Demystifying the secret war in Laos

By Calvin Godfrey   March 10, 2017 | 09:00 am PT
Demystifying the secret war in Laos
From 1964 to 1973, U.S. warplanes reportedly dropped more than 270 million cluster munitions on Laos. Photo by Reuters/Jorge Silva
Joshua Kurlantzick, the author of a new book about the Vietnam War's most misunderstood legacy, talks to VnExpress International.

Joshua Kurlantzick spent a decade tracking down old spooks, pouring through declassified documents and interviewing Hmong refugees to put together his excellent new book on America's “secret war” in Laos.

The senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations became interested in the topic while writing "An Ideal Man", a biography of a sidelined WWII spy named Jim Thompson who largely fell out of favor during the Cold War because he opposed the United States’ rabidly anti-communist agenda in Southeast Asia.

In addition to providing an excellent introduction to the details of the largest aerial bombing campaign in human history, "A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA" offers insights into the way the U.S. continues to pursue a military agenda today.

The book is full of gripping battlefield narratives, geopolitical betrayals and plenty of forehead-slapping moments of gross official miscalculation.

In emails and Skype calls, VnExpress International asked Kurlantzick about CIA drones, twilight wars and the future of U.S.-Laos relations.

VnExpress: Your story opens in 1961 with a lanky Texan CIA operative named Bill Lair having his wrists tied in a traditional baci ceremony on the floor of a hut in the hills of Laos. Fluent in Thai and Lao, Lair's heading a small effort to arm and train members of the Hmong ethnic minority led by the crazed, if charismatic, Vang Pao — a hardened veteran of France’s failed post-war slog to take Indochina back from communist nationalist fighters. By the end of the book, Lair has quit the operation, which devolves into an unholy air war. Had the war not escalated, do you think Lair's plan could have ever ended well for Vang Pao and those who said they believed America would never abandon them?


Kurlantzick: I don't think Lair had a huge vision about what the government of Laos would look like today. Remember that U.S. troops hadn’t entered the war in Vietnam yet.

I think he thought the Hmong could make it very hard for the North Vietnamese (who were doing most of the fighting in 1961) to make inroads into Laos. I can't say I understand what leaders in Hanoi at that time were thinking, but I think Lair's logic made some sense.

I don't think Lair thought: 'oh, we're just going to sacrifice all these Hmong people to protect the government of South Vietnam.' He didn't have a super high opinion of the government of South Vietnam, anyway, and I don't think he had that intent.

Efforts to arm and train guerilla fighters had proven successful in the past, so I don’t think Lair’s logic was unreasonable.

Your book chronicles how this plan spiraled into the largest bombing campaign in human history. As you put it: "On a per capita basis, many more Laotians were killed in the war than Americans or Japanese in World War II. For example roughly 0.3 percent of the American population died and approximately 3.75 percent of the Japanese died; in Laos, as much as 10 percent of the population was killed in the war." At what point did the whole thing become unreasonable?

By the mid-60s, Laos had become a theater for the U.S. to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, largely through bombing. They basically viewed their Laotian allies as an anvil to hammer the North Vietnamese. With foresight, I think some Laotian leaders could have seen, at that point, they were becoming involved in a larger conflict in which they were a resource, but not the goal.

Last year, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Laos, during which he made the following comments about the toll exacted by the campaign.

"The ancient Plain of Jars was devastated. 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. Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict."

What do you think Laos was expecting from that visit? What do you think characters in your book like Fred Branfman, the anti-war activist who helped expose the secret war, hoped to see during that visit?

The visit was consistent with other Obama visits elsewhere.

He tried to acknowledge, you know, U.S. history good and bad. But, the U.S. president just generally doesn't apologize. Even Obama's acknowledgement of policy in the past resulted in his U.S. critics at home slamming him.

I can't tell you what Lao politicians hoped for during that visit, but I think they're always looking for some triangulation between China, Vietnam, Thailand and other partners like the U.S.

Laos is an afterthought to U.S. policy today, however.

And, for me, the question isn't why is Laos an afterthought to the United States? It's a very small country, very far away, with minimal trade.

The question that fascinates me is: “Why was Laos of strategic importance to the U.S., ever?”

This story features bloodthirsty lunatics like Anthony Poshepny (AKA Tony Poe), a CIA contract-warrior who literally goes mad, decorates his hilltop redoubt with severed heads and executes five captured Vietnamese doctors after keeping them in a hole for a week.

Poe almost seems human, however, when juxtaposed with Bill Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador who oversees Nixon's acceleration of the bombing campaign and, at one point, flies home to Washington to personally lie about the whole thing before a special congressional panel.

Did a single villain emerge out of this tale? Or are you inclined to believe that all parties are equally responsible for what happened in Laos?

I don’t think there’s a single “villain”. I also don’t think everyone is equally responsible for the Laos war.

Regarding Tony Poe, I suppose you could ask why he continued to receive so many commands with the CIA even though his behaviors were pretty well-documented. Eventually, they did force him into a kind of semi-isolation and retirement, but it took a long time.

This book is about the CIA and U.S. policy. There are a few places where I describe how atrocities were committed on all sides, but I don't make an attempt to focus on those because that's not what the book is about.

The story makes one question the whole logic and morality of the secret war, even from a specifically logical-type military approach.

At the beginning, it perhaps made sense. Later on, the military interests of the U.S. and Laotian anti-communist army weren't even the same.

Your book mentions how the CIA now offers classified briefings about its drone programs to select members of Congress, who overwhelmingly approve of them. To what extent is the current drone program similar to America's campaign in Laos?

Well, those members of congress are briefed about some of the drone programs, but we don't really know what they're briefed about.

If you did a telephone poll in America right now, some people might be able to tell you that the U.S. has a drone program. And some people might even be able to name some of the places where they think it's happening. But, the full details aren't really there.

Whether they care is an entirely other question.

The war in Laos was kind of like that for a long time. It wasn't a total secret. But the complete story was obscured. The executive branch wasn't very forthcoming, even as certain members of congress and staff tried to dig.

The full picture never really emerged.

You intimate that the CIA viewed its campaign in Laos as a success, right?

Well that view emerged from the analysis written immediately after the war and left as a legacy within the agency. Those analysts were looking at it from a narrow “interests” perspective.

And one of the big problems with the Laos conflict was that the U.S. and its partners' interests didn't converge.

So, from the CIA perceptive, the campaign could be a huge success, but a complete disaster for the Hmong at the same time, which is kind of a terrible irony.

As far as accounting for it, I wrote a book about it but I'm not a judge. You could probably make a similar case about other actions.

Obama announced new funding and efforts to help clear the unexploded ordnance that continues to contaminate huge swaths of the Lao countryside, but many experts say the funding won’t begin to make a dent in the problem. Can you imagine the U.S. taking any extraordinary steps to compensate Laos for all the damage it did there?

Well in contrast to say, Vietnam, Laos is a very small place that went from being of great importance to almost no importance after the war.

Remember that the U.S. embassy in Vientiane in the 60s was of some sizable importance. It wasn't like today: a place where most diplomats don't want to end up.

This meant the consequences of the war in Laos could be almost entirely ignored, in contrast to Vietnam.

Today, Vietnam is an important U.S. partner, so coming to some reckoning with the war and with the Vietnamese government became important whereas in Laos I think the most you'll see is something like the speech Obama gave.

That's unfortunate, but that's probably the reality.

The book describes how President John F. Kennedy (worried about dominoes but wary of a ground war) opted to pursue a covert operation in Laos that trained local forces, deployed aerial bombings and dispatched a small number of “advisors” and contractors from the CIA and the military to Laos. The policy continued under Johnson and then got escalated by Nixon. To what extent did the CIA create a kind of Frankenstein monster in Laos?

It’s highly concerning that successive administrations have made use of twilight war with minimal oversight from Congress and the public. That’s a really problematic legacy.

I think Laos set a precedent under which the U.S. began to rely on CIA paramilitary officers and military Special Forces teams to basically fight wars.

In these situations, the U.S. uses these men to do something they weren't designed to do.

Seven hundred Americans died in Laos, but most of the casualties on the U.S. side didn't get much interest and that lowered the threshold for continuing the war because the president didn't have to worry much about it.

Usually in these “twilight wars” you get almost no press coverage, which is another major challenge.

So, the recent death of a soldier dispatched to a raid in Yemen is a bit of an outlier because it did get attention.

The Trump administration wants to hit harder in the war on terror, and these tools are the obvious ones they would use. Whatever anger the administration has against the intelligence community related to reports about Russia are probably not going to stop the usage of paramilitary officers and Special Forces.

Related news:

Forgetting Thanh Phong

Anticipation builds for Vietnam's APEC meeting as Trump invited to join world leaders

John Kerry begins farewell tour to Vietnam as successor talks tough on China

go to top