The cast of characters could have been straight out of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:
- The highly skilled ’old Asia hand’ and intelligence operative who hatches a great plan to win a war against the forces of evil – ending up loosing the war and his self respect in the process.
- The local guerilla hero who turns into a ruthless despot, sacrificing thousands and thousands of his own people in the process.
- The intoxicated ex-marine who decorates himself with cut-off enemy ears and put their heads on spikes to impress his local followers.
- The megalomanic US ambassador who sidetracks the generals and insists on personally managing a secret war, then lies to Congress and gets away it.
- The President who expands this illegal war into History’s most violent rain of death over one of the world’s smallest and most backward countries.
- The hundreds of thousands innocent people who get killed or wounded in the process.
Tragically, these are all real life characters from the all too real world, as portrayed in US journalist cum historian Joshua Kurlantzick’s latest dig-in piece A great place to have a war – America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA.
This is not the first time Kurlantzick digs into the darker CIA secrets.
In The ideal Man – the tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American way of war, Kurlantzick put forward a solid attempt to uncloud the decades long mystery of former intelligence agent and precious silk manufacturer Thompson’s legendary life and sudden disapperance during a morning jungle hike.
In the book about Thompson, Kurlantzick disclosed fascinating details about the unfortunate symbiosis of arrogance and ignorance in CIA corporate management, when it came to the complex realities of SE Asia.
However, Kurtlantzick ended up with more questions than answers for obvious reasons, given the thick clouds of secrecy regarding the Thompson’s repeated showdowns with his former masters and his later mysterious disappearance.
Bombed every nine minutes
In Kurlantzicks new book on CIA’s decade long secret war in Laos, he does not leave a stone unturned in this compelling and scary documentation on, how the war in Laos turned the relatively marginal and small-budget Office Of Strategic Services (OSS) into the CIA, in turn to become the world’s biggest killing machine, commanding a hundred thousand paramilitary experts and guerillas in Laos – and Air America the biggest air fleet in the world as well.The numbers are staggering: Laos was bombed by CIA operated airstrikes every nine minutes for a decade, until it all ended with the US withdrawal from the SE Asia battlefields. 850.000 bombing missions were carried out over Lao territory. 20 tons per capita.
Ever since then, tiny Laos holds one undisputed world record – as the most bombed country per capita in the global history of warfare.
There were three reasons for this monstrous act:
- Repeated futile attempts to disrupt North Vietnamese transport through Lao territory of soldiers and arms to the war zones in Southern Vietnam.
- Bombing the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist forces, who were engaged in toppling the Royalist Lao government and at the same time fighting the CIA funded Hmong guerilla army.
- Unloading US bombers on their return to bases in Thailand, if they had been unable to deliver their payload on designated targets in Vietnam.
It played out the same way in Congress. The secret bombing campaigns were managed by the CIA with the involvement of several US ambassadors. One of the esteemed diplomats, ambassador William Sullivan, went as far as to actually taking over the management of the war effort, sidelining the CIA chief in Laos.
According to Kurlantzick, Sullivan’s personal involvement did not prevent him from denying the US involvement in the Lao war under oath at congressional hearings. He got away with it. Upon the completion of his tenure in Laos, Sullivan went on to become one of Secretary of State, Henry Kissingers trusted advisors on the war efforts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.The devastating consequences of the Lao bombings have lingered on for decades. Still today, Laotians are being killed and maimed by UXO’s – unexploded bombs. An estimated 80 million of the small anti-personnel bombs are believed to be scattered all over the country. They are still taking their toll, mostly on unsuspecting children, who picks them up as toys.
President Obama pledged USD 100 mio. in support to UXO-clearance during his visit to Laos in 2016 – the first ever of a US president. Certainly a nice gesture, but a very small drop in the ocean.
The bigger, ugly picture
Even though the human suffering in Laos is a story, which deserves to be told again and again, the bigger perspective in Kurlantzicks book is an even more disturbing part:
The war in Laos dramatically changed the CIA from a mere intelligence agency with a very limited budget to a virtual killing machine with enormous resources – a machine that has been launched with sketchy justifications again and again ever since – with only few requirements of public or political accountability – in virtually every corner of the world.
The strike against Allende’s Chile, The Iran-Contra scandal, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan – you can add to the list yourself. Over and over again the same denials or sketchy justifications of the undeniable. The occasional public scandals have not put much limitation to the defacto autonomy of the CIA.
These days, any collateral damage can probably be explained away by a reference to the global war against islamic extremism. The members of the different oversight committees in Congress and the Senate have always been sensitive to being exposed as naive or – even worse – being “sympathetic with the enemy”.
With CIA’s track record in Laos and beyond, it is very disturbing indeed – not least with the mindset of those elitist individuals who may exert some direction on this organization, whose operations are mostly beyond parliamentary control or public insight – like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was very much in charge along with President Nixon during the wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.“The Laos thing”
Kissinger probably never lost a minute’s sleep over the human suffering he unleashed, while working for bigger goals. When he was confronted with the huge civilian casualties on the Plain of Jars, where thousands of families with a 700 year history were wiped out: “You mean, the Laos thing,” Kissinger responded and dismissed the tragedy as a minor issue.
Kissinger did have a case, if you look at proportions. ‘Only’ some 800 CIA operatives and contractors were killed in Laos, and Lao casualties were probably only close to a million. In neighboring Vietnam more than 58.000 Americans laid down their lives along with an estimated 4 million Vietnamese casualties.
Even though the US intervention in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was a failure with huge consequences for millions of people, including US citizens, it may be argued that it all happened out of the best and loftiest intentions – to save the world from Communism.
It also a fact that it never became a personal failure for the individuals who managed the ‘Laos Thing’. Kurlantzick documents how the Laos war was internally evaluated as a CIA success story.
Internal CIA assessments argued that the war in Vietnam would have been lost years earlier, if the CIA had not managed to tie down an estimated 70.000 North Vietnamese elite troops in a ground war in Laos with the ferocious Hmong guerillas, funded by the CIA and led by Van Pao, the legendary war lord, who later was evacuated to USA along with his surviving guerillas and their families. According to the CIA rationale the incessant bombings were essential support to the war on the ground.
As a consequence of this ‘succes story’ Laos became a career platform for several CIA senior operatives, who then went on to prominent corporate positions at Langley or as station chiefs around the globe, where they continued a vast number of activities, often of a paramilitary nature.
Kurlantzick names the bastards in great detail.
He deserves great praise for bringing the implications of ‘the Great War in Laos’ to the public’s attention.
Joshua Kurlantzick: A great place to have a war – America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA. 323 pg. Simon&Schuster.