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A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of the Military CIA

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of the Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick. Simon and Schuster (http://www.simonandschuster.com), 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020, 2016, 336 pages, $28.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-45166-786-8.

The author, Joshua Kurlantzick, takes his title from a quote by the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1966. If this was indeed a serious observation, it is never explained. However, the book’s subtitle introduces its actual focus: Laos was the first of many CIA-run wars, followed in subsequent decades by others in Central America, Africa, and the Middle East. After 15 chapters on CIA station chiefs and operatives and their support of the charismatic Hmong leader Vang Pao in Laos, the author provides a litany of the later conflicts in just one chapter. In other words, you buy the (lengthy) premise, you buy the (much shorter) conclusion.

The book is rich with narratives gleaned from interviews with CIA station chiefs, colorful CIA agents, antiwar activists, and even Vang Pao himself. The author paints a vivid picture of the clashes between the various US Ambassadors to Laos and the CIA as each tries to influence the war on the ground. Eventually, both have to resort to more and more airpower to stem the North Vietnamese advance.

However, he fails to frame the conflict with even a simple map of Laos, much less a map of the book’s primary setting, the Plain of Jars (PDJ). The reader must rely on the author’s word pictures about distances, places, or search for a map to fully understand what went on there. He mentions the rest of Laos only in passing: “. . . US planes flew attacks on targets that had little to do with the Hmong’s survival against North Vietnamese supply lines. . .” An annotated map would have shown that those “supply lines” were in fact the very extensive Ho Chi Minh Trail along Lao’s eastern border, stretching into South Vietnam and Cambodia.

The US Air Force gets short shrift in this narrative, as its story gets muddled by contradictions and a decided lack of primary sources. The author observes that “. . . the American bombing runs almost never paused,” on the PDJ, but notes there were numerous periods of monsoon weather that made air support impossible there. Early on, he trots out tired, meaningless clichés gleaned from secondary and tertiary sources disguised as statistics. He cannot resist using the worn “one bombing mission every eight minutes for over ten years” metaphor to create an image of constant bombardment, and he quotes cluster munitions dud rates even though he has no primary source for such data (hint: no one does). He also asserts (twice) that the PDJ was “the most heavily bombed part of Laos,” despite a 1975 Congressional Report that indicated more than five times greater tonnage was dropped along the Trail than in and around the PDJ.

A Great Place to Have a War provides little new scholarship about the Laotian war, but is eminently readable as a study in personalities such as US Ambassador William Sullivan and Vang Pao. When the author tries to explain military operations, he is hamstrung by the opinions and prejudices of others. Military readers should enjoy the narrative, but look elsewhere for hard facts.

 Col John L. Conway, USAF, Retired
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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