A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, by Joshua Kurlantzick, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a quite exhaustive history of US involvement in tiny, landlocked Laos in the lead up to and during the American war in Vietnam.
Today barely registering at all on the global political playing field, back in the 1950s and 60s Laos was at the forefront of US presidential and foreign policy concerns: “In fact, the day before Kennedy’s inauguration, Eisenhower organised a foreign policy briefing for the president elect, with issues to be addressed in what Eisenhower considered their order of importance to American security. Laos came first — and only after Laos was discussed was the president elect briefed on the looming US-Soviet standoff in Berlin, on Cuba and on the global strategic nuclear arms race.”
As it turned out, and as Kurlantzick exhaustively chronicles, thanks to the “secret” war there, Laos became the most heavily bombed nation, per capita, ever. American forces and their allies ran more than 580,000 bombing missions in Laos from 1964 to 1973, equivalent to one mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Around 10 percent of the Lao population died. More than two million tons of ordnance was dropped, but almost a third failed to explode, meaning the problem lingers till this day. While the world has since forgotten Laos, Laos has not been able to forget the war.
To create a loose narrative thread, Kurlantzick loosely follows the stories of famed Hmong fighter, Vang Pao, as well as three Americans he casts into key roles: Central Intelligent Agency officer Bill Lair, who feels great affection for the country and its people, and believes he has their interests at heart, Tony Poe, an alcoholic CIA paramilitary officer known for his brutality, and Bill Sullivan, a US ambassador and prototypical bureaucrat.
Drawing on recently declassified documents as well as interviews with the four characters and the mass of already published research on the war, Kurlantzick paints a very thorough picture of American involvement in Laos. But while Laos is the setting of the book, the storyline is much more focused on America and the CIA, and how events in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand during the war years shaped a very different CIA in the years to come, rather than on the long-term impact politically, economically and socially on Laos itself.
Kurlantzick tells the story of Laos to show its impact on US foreign policy today. Laos is where the CIA really began its covert operations, and US focus shifted from diplomacy to secret action: consider US covert activities in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. “The resigned acceptance by heads of other Cabinet agencies of the CIA’s massive, growing paramilitary capabilities is the biggest sign that a militarised CIA has become a permanent part of the American government,” Kurlantzick writes.
Today’s effects of the war in Laos are largely invisible to casual visitors—and therein lies the deadly problem for Laotians. But do try to visit Prince Souphanouvong Bridge in Salavan, the UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang, COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane, or anywhere in Phonsavan to gain a bit of an understanding of what happened here. And if you want to know more, you won’t find a more detailed account from the Americans’ perspective than A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.
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