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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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Improving the US-Laos relationship through UXO cleanup

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

The recent leadership change in Laos and the country’s tenure as chair of ASEAN mean that now is an ideal time for the U.S. to step up engagement.  This dynamic situation gives U.S. policymakers room to pursue important goals in sustainable development and hydropower on the Mekong.  To do so, the U.S. must overcome significant hurdles.  Historically, Washington has seen little need to engage with the small, landlocked, and communist country that reminds the U.S. of struggles during the Vietnam War.  In 1997, Congress opposed Laos’ entrance to the WTO over marginalization of the Hmong minority.  Above all, the U.S.’s wartime legacy issues have been detrimental.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. saturated Laos with cluster bombs, leaving dangerous remnants throughout the countryside.  Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) continue to injure and kill, hindering Laos’ development.  Yet, even with these obstacles, the political climate is ideal.  The U.S. government should aim for better engagement with Laos by committing to economic development and accountability in UXO removal.

Laos, as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing country, has shown positive movement in its own economic development, but major improvements are lacking. Timber and copper exports have generated a steady source of revenue.  USAID development projects in the agricultural and sustainable livelihood sectors are bringing Laos within reach of middle income status by 2020.  Newly designated Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, has expressed a desire to capitalize on emerging opportunities and open Laos to more intra-ASEAN trade and tourism.  Smart investment efforts ensure a brighter future for Laos, yet the country is still very poor and hindered by more complex issues.

Laos lies at the intersection of the Golden Triangle, an illicit drug trading center that undermines good economies.  Nutrition is a major problem.  44% of children in Laos are malnourished and 27% are underweight.  Moreover, an estimated 70% of Laos’ population is under the age of 30.  At best, present day Laos is in a state of transition.  Laos requires capacity building initiatives to improve continuing development strategies.  However, economic development in Laos is not a quick fix as issues literally under the surface threaten Laos’ human security.

The toll of unexploded ordnance on Laos’s security and development is significant.  From 1964 to 1973, according to Lao’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO, over 50,000 Lao citizens were injured by UXO from 1969 to 2008.  The most prominent casualties ranged farmers and children doing everyday essential activities, everything from building a fire to playing in a field.  Travel through rural areas is noticeably dangerous, as casualties during cross-country travel are frequent.  UXOs have dangerously outlived their purpose.  At the start of the secret bombings over Laos, soldiers were the predominant UXO victims. Now agricultural workers and children comprise over 80% of quantifiable post-conflict victims up to 2008.  Their injuries increasingly lead to amputation or death.

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

UXOs are an inherent threat to Laos’ human security and economic development.  UXO contamination can render lands unusable, much to the detriment of the Lao economy.  The care and treatment for UXO victims adversely affects Laos’ public health and labor resources.  Simply put, Laos’ continued growth cannot happen with UXOs strewn across the country.  Development strategies that fail to address the UXO issue may cause Laos’ future prospects may flounder.  UXOs are an impediment to the comprehensive growth strategy that Laos requires.  A vulnerable population is less likely to improve its capacity for development.  The UXO problem is a chronic barrier plaguing a country looking to take a major step in its development.  Continuing UXO contamination weakens Lao citizens’ prospects for a sustainable future.

Yet, the UXO threat may be gone in the future, as ongoing diplomatic engagement is paving the way for enhanced U.S.-Laos engagement.  High profile visits have improved amity between the two nations.  Laos has hosted more senior members of the U.S. government in a recent five year span than in the last twenty years put together.

President Obama is set to be the first U.S. president to visit Laos in September.  In addition to the high profile visits, the U.S. government has pledged enriched development output to Laos in the form of improving nationwide nutrition and education.  During his recent visit to Laos, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide $6 million for school meals to supplement children’s daily nutrition and even pledged $19.5 million for weapons removal and abatement.

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

Moving forward, the U.S. should build on the framework set by these visits.  Fundamentally, working towards development goals in Laos improves U.S.-Laos bilateral relations, which in turn improve the U.S.’s access to the Mekong and the prospect for sustainable livelihoods on the Mekong.  Fostering a renewed relationship with Laos is a core value of the U.S.-Rebalance.  If the U.S. is to truly gain access to Asia’s dynamism, it must engage with all members of ASEAN.  Bolstering Laos is a smaller but important step toward improving ASEAN’s resiliency.

In any case, cleaning up war legacy issues must be high on the U.S.’s policy goals.  Above all, UXO removal is a moral imperative, and the U.S. is uniquely equipped towards removing the UXO.  As the responsible party for saturating Laos with cluster bombs, the U.S. is accountable in cleaning its remains.  In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the U.S. government has the potential to properly re-engage in Southeast Asia.  By taking a vested interest in Laos’ development through and with UXO removal, the U.S. is laying the path back to Southeast Asia.  Interestingly enough, the contentious issue that separated these countries for so long can become the key issue that brings the closer together.

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