Review: Joshua Kurlantzick, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA (New York, 2016)

Few people in America today know where the small (population 7 million) Asian country Laos is. Far fewer still knew in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the United States government, its B-52s and the Central Intelligence Agency were carrying on a top-secret war right next to the far better known war in Vietnam, a secret war rivaling Vietnam in mayhem. The United States dropped more bombs on Laos than on Japan in World War II; in 1971 alone, there were more than 500,000 bomber sorties over a country with a smaller population than Boston, and one where the anti-US (communist) forces possessed few anti-aircraft weapons.

What made Laos different, however, was not merely the top-secret veil cast over American involvement there from 1960 onward, a veil only partly pulled aside starting in 1969. The difference was the far lower commitment of US personnel, and those being primarily CIA agents and civilian employees, as opposed to military. Because of top-level US government paranoia about any media coverage or Congressional oversight, even the relatively few deaths of Americans killed there, official or civilian (about 780 total), were rarely reported publicly, and their families sworn or intimidated into silence.

Further, what makes the story told in this book more than “ancient history” about an obscure country, is that Laos, more than the debacle of Vietnam, became a template for further American foreign intervention right up to the present, offering an alternative strategy to massive troop presence, based on smaller expense, less commitment of US personnel, and the enlistment of local populations to do the real fighting. Even more importantly, it became a paradigm for the transformation of the CIA from intelligence gathering and oversight of operations into an organization of professional killers targeting and eliminating key people “on the ground.” The Laos “paradigm” was the inspiration for the United States harassment strategy in Afghanistan during the Soviet presence there, later in Central America, and it continues to be an ultimate source of counter-insurgency in different arenas in the Middle East and, undoubtedly, elsewhere.

Finally, Insurgent Notes reviews this book, like that of Nick Turse on Vietnam, to offer further documentation of the barbarism fomented worldwide by the United States, far from the view and daily lives of most ordinary Americans.

Why, in 1960, was such a small, dirt-poor country as Laos so important? One must first recall the dominant US foreign policy paradigm at the height of the Cold War, the “domino theory,” according to which a communist victory anywhere, especially in compact, densely populated Southeast Asia, would quickly topple other nearby regimes. In fact, when John F. Kennedy became US president in January 1961, the top crisis priority in foreign policy on his desk was not the US–Soviet standoff in Berlin before the wall, or U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, but…Laos. A mere glance at a map drives home the importance of Laos in Cold War terms, bordering as it does on potential “dominoes” Burma/Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, as well as on China, then in the business of supporting insurgencies wherever it fit Chinese foreign policy to do so. Laos was also a convenient route for clandestine shipments of North Vietnamese weaponry and supplies to the insurgent forces in South Vietnam. The action in Laos, finally, served to divert important numbers of North Vietnamese troops from the ongoing war in South Vietnam, and this diversion was also a top policy priority. The author of the book under review, Joshua Kurlantzick, is no comrade or muckraker. He is a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, and has published journalism in the Economist, Time, the New Republic, Mother Jones and Rolling Stone. That said, the extent of the barbarism he reveals is eloquent enough. Somewhat like Graham Greene’s great novel about CIA operations in Indochina, The Quiet American (1955), Kurlantzick’s narrative is carried along by several memorable (real life) characters, above all the Hmong chief and outstanding military strategist Vang Pao, the true “quiet American” Bill Lair, the paradigmatic Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now figure Tony Poe, and the smooth Ivy League diplomat Bill Sullivan, whose skillful military micro-management of the secret war (especially unusual for a State Department official) won the attention and respect of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and who wound up a major negotiator of the 1973 settlement of the United States withdrawal from Indochina. The Hmong people, among the various indigenous peoples of Laos, played the major role in military action against both North Vietnam and the Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao. The Hmong, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, were tough mountain people with long-term antipathy to the Vietnamese and to “communism,”[1] in total contrast to the combat-shy officers of the Royal Laotian Army, who spent most of the war and a good part of US aid building their villas in the capital, Vientiane. The Hmong were also animated, in the event of defeat, by vague American promises of refuge in nearby Thailand or even more so in the United States, few of which materialized after the war (though there are now Hmong communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California).

The Texan Bill Lair was (for a CIA agent) an unusual, almost sympathetic figure with more than a decade in Southeast Asia, who spoke fluent Vietnamese and Lao, and whose unsurpassed (among American personnel on the scene) knowledge of the region’s complex multiethnic culture allowed him to be initiated into the Hmong, and who seemed almost to resist the attempts of American higher ups to instrumentalize the Hmong struggles and those of other Laotian ethnicities for American purposes.[2] His replacement by the diplomat Bill Sullivan in 1964 was a “paradigm shift” in which professionals, whether CIA or State Department or other, with no particular roots in, or feel for, the region, took over strategy in strict subordination of the aims of the different local Laotian groups to US aims. These later professionals tended to suspect Lair of having “gone native.”

The real-life “Kurtz” in this book, Tony Poe (he had Americanized his name from Anthony Poshepny) had been involved in US military operations since 1942, when he joined the Marines. His life’s work, so to speak, was, from that point on, fighting and guns, having been wounded in battle six times before he arrived in Laos. Despite his “bravado and sometimes recklessness…even his harshest critics admitted that he possessed enormous talent for fighting and for teaching men to fight.” Poe evokes the men described by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, those Western figures drifting back from various colonial wars who, starting in the 1880s, unfit for civilian life of any kind, introduced a proto-fascist character type into late nineteenth-century bourgeois society.

Bill Sullivan was US ambassador to Laos, a country generally regarded as a backwater for ambitious State Department officials. In contrast to Bill Lair, the war in Laos was, for Sullivan, just another war, of interest only as a front in the Cold War. In spite of the remoteness of Laos, Sullivan was anything but the typical cocktail party ambassador. A graduate of Brown with a patrician manner, he quickly became “the most powerful US ambassador in the world—in charge of a war.”

Last and hardly least of Kurlantzick’s cast of characters was the above-mentioned Hmong chief, Vang Pao. Bill Lair first heard of him from departing French officers[3] as “the only Hmong who could deliver a significant force of men.” Laos was, militarily, in some sense the opposite of Vietnam, where communists conducted guerrilla warfare against an established regime; by contrast, in Laos, North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces controlled a significant (northern) part of the country, so the anti-communist forces could be the guerrillas, carrying out pin-prick operations and capturing weapons. Lair was impressed by Vang Pao’s blunt style, quite a contrast to the “verbal misdirection and obscurity he had seen from most Laotian and Thai leaders.” Vang Pao’s sharp mind, however, was “too often undermined by the man’s rage, sadness or manic energy,” a passion that “sometimes overtook his abilities and knowledge.” Lair planned to make the Hmong “into a kind of Southeast Asian maquis,” more cheaply than US troops or other available forces; the Hmong could be paid $3 per month.

The overall US operation in Laos was known as “Operation Momentum.” The Hmong suited the program perfectly, as Lair wrote: “They would be better than the average American soldier…In the mountains, the Hmong could walk faster than anybody because they’d never taken a step that wasn’t up or down…they were very bright and easy to train…And they were fighting for Laos, not for the United States” Vang Pao’s hill tribe army numbered 20,000 by 1963. The force was partly funded by the opium trade, carried on by the Hmong on flights of Air America, one of the CIA’s barely concealed business fronts in Southeast Asia. Vang Pao’s reputation soared after brilliant actions, with outnumbered and poorly armed troops, against North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces. Due to such successes, “in 1963 Laos already received more American aid, per capita, than South Vietnam or any other countries in Southeast Asia.”

Operation Momentum was, unlike later secret interventions such as the Iran-Contra affair, funded directly with CIA money. With the Hmong doing the fighting, messy dealings with Congressional oversight were avoided. In public hearings, the CIA denied any involvement in Laos; in closed secret hearings, they revealed some details. Most foreign journalists in Laos had to piece together evidence from hearsay, and were asked by the CIA to be “discreet.” Other vetted figures were employees of the CIA’s own “charter” airline, Air America. The few visiting Congresspeople were treated to a quick interview with Vang Pao.

Bill Sullivan quickly established himself as an unusually intrusive ambassador, requiring all agency heads to attend daily meetings in Vientiane to report on and get approval for their operations. Sullivan worked with the CIA but excluded the United States military, whose advisors were required to live in Thailand. All this was possible because Sullivan had unique ties to high levels of the Lyndon Johnson administration. Bill Lair continued his independent ways, as he had before Sullivan’s arrival, but the military successes of Vang Pao began to attract CIA agents who had previously avoided Laos as a backwater for the careers of the ambitious. These new arrivals cared nothing for the basis on which Lair had built his ties to the Hmong. More and more Tony Poes arrived. Ignorant of the terrain and unaware of the dangers, the new arrivals actually posed more danger of American deaths that could blow the secret cover of the operation. They were “sheep-dipped” to expunge their prior records and experience and given only sidearms to defend themselves. The higher ups brushed off Lair’s warnings about the dangers.

Vang Pao meanwhile was increasingly demanding US air cover for his outgunned forces in their battles with the North Vietnamese. He was “much more powerful than any Hmong leader had every been.” Lair, however, worried that an expanded war would lead to a losing war. But Lyndon Johnson’s top aides overruled Lair and Air America pilots started bombing and strafing. Shackley, the new CIA station chief in Vientiane after 1966, was the opposite of Lair. He was the kind of operative “who could move from country to country, never becoming too personally involved in any one place.” He would never “go native.” He saw the air war as a way of draining North Vietnamese forces from the war next door in Vietnam. Under Shackley’s leadership, the Hmong would “take the war to the North Vietnamese army.” Hmong elders, however, worried that “many young Hmong men were being sucked into battle.” But Vang Pao expanded training of young Hmong for his ambitious plans to expand the scale of fighting. North Vietnam was being forced to send more troops against him. A Laotian “Dien Bien Phu” shaped up in the northern town of Nam Bac, surrounded by mountains. Lair warned it was a trap, and was ignored. One of North Vietnam’s toughest divisions attacked the town and its 7,000 defenders. The latter were shelled mercilessly from the surrounding mountains. Between the thousands fleeing and thousands more killed, Nam Bac became a rout. Lair was increasingly isolated and shunted aside by the Shackleys. The CIA’s war in Laos was now the agency’s biggest, costing $300 million a year. Lair did not have the stuff of a whistleblower and simply decided to leave Laos. Even then, his departure was marked by the same ceremony, led by Vang Pao, whereby he had been initiated into the Hmong years before.

After a similar debacle at the mountain-top tracking station of Phou Pah Thi, Vang Pao decided he needed a big victory to reverse the tide. This ambition meshed with the desire of the new Nixon administration to expand the bombing, regardless of its dubious efficacy. To this end, Tony Poe pulled together various hill tribes into a force of 6,000 men by 1969, a force by his own estimate of doubtful utility, while Vang Pao’s own forces were hemorrhaging demoralized troops. He launched a go-for-broke attack on the North Vietnamese on the Plain of Jars, backed by a massive US air campaign, with 3,000 sorties a day. Helped by an unusually wet rainy season that slowed the North Vietnamese retreat, “it was Vang Pao’s biggest win.” For civilians, it was a dubious win, as only 9,000 of the 150,000 people living there remained at the end, the others being either killed, wounded or having fled. And only a few months later, in early 1970, North Vietnamese army divisions retook the Plain of Jars. The Nixon administration, true to form, retaliated with a further escalation of the bombing. Many of the total 580,000 bombs dropped on Laos by 1973 were antipersonnel bombs which burrow into the ground and continue to kill and maim to this day. By the fall of 1969, it was becoming more and more difficult to deny the extent of American involvement in Laos. Bill Sullivan was the skillful point man in denying or downplaying this involvement before Congress. Hmong forces were thinning under the impact of the bombing, as was the popular support for the United States in the Laotian population generally. Vang Pao’s forces melted away along with that broader support. Some were defecting to the communist side.

Driving home the crux and contemporary significance of this book (and hence the purpose of this review) Tony Poe’s makeshift tribal alliance fared no better, and Poe himself went crazy in remote isolation. Lair, learning of this from his new post in Bangkok, said that characters such as Poe should be “locked in boxes” when not needed in operations. But as Kurlantzick comments, “the CIA would not lock up men like Poe; instead, it would find many more Tony Poes.” This was the final step in the “birth of a military CIA” alluded to in his title.

Fred Branfman, “aid worker turned antiwar activist” with real experience in Laos, managed to testify in an open Congressional hearing in April 1971 about the dimensions of US involvement there. Nixon had already extended the war to Cambodia in April 1970, leading to massive protests and also to the Kent State shootings that killed four demonstrators. The United States was running into a “credibility problem” in Southeast Asia, as one high official gingerly put it. But all this had relatively little impact. On the contrary, the CIA institutionalized “changes that vastly increased the level of secrecy around its operations.” And these changes remained permanent. CIA officers stopped cabling and communicated only by written notes that were burned upon use. As one example, in 2005, the head of the CIA’s clandestine operations ordered the shredding of ninety videotapes of interrogations of Al Queda members to protect “clandestine operatives.”
The shift that began in Laos continued in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and wherever “the secret antiterrorism battle took place,” so that ordinary Americans were even more anaesthetized to such practices than they had been in the Indochina wars.

Vang Pao, however, was not done. The “largest and most critical fight of the entire war in Laos” took place in 1971–72 at northern Skyline Ridge, protecting the open road to Vientiane. It was in fact one of the largest battles of the entire Indochina war. Thai troops, the Hmong fighters and US bombing defended against a superior North Vietnamese force, led by some of the North’s most seasoned generals. Heavy fighting over weeks with thousands of casualties on both sides did blunt the North Vietnamese advance, but as the author comments, “it hardly mattered that Hanoi’s men had briefly retreated.” North Vietnam was in any case starting a massive offensive in the south. Vang Pao was at the end of the road, and his forces were reduced to abducting preteen boys.

Bill Sullivan continued his role as public flack-catcher in the Paris peace talks then underway. Part of the deal with North Vietnam was the tacit admission that Laos would fall to the communist side, though the Laotian government was not informed of this. After begging Kissinger in vain not to abandon them, top Laotian officials in February 1973 formed a coalition government with the Pathet Lao. US strategy was already “moving on” to a rapprochement with China against the Soviet Union. Vang Pao’s forces held on, unsupported, into 1975. In May of that year, Vang Pao and his closest circle were evacuated to Thailand. “Mass hysteria” among remaining Hmong ensued. Ultimately, only a few hundred further Hmong were evacuated. Some CIA and civilian operatives managed to evacuate a few thousand more, despite orders from above. By August 1975, 41,000 Laotians had fled on foot to Thailand. Vang Pao and a small circle of close aides and friends were ultimately given asylum in the United States. The Hmong remaining in Laos bore the brunt of communist repression for their support to the United States side. Four hundred thousand were left at the end of 1976. They were regarded by the United States government as the “stepchildren” of the Indochina war, and there was little public pressure to help them. As Kurlantzick puts it, “almost no one at the State Department cared about Laos now.”

CIA retrospectives on Laos were, rather incredibly, about “the war we [not, however, the local peoples on the United States side —LG] won.” The paramilitary operations in Laos were, in this estimate, “the most successful ever mounted.” The many CIA Laos “alumni” “graduated” to prestigious postings elsewhere, despite the growing anti-CIA “mood” in the United States typified by the (Senator Frank) Church hearings in Congress, as CIA domestic spying also moved, for a time, into the spotlight. With the coming to power of Ronald Reagan, covert actions of the kind pioneered in Laos were back in demand, first of all in Afghanistan, which had been occupied by the Soviets in 1979, and then in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas. Still other Laos veterans emerged in the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. In the 1990s they moved on to Somalia and Kosovo. The 9/11 attack completed the turn, and as the author comments, today “intelligence gathering, though still important, is secondary to the agency’s mission to kill enemies of the United States.” This shift was further documented in the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2014. Most recently, the much-evolved strategy first worked out in Laos was employed against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS).

What, then, to make of Kurlantzick’s book, from a Marxist perspective? It does do a service in making public a largely forgotten episode of barbarism unleashed by US foreign policy after World War II, as well as linking it meaningfully to present barbarisms. Kurlantzick never seems to doubt that the United States “should have” been in Southeast Asia, resisting “communist” expansion there, nor does he, in his survey of post-Indochina consequences, ever question the rightness of later interventions from Afghanistan to ISIS. He doesn’t ever step back to survey the wastelands left by these interventions during the United States “post-Vietnam” regroupment and counter-offensive in the name of the now-defunct “Washington consensus.” To truly draw the “balance sheet” of devastated Afghanistan, or gang-ridden Honduras, or ruined Iraq, would perhaps be another book, but certainly worth a mention. The book does do the service of reminding us of the now-forgotten dualistic world of the post-1945 Cold War, when, at least until the mid-1960s, the United States could gamely claim it was fighting for “democracy” without unleashing gales of laughter. Quite a contrast to today, when no one bothers to invoke such pretenses while discussing the United States involvement in the Syrian civil war, or Yemen, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or the growing escalation in the South China Sea. Nor is there much discussion of the United States responsibility for the “failed states” of Africa, or growing American military activity there, or for the current military regime in Egypt, or the barely contained chaos that is (for now) the Middle East as a whole. Today, the masks are off, and the naked power politics, that were always the true agenda, are there for all to see. America’s global involvement today can dispense with the low-key sophistication of the Bill Lairs and make do with, and push to the fore, the Tony Poes. It makes graveyards and calls it peace, and has nothing else to offer, in this epochal dead end of the capitalist mode of production.

  1. [1]For descriptive purposes only, this term will be used to refer to the forces of the various state-bureaucratic regimes and movements in play, none of which have anything to do with communism in Marx’s sense.
  2. [2]Lair is reminiscent of the French Maréchal Hubert Lyautey, a top French counter-insurgent in North Africa from 1897 to 1925, who learned fluent Arabic and tried to develop sophisticated methods of pacification, alternatives to brutal repression, but who was always, first and foremost, a counter-insurgent.
  3. [3]Following the final French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. “Nixon had already admitted to secret bombing of Cambodia in April 1970, leading to massive protests and also to the Kent State shootings that killed four demonstrators”

    In the interests of historical accuracy: Nixon did not admit to the secret bombing in April 1970 leading to etc etc…..

    Five (5) trusted members of Congress were informed about the secret bombing n 1969 and kept the secret. The bombing was exposed publicly in 1972 when an US air force officer notified Senator William Proxmire.

    The (non)admission in April 1970 did not lead to massive protests. Massive protests followed the US GROUND invasion of Cambodia in May 1970. This led to the deployment of the National Guard on numerous college campuses, and the Kent State shootings of May 4. In yet one more example of the classic blindspot, Kent State is always “remembered,” while the killing of 2, and wounding of 12, African-Americans at Jackson State College in Mississippi during anti-war protests is always forgotten.

  2. Austin American,

    While the book may be useful to some readers, I am convinced it conceals as much as it reveals. As I understand it, the author claims that Tony Poe kinda “went rogue” and started collecting the ears of his crew’s victims. It’s long been known that this was an established protocol of the bloody Operation Phoenix.

    It is also old news by now that Tony Poe was deeply involved in the drug traffic. Vang Pao, very much the same. Kurlantzick does the reader a serious disservice by not acknowledging these hard truths, which was to have devastating effects upon working people outside the military theatre as well as within it.

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