The War That Time Forgot

The War That Time Forgot
Story Stream
recent articles

If you plan to become a bureaucrat, you might really want to think about going to work for a secret one.  There is little to no accountability, and it is easy to spin abject failures into policy successes.  That argument seems to be one of the major themes of Joshua Kurlantzick’s “A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA” (Simon and Schuster, 2016).

The prime rule in real estate—as the old saying goes—is: “location, location, location.”  The basic idea is that some land is more valuable than others; more people want beach front property than some place that abuts a busy and noisy road.  You can take this rule all the way up to the realm of geopolitics.  Be it because of natural resources or geographic features, some nations like Germany or Japan can have a lot more influence than Somalia or Peru.  It is hard to think of anything that makes Laos valuable today, or even during the middle part of the Cold War.  It did not grow valuable crops, had no major industry and had no natural resources.  It was, and is, a small, landlocked country in Southeast Asia.  Despite those fairly obvious shortcomings, Kurlantzick shows quite well that Laos was the focal point of concern among American foreign policy makers in the late 1950s and 1960s.  In 1960, The New York Times devoted three times as much space to articles about Laos as it did to those on Vietnam.

The United States also decided to fight to keep the impoverished nation from going Communist.  Currently, conventional wisdom holds that insurgency is an approach to war that the weak use against the strong.  Many people also believe there is no military counter to this type of fighting.  Both of these arguments would be news to the veterans of the American experience in Laos.  In 1961, the Central Intelligence Agency convinced the Kennedy Administration that it could fight the North Vietnamese, and could do it on the cheap.  At first, the Americans had enormous success.  The agency had a well-seasoned case-officer in Bill Lair.  A veteran of the European theater in World War II, Lair had joined the CIA right after graduating from Texas A&M University.  He had been in Southeast Asia for ten years and understood the cultures and histories in play.  He knew the various leaders of the Hmong and believed they could be most useful in the fight against the Communists if the United States supported their fight.  In practical matters, that translated into light infantry weapons and medical supplies. 

Things changed when Vientiane Station Chief Ted “the Blond Ghost” Shackley decided that the Hmong should take the fight to the North Vietnamese Army.  He wanted them to hold territory.  He wanted a more conventional fight with air power and artillery.  The CIA presence grew and grew, beyond the resources of the agency, and it was an open secret what the spy agency was doing as it built highly visible compounds with contractors that solicited openly in Bangkok newspapers.  Budgets got bigger and bigger.  Laos was the place to be if you wanted to move up in the CIA.  “Laos would be a dramatic innovation for the CIA; a transformative experience,” Kurlantzick contends.  “The Laos war would prove the dividing line for the CIA; afterward, its leadership would see paramilitary operations as an essential part of the agency’s mission, and many other US policy makers would come to accept that the CIA was now as much a part of waging war as the traditional branches of the armed forces.”

Lair disagreed and was forced out as the spy agency’s footprint grew.  Internal CIA histories would later admit his departure was a mistake.  No one in the agency had the same rapport with Hmong and their military leader Vang Poe.  While expanding the war might have been in the best interest of the United States in general as it created another theater of combat for the Vietnamese, it was not in the best interest of the Hmong.  War fighting became a full time business for them; there were fewer and fewer people able to farm.  The war was burning through their society demographically as soldiers died and the North Vietnamese had more resources.  When the war in Vietnam ended, the CIA departed and left the Hmong wondering what had happened to their patron.  There was almost no effort to protect them or help them relocate.  The Hmong had served their purpose and the CIA was done with them and Laos.

Kurlantzick has a serious subject, but presents it with engaging prose.  He also pegs his stories around a number of colorful characters that emerge as well-rounded personalities: Bill Lair, the quiet professional; Tony Poe, the hard living and slightly crazed contractor/mercenary; Ted Shackley, the ruthless kingmaker; Vang Poe, the hard but melodramatic Hmong warlord; and William Sullivan, the ambitious and upwardly mobile bureaucrat.  In short, it is an easy read. 

This book does have shortcomings that appear to be equally the responsibility of both author and publisher.  There is not one illustration in this book.  No maps—which is the fault of the publisher—and no photographs—which is the doing of the author…probably.  Despite these absences, this book succeeds at offering a useful, thought-provoking account of a war on the margins, as the United States finds itself fighting a series of small wars in isolated locales.

Show comments Hide Comments