Nearly 50 years ago, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers launched an offensive that changed the course of the Vietnam War.
The bloody Tet Offensive shocked Americans. It showed them that the enemy was far more capable of fighting than they had thought. Public opinion of the Vietnam War soured in the United States during the fighting of 1968.
Traverse City native Doug Stanton’s new history book, called The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War, tells the story of the Tet Offensive through the eyes of a young American paratrooper named Stan Parker.
"Stan Parker is your uncle," Stanton said in an interview with IPR News Radio. "He's your grandfather. He's your brother. He's a guy from Gary, Indiana, the son of an iron worker."
Battles erupted across south Vietnam on January 31, 1968, as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters carried out a carefully planned assault. The offensive lasted months.
"When you're up front, on the line, it's a never ending battle both day and night," Stanton says.
The book chronicles Parker and his platoon as they struggle to survive the battles of the war – and beyond.
The Tet Offensive was a military victory for the United States, but Stanton says it was a turning point in other ways. Americans watched on television as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers temporarily gained ground. It showed Americans that the enemy was capable of conducting a large-scale, coordinated attack.
"From a psychological perspective, it turned the tide of the war," Stanton says, "and it made Americans wake up and think, 'how could we have been so close to victory, and yet here this just happened?'"
The book describes the homecoming journeys of Stan Parker and some of the other soldiers in his platoon. Stanton says it was a hard war for these men to explain to their fellow Americans, because the war was not about taking ground - it was about breaking the spirit of the enemy.
"We have done ourselves a real disservice ... as a country not to really come face to face with Vietnam," Stanton says.
"I think that Vietnam is America's greatest unfinished narrative," Stanton says. "And I think that it's a national tragedy that we don't know how to talk about this war."
Doug Stanton is the author of three books, including Horse Soldiers and In Harm’s Way. He is also a co-founder of the National Writers Series in Traverse City.
The Odyssey of Echo Company goes on sale September 19. Stanton will be a guest of the National Writers Series on September 17.