A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. By Joshua Kurlantzick. Simon & Schuster, 320 pages; $28. THE bombing of Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s always used to be referred to as America’s “secret war”. This was not just a mistake or even a misunderstanding: it was a terrible misnomer. For the Laotians who cowered in caves to escape what is considered the heaviest bombardment in history, the campaign was certainly not a secret. America’s involvement was well known in the capital, Vientiane, and covered in the international press. Eventually it became well publicised and was even investigated by Congress. But the “secret” label stuck to America’s war in Laos, in part because of official denials and in part because of public indifference.At last the secret is out in full. This was brought home during President Barack Obama’s visit to the tiny South-East Asian nation in September, when he pledged more money to remove unexploded American bombs, though without offering any formal apology. For those looking for more, the war’s entire compelling tale can be found in the lucid prose and revelatory reporting of Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, “A Great Place to Have a War”. Fresh interviews and newly declassified records document how American involvement escalated and then swiftly ended, leaving America’s Laotian partners holding the bag. But Mr Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former contributor to this newspaper, enriches his study even further by connecting the CIA’s unprecedented paramilitary activities in Laos to the secret wars of today in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.In 1961 Laos was the focal point of America’s containment strategy against communism in South-East Asia, with President Dwight Eisenhower giving it priority in a pre-inauguration briefing to his successor, John Kennedy. A CIA operation then began to train and fight alongside an army taken mostly from the Hmong ethnic minority against the Pathet Lao—translated as “Lao Nation”—who were backed by North Vietnam. Hitting the Pathet Lao in the north and on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south, the American air force unleashed an average of one attack every eight minutes for nearly ten years. By 1970 tens of thousands of American-backed fighters were involved, at an annual cost of $3.1bn in today’s dollars. By the time the campaign ended in 1973, a tenth of Laos’s population had been killed. Thousands more accidental deaths would follow from unexploded bombs left in the soil.
In his book Mr Kurlantzick paints a vivid picture of protagonists like Vang Pao, a military leader who emigrated to America, where he was arrested in 2007 for plotting a coup against the Laotian government, and Tony Poe, a hard-drinking CIA operative who lived in the jungle and collected severed enemy ears. Mr Kurlantzick concludes that, in the future, “the CIA would not lock up men like Poe; instead, it would find many more Tony Poes.” But the book is not just a polemic against the agency. Mr Kurlantzick looks into allegations that the CIA sold heroin and opium. He finds no evidence of this, although the agency was happy to look the other way when the Hmong sold drugs.
One question is why the CIA’s conduct did not spark outrage, or even much interest, among the American public. More Americans died in Laos than in Cambodia, but it was the bombing of Cambodia that sparked protests including at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970, where four students were killed by the national guard. Even a high-profile hearing, when Senator Ted Kennedy challenged the war, provoked little public reaction. Heavier media coverage of the bombing in Cambodia may have contributed, as did the CIA’s attempts at a cover-up in Laos and the fact that the American dead were clandestine advisers rather than young draftees.
Laos was a model. Successive American administrations went on to wage “secret” wars in Central America and the Middle East with minimal American casualties and without congressional interference. The CIA viewed its Laotian operation as a success, even though the Pathet Lao took over after America’s withdrawal, and are still in power. In Laos, however, the wounds have yet to heal.
“Superb! Joshua Kurlantzick joins the ranks of preeminent Southeast Asia chroniclers like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Stanley Karnow with what will become the benchmark book for an important part of America’s quagmire in that region—the CIA’s secret war in Laos.
A Great Place to Have a War is rich and jarring in its historical insight, fast in its pacing, and gripping in its read. You won’t want to put it down.” (Douglas Waller, author of Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan )
“Gripping. Of all the CIA’s strange adventures during the Cold War, the secret war in Laos may have been the most bizarre. Joshua Kurlantzick has crafted a true drama with an improbable and colorful cast. An eye opening, carefully researched, and wrenching yarn of what can go wrong when East meets West.” (Evan Thomas, author of The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA )
“Joshua Kurlantzick’s story of the CIA’s secret war in Laos brilliantly illuminates one of the most obscure yet harrowing chapters of the Vietnam conflict. WIth sure pacing and a gallery of rich characters, Kurlantzick shows how a modest operation to harass Communist forces escalated into a military onslaught that killed and displaced tens of thousands and wrecked a country. This is a cautionary tale of arrogance, recklessness, and unrestrained power that, tragically, finds echoes in many of today’s battlefields.” (Joshua Hammer, author of The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu )
“The war’s entire compelling tale can be found in the lucid prose and revelatory reporting of Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book….” (The Economist)
“This riveting read belongs in the pantheon of works such as Jane Hamilton Merritt’s
Tragic Mountain and William M. LeoGrande’s Our Own Backyard. Highly recommended for those wanting insight into the Hmong people and Cold War thinking.” (Library Journal)
“Excellent…. Using an effective combination of firsthand reporting and a thorough reading of the best primary and secondary sources, Kurlantzick tells… an instructive tale… [that] continues to have relevance in the 21st century.” (Publishers Weekly)
“[A] timely new book…. What makes
A Great Place to Have a War such a valuable contribution is Kurlantzick’s account of how the CIA itself was changed by the Secret War.” (Washington Monthly)
“In this important book, Kurlantzick writes in excruciating detail how the decisions by Eisenhower and Kennedy would turn the CIA from a spy organization to one whose primary role was covert warfare, involving the agency in ever more controversial actions across the world….” (Asia Sentinel)
“In his well researched argument, the author relies on extensive materials prepared by other historians as well as first person interviews with relevant characters (including Vang Pao) and recently declassified documents…an important demonstration of the U.S.’s ongoing, not so secret hand in world affairs. Kurlantzick’s comprehensive account provides new insights into the CIA’s objectives in the Laos war and the way that they were incorporated into its broader mission.” (Kirkus Reviews)