Friday, January 27, 2017

A Great Place To Have A War: America In Laos And The Birth Of A Military CIA

This week, A Great Place To Have A War: America In Laos And The Birth Of A Military CIA went on sale from Simon & Schuster with a significant number of reviewers praising it. It's a timely release given President Obama's recent historic visit to Laos in 2016 and arriving just shortly after we marked the fortieth anniversary of the Laotian diaspora. I've had a lot of friends asking me if I'd heard about this new book, and the answer is yes, although I came upon it by chance while researching in the libraries in California recently.

I was very interested in how he approaches this subject because I've argued significantly for years that much of America's foreign policy today is shaped by lessons we learned from the conflict for Laos including the use of proxy armies and CIA paramilitary advisors. You can see the lessons applied in modified forms with the Kurds in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and many of those who served alongside the Laotians from 1954-1975 went on to many other hotspots around the globe since. I personally think the case can be made that 9/11 has significant ties to the lessons we learned from the War for Laos. NPR recently did an interview with him for those who'd like to learn a little more about his approach.

There's a classic quote from Ed Buell, a US AID worker and retired farmer who spent his last years working in Laos to help the Hmong and Laotian refugees that anyone who spoke English in Laos had no idea what the real problems were over there.

The book approaches the conflict from an Americacentric perspective and reinforces many of the prevailing narratives regarding the Hmong in the conflict. There is no significant discussion of the role of the Khmu, Tai Dam, Lue, or Iu Mien in the war, and, as has become typical, the Hmong experience is told primarily from the Vang clan perspective. The book leaves significant room for the Yang, Lee, Xiong, Thao, and other Hmong clans to weigh in on the historical record in the future.

The author, Joshua Kurlantzick, spent years as a journalist writing about Asia for a variety of publications, including The Economist and The New York Times Magazine. He's now a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book seeks to be "the definitive account of the secret war in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos, which lasted almost two decades and forever changed the CIA’s controversial role in foreign policy."

Kurlantzick's book uses extensive interviews and recently declassified CIA records to examine the 1961 Operation Momentum in Laos. It "follows the war’s central characters, including the four key people who led the operation: the CIA operative who came up with the idea; the charismatic general who led the Hmong army in the field; the State Department careerist who took control over the war as it grew; and the wild card paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong army (he’s believed to be the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now)." This would of course be Vang Pao, Bill Lair, Tony Poe, and Bill Sullivan, but it doesn't make much mention of key figures such as Jerry Daniels, although Daniels story is much better covered in Gayle Morrison's 2013 book Hog's Exit, anyway.

A Great Place To Have A War leaves plenty for emerging Laotian American historians and writers to address. Kurlanzick doesn't include many conversations with the Laotian veterans or civilians who lived through the conflict or whose lives were directly shaped by Operation Momentum and other military operations that emerged from this era. Nor do we see much from the Pathet Lao perspective that's particularly helpful for historians to consider. He has some interesting conclusions that may surprise some readers who are just starting to understand the scope and scale of the conflict and its aftermaths.

According to the publishers, "The CIA had previously been a relatively small player in American policy, one that concentrated on intelligence and political work. The secret war in Laos created an agency that fights with real soldiers and weapons as much as it gathers secrets; it became a template for CIA proxy wars all over the world, where the agency can take control with little oversight."

This book has merits, but will not be my first recommendation to Laotian American readers with an interest in the era compared to the works of Conboy, Warner, Robbins, Morrison, Castle, and Evans among other scholars and journalists. For more general audiences, it can provide a good start to a very big subject that has been far more influential on their modern world than many might suspect.

No comments: