Review: A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of the Military CIA

Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of the Military CIA explains why for the CIA, Laos was never a great place to wage a war. It is yet another testimony to the hubris of American foreign policy during the Cold War’s middle decades of the 1960s and 1970s and sheds light on the US’s Secret War in Laos, a conflict that is often overshadowed by the US’s other major defeat in mainland Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War. To craft his narrative, Kurlantzick draws upon recently declassified intelligence documents. These new data differentiate his work from past books on the same subject like Shooting at the Moon and Air America.

Kurlantzick explores a thesis that the CIA cut its teeth in covert warfare in Laos – a proposition that could be argued against by reading into the CIA’s covert military operations in Guatemala and Cuba prior to US involvement in Indochina. The book’s true merit and contribution to existing literature is in the telling of the lives of its four central characters: Bill Sullivan, then US Ambassador to Laos; Bill Lair, the CIA operator in charge of the clandestine operation; Wang Pao, the Hmong general employed by Lair and Sullivan to wage war on behalf of the US against the Pathet Lao and the Northern Vietnamese with whom the Pathet Lao was allied; and finally Tony Poe, the CIA operative ensconced deep within Laos’s jungles charged with training peripheral ethnic groups. Their combined actions, in addition to a total lack disregard for the revolutionary momentum in Laos and a gross mismatch of tactical approaches, dictated the recipe for US disaster in Laos. Throughout the book, the words of these four men give personal account to the secret war.

Prior to reading the book, I was most interested in learning more about the life and character of General Wang Pao. The facts surrounding the Hmong general’s life are scattered across a variety of sources, and  Kurlantzick brings Wang Pao’s life into focus. Kurlantzick examines the questions of how Wang Pao came to be America’s number one son in Laos and how he amassed an army formed by members of an ethnic group known to eschew organization. Of course, everything fell apart for Wang Pao in the end. Kurlantzick describes the waxing and waning of conflict through the tactical battlefield analysis, and the conversations between Wang Pao and his handlers, and the utter failures of US intelligence that prolonged the conflict and ultimately resulted in a mass exodus of Hmong people from Laos to Thailand and many parts of the United States.

The coverage of Laos in current day Western media is as sparse and rare as the decade in which the US waged war there. Thus we need more books like Kurlantzick’s to expose the horrors that the US unleashed on this small landlocked country, which at the time of the war had a population of three million. Laos is the most bombed country on the planet with more than 270 million tons of bombs, many of which were anti-personnel cluster munitions, released over Laos’s verdant forests and plains between 1964 and 1973. Those that flew over the bombed country during and in the years after the conflict, recall a cratered moonscape.

The book dutifully describes the US bombing runs from Bill Lair’s base in Udorn and others further afield in Thailand and provides first-hand accounts from the US pilots leading the raids and the unfortunate villagers and soldiers on the ground who witnessed the horrific bombing. Roughly 30% of the bombs dropped during the secret war did not explode upon contact and still pose a threat to individual in Laos. Children often discover the small cluster munitions, which look like round play-things, and are killed or maimed when the fifty-year old fuses are triggered. Farmers cannot take full economic advantage of their land over risks of coming in contact with a bomb. Casualties of war continue to increase for a conflict that ended before a time when more than half of the world’s population was born. Only within the last decade has the US government significantly increased aid to Laos to clear and remove unexploded ordnance.

A Great Place to Have a War is not a book about Lao’s fight for independence because we hardly get to know the Pathet Lao and the individuals that shaped Laos’s revolutionary movement. Nor is this an examination of the global trends and the pantheon of leaders that shaped the misguided and disastrous conflict in Indochina – or the Southeast Asian heroes who prevailed. For that, we should read Fredrick Logevall’s Embers of War or the works of Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and Francis Fitzgerald, all authors who produced first-hand classic accounts of the wars in Indochina. What this book is, however, is an accurate portrayal of a situation where the resources of a dominant power are spread thin by the need to manage numerous conflicts around the globe, and the over-delegation of authority to a few ill-prepared individuals, mostly ignored by the media or their government, can result in a devastating conflict affecting the lives of millions. Laos continues to heal from the scars of this devastating, secret war.

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