Laos: A lesser-known Amer­i­can dis­as­ter

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Fredrik Lo­gevall is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs and his­tory at Har­vard Univer­sity. His book “Em­bers of War: The Fall of an Em­pire and the Mak­ing of Amer­ica’s Viet­nam” won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for his­tory.

The strug­gle for In­dochina lasted three decades and caused mas­sive blood­shed and phys­i­cal de­struc­tion in three coun­tries: Viet­nam, Laos and Cam­bo­dia. Viet­nam was al­ways the heart of the con­flict, the site of the heav­i­est fight­ing and dy­ing, the place where first French and then Amer­i­can plan­ners in­vested the bulk of their re­sources. So it stands to rea­son that it’s the fight­ing in Viet­nam that has re­ceived the lion’s share of at­ten­tion from schol­ars and other authors over the years. That lit­er­a­ture is enor­mous and grow­ing. Still, the dis­par­ity is jar­ring: Next to the moun­tain of books on Viet­nam, there’s barely a mole­hill on the war as waged in Laos and Cam­bo­dia.

All the more wel­come, then, to see the ap­pear­ance of Joshua Kurlantz­ick’s “A Great Place to Have a War: Amer­ica in Laos and the Birth of a Mil­i­tary CIA.” Here we get an in­for­ma­tive and well-re­searched overview of the covert war the United States waged in Laos be­tween 1960 and 1975, one that in­volved both the re­cruit­ment and train­ing of a lo­cal an­ti­com­mu­nist fight­ing force led by Hmong tribes­men and the launch­ing of a bomb­ing cam­paign of awe­some size. The U.S. pur­pose: to tie down the forces of North Viet­nam and their Lao­tian al­lies the Pa­thet Lao, and to de­stroy com­mu­nist sup­ply lines that moved men and ma­te­rial along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos en route to South Viet­nam.

The num­bers give a sense of the scope. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped some 2 mil­lion tons of ord­nance on Laos, the equiv­a­lent of one planeload ev­ery eight min­utes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. It made Laos, per capita, the most bombed coun­try in hu­man his­tory. In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Ja­pan dur­ing all of World War II. All told, some 200,000 Lao­tians were killed in the war— about a tenth of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion. Most were civil­ians. Nor did the end of the fight­ing in 1975 stop the killing; over the next four decades, un­ex­ploded clus­ter bombs would kill 20,000 Lao­tians and maim ad­di­tional thou­sands.

It was a se­cret war, run sub­stan­tially by the CIA, un­der the code name Op­er­a­tion Mo­men­tum. A prin­ci­pal early player was Bill Lair, a clan­des­tine op­er­a­tive who drew up a plan to train and arm the Hmong, one of the largest eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups in Laos, to fight the Pa­thet Lao and the North Viet­namese. Kurlantz­ick gives us a com­pelling por­trait of this soft-spo­ken man “with the bristly buzz cut and the thick Clark Kent glasses who spoke flu­ent Lao with a Texas ac­cent” — the quin­tes­sen­tial quiet Amer­i­can.

Lair be­lieved fer­vently that anti-com­mu­nist Lao­tians could win the strug­gle for their coun­try as long as they and not Amer­i­cans led the fight­ing, and that the United States could avoid the colo­nial­ism tag as long as it did not at­tempt to take over the ter­ri­tory. He pinned his hopes on Vang Pao, an am­bi­tious and ruth­less Hmong of­fi­cer and an­other cen­tral fig­ure in the book. Over time, as se­nior lead­ers — in­clud­ing Wil­liam Sul­li­van, the U.S. am­bas­sador in Vi­en­tiane, and Ted Shack­ley, the CIA sta­tion chief — re­lied more and more on mas­sive use of Amer­i­can air­power, in par­tic­u­lar to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Lair grew dis­il­lu­sioned, cer­tain that the bomb­ing was killing civil­ians and that the Hmong could never achieve last­ing mil­i­tary suc­cess against the su­pe­rior train­ing, arms and mo­ti­va­tion of the North Viet­namese and the Pa­thet Lao.

Ac­cord­ing to Kurlantz­ick, Lair’s mis­giv­ings fell on deaf ears among his su­pe­ri­ors. The aerial bom­bard­ment con­tin­ued to in­ten­sify, and Hmong fight­ers un­der Vang Pao were sent into in­creas­ingly fe­ro­cious bat­tles. Upon en­ter­ing of­fice, Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon and his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Henry Kissinger, while car­ing lit­tle about Laos and its peo­ple, be­lieved that stepped-up bomb­ing would be “an ef­fec­tive way to blud­geon North Viet­nam and its al­lies in Laos into agree­ing to a peace deal for all of In­dochina.” By the end of 1969, Amer­i­can air­craft were con­duct­ing ap­prox­i­mately 300 sor­ties per day over Laos. Never mind that there were fewer tar­gets to hit than pre­vi­ously, a great many hav­ing al­ready been oblit­er­ated. Most of the time, lead­ers in the Royal Lao gov­ern­ment were not con­sulted in ad­vance of the at­tacks.

Kurlantz­ick quotes U.S. diplo­mat John Gun­ther Dean re­gard­ing the Nixo­nian ap­proach: “Bomb­ing in Laos, Cam­bo­dia, North Viet­nam, was strong, and he al­ways pre­ferred a strong move . . . . He al­ways wanted to play the card that he wasn’t like John­son or Kennedy, and bomb­ing would con­vince the com­mu­nists of this.”

The bomb­ing was on oc­ca­sion will­fully ran­dom. In early 1970, the book tells us, Amer­i­can pi­lots rou­tinely re­leased bombs over Laos with­out lo­cat­ing a par­tic­u­lar tar­get, sim­ply be­cause they could not find a suit­able tar­get in North Viet­nam and did not want to re­turn to their base in Thai­land with bombs still on board.

In the end, the shadow war in Laos ended in de­feat. The United States ceased the bomb­ing and ul­ti­mately cut off fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to its Hmong al­lies. In 1975, South Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia and Laos fell to com­mu­nist forces.

It’s a har­row­ing story, and Kurlantz­ick tells it well, even if he’s oc­ca­sion­ally shaky on the de­tails. He errs in say­ing the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Agree­ments and mis­states the num­ber of U.S. mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers in South Viet­nam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s death, and he of­fers no ev­i­dence for his du­bi­ous claim that Kennedy “re­peat­edly” told aides he would not tol­er­ate the loss of South Viet­nam on his watch. The au­thor’s loose ap­proach to chronol­ogy leads on oc­ca­sion to con­fu­sion and rep­e­ti­tion. In the main, how­ever, his choices about what to cover are sen­si­ble, his assess­ments per­sua­sive. One puts the book down with a deeper, richer un­der­stand­ing of this sor­did chap­ter in the his­tory of Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion­ism.

The ti­tle of the book, “A Great Place to Have a War,” which seems at first glance mis­placed and grotesque, turns out to be wholly apt (and grotesque). For in the minds of many within the CIA, the war in Laos, far from be­ing a fail­ure, was a rous­ing suc­cess, a low-cost way of put­ting in­tense pres­sure on the North Viet­namese. In this way, Kurlantz­ick ar­gues, Op­er­a­tion Mo­men­tum was an archetype for the CIA para­mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions of more re­cent times— “and a new way for the pres­i­dent to uni­lat­er­ally de­clare war and then se­cretly or­der mas­sive at­tacks.” Richard Helms, CIA di­rec­tor dur­ing the height of the op­er­a­tion, later lauded the agency’s “su­perb job” in Laos, a sen­ti­ment echoed in a clas­si­fied CIA ret­ro­spec­tive. The anal­y­sis paid scant at­ten­tion, Kurlantz­ick acidly notes, to the war’s ef­fects on Lao­tians. He quotes Wil­liam Sul­li­van, who told an in­ter­viewer many years later that the air war over Laos caused him “no per­sonal an­guish.”

Con­trast this as­sess­ment with that by Barack Obama, who in Septem­ber 2016 be­came the first sit­ting pres­i­dent to visit Laos. “Vil­lages and en­tire val­leys were oblit­er­ated,” Obama re­marked in Vi­en­tiane, af­ter an­nounc­ing a ma­jor in­crease in Amer­i­can funds to clean up un­ex­ploded ord­nance left be­hind from the war. “Count­less civil­ians were killed. And that con­flict was an­other re­minder that, what­ever the cause, what­ever our in­ten­tions, war in­flicts a ter­ri­ble toll, es­pe­cially on in­no­cent men, women and chil­dren.” The time had come, Obama said, to pull the se­cret war out of the shad­ows. In­deed, and Kurlantz­ick’s book rep­re­sents an im­por­tant step in that di­rec­tion.

DAVID LONGSTREATH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

U.S. bomb­ing of Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, top, killed thou­sands and caused ex­ten­sive, long-last­ing dam­age, in­clud­ing craters, above.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

RICK MERRON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

By Joshua Kurlantz­ick Si­mon & Schus­ter. 323 pp. $28 A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR Amer­ica in Laos and the Birth of a Mil­i­tary CIA

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