If war really is an extension of politics by other means, as Carl von Clausewitz declared back in 1827, then few wars have served as better examples than the Secret War in Laos from 1961-1975. A clandestine conflict fought in parallel with the Vietnam War, the Laotian Secret War ostensibly set the United States, Thailand, and various Laotian factions against Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In practice, the conflict was as much a civil war as an invasion; and ultimately, it devolved into a slow-motion act of suicide on the part of the Lao nation itself. The U.S. military and its Laotian Hmong allies, led by the resourceful General Vang Pao, made a disciplined effort to prosecute the war--though from beginning to end, that effort was steeped in self-serving politics, and hamstrung by factional infighting, irrational decision-making, and self-imposed constraints that ultimately hurt more than they helped. Micromanagement by officers and clueless politicians far from the front was bad enough; far worse was the corruption of the head-butting Lao factions, who seemed unable to see beyond their own immediate needs and certainly had no vision for a strong, united Laos. The so-called Rightists, Leftists, and Neutralist factions simply could not wrap their heads around the concept that their only hope of survival lay in coming together against the relentless, well-equipped NVA. In fact, one faction, the Pathet Lao, repeatedly allied with the NVA against their own countrymen. But the Americans and Vang Pao's Hmong, those who repeatedly found themselves on the sharp end of the spear in the face of waffling, lack of discipline, and, occasionally, sheer cowardice on the part of their allies, refused to give up--until, finally, their political leadership turned their backs on them. This is the story of those brave men, and the civilians who helped them fight an increasingly painful and mismanaged war. It was a war in which the political leaders involved proved conclusively that they had learned nothing from history--or simply didn't care. Through ineptitude and back-room politicking, the leadership of both Laos and the United States eventually gave Laos to the Communists--who proceeded to crush the Lao people into the dust, in the name of a morally bankrupt ideology that they themselves neither practiced nor truly believed in. Billy G. Webb lays out their story with both great precision and compassion in this lively, well-researched book, outlining the events that led us into the morass of the Secret War, and then detailing each bloody campaign of each bloody year. In addition to following the key characters on the U.S./Laotian side, especially the charismatic Vang Pao, he peppers the story with tales of courageous individuals who fell victim to the NVA and the Pathet Lao--and, occasionally, the stupidity, incompetence, and gutlessness of people they trusted. Some survived to fight again; but many of these men, military and otherwise, paid the ultimate sacrifice in their fight to keep Laos free. Webb takes special care to showcase two organizations: the brave Forward Air Controllers who called themselves "the Ravens," and Air America, a civilian company (run by the CIA) that supported the military effort and aided the Lao populace whenever they were called upon. Few people have ever heard of the Ravens, those USAF and Army airmen who risked life and limb in tiny Cessna aircraft to locate targets for bombers and fighters to strike. Air America is more famous, due to the 1990 movie of the same name--a film that unfairly maligned Air America as a parcel service for Laotian powerbrokers moving drugs and gold out of the country. Webb sets the record emphatically straight. That's not to say that such things weren't happening in Laos; they were. In hindsight, it's easy to condemn the CIA and the U.S. military leadership for allowing the corruption to spread; but as Nietzsche has pointed out, when you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you. For similar reasons, some Americans felt that it was necessary to adopt the same illicit tactics the enemy was using against them. The repeatedly renegotiated Geneva Accords of 1952, in which various parties had agreed that Laos should be left to develop on its own without outside military intervention, were repeatedly and demonstrably violated by the NVA and its allies, the Russians and Chinese. Is it any wonder that, eventually, some Americans stepped over the line as well? Webb makes no excuses for the covert actions of the military, which "sheep-dipped" many of its soldiers as civilian development personnel; nor does he try to explain away the CIA's penchant to look the other way when corrupt Lao government officials and officers ignored their country's well-being while greedily lining their own pockets. In any case, lest we forget, opium trafficking--which underlay most of the corruption--was still legal in Laos during the war. Webb doesn't attempt to make anyone in particular seem superhumanly noble, either--though his great respect for the servicemen and civilian personnel working in Laos does shine through. Nor does he demonize the bad guys. Even when discussing the NVA and its leadership, his reportage is even-handed and fair. He treats all the players as exactly what they were: human beings doing human things. Some were heroes; some were not. And speaking of heroes: not forgotten are the efforts of private citizens like Edgar "Pop" Buell, the crusty old volunteer who took the Laos branch of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by storm and, over the years, bettered the lives of many thousands, if not millions, of Laotians all over the tiny kingdom. Not only did Buell and his fellow USAID crusaders build schools and hospitals, they did all they could to shield the Lao from the worst effects of the war, and organized airlifts to remove them from danger zones whenever they could. Despite his diminutive size, Pop Buell stands as a shining example of the value and power of humanitarian efforts during wartime. Buell was one of the major players in the Secret War--and in the end, he and his colleagues may have helped the Lao people more than the military itself ended up doing. Unlike many war histories, Webb's story doesn't end abruptly with the implosion of the American war effort in Southeast Asia. In a lengthy epilog, he goes on to chronicle the creation of the doomed Provisional Government of National Union in post-war Laos, the abdication (and subsequent murder) of the royal family, the flight of the Hmong, and the gradual undermining of the government by the Communists, who refused to play fair even after the Secret War was over. He also makes no bones about the shabby treatment our Hmong allies received at the hands of our government after the war--including the recent arrest of Vang Pao and his lieutenants on weapons charges, in connection with their on-going efforts to revitalize Hmong resistance efforts in Laos. The singular thread that runs through the entire narrative and ties it all together is Webb's tremendous respect for the people who worked so hard to bring the Lao together and protect them from their NVA aggressors. Hmong, U.S. military, and CIA, they all worked at it unceasingly for more than fifteen years, and it's to their credit that it didn't all fall to pieces a good decade earlier than it did. That it was ultimately all for naught doesn't lessen the sacrifices of the civilians and soldiers who fought to keep Lao free. Billy Webb's book is a monument not only to his skills as a researcher and a writer, but also to the efforts of those brave individuals, many of whom came home in caskets--and some of whom still haven't come home.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
September 12, 2010
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.