. It’s his birthday, and he is 20 years old.
In a moment of surrealism, the next day, he is on stage with Raquel Welch, who is on the Bob Hope Christmas Tour. A few days later, he is on patrol and no longer a combat virgin.
Parker, the primary vehicle through which Stanton tells the story, is a larger-than-life, heroic figure who is brought up to fight for the underdog. His bravery and loyalty to his fellow combatants is breathtaking.
“He was born to be a soldier,” Stanton said. We later find out that Parker, after returning home, signs up for a special National Guard unit that will take him to the world’s hot spots and stays on duty until he is nearing 60.
Through Parker’s story, Stanton implies that an entire generation lost its combat virginity and its moral compass in Vietnam.
If you get a chance to watch the new 18-hour documentary, go ahead, but keep in mind that during those 18 hours, the soldiers Doug Stanton writes about would have already been dropped into three different landing zones to engage the enemy and returned to base, some of them no longer alive.