To my mind, this is the worst book I ever tried to read. Didn’t get through the first chapter. After a while I just allowed the book to open at any random place and I’d read a paragraph or two.
When I put it down the first time, I just said, “Wow.” I picked it up again in a couple of hours and went through the same drill. Just opened the book at random, and read a few paragraphs.
It was crap. Almost every page had inaccuracies and sloppy analysis.
The author didn’t have a clue… and yet when it was published, almost no one had anything bad to say about it. It was a “brilliant” book,” “accurate,” “timely,” “Pacy… leavened with valid portraits,” “compelling,” “vivid,” “gripping” wrote selected critics.
Oh please. It was crap. You hear me, CRAP. Go lean out your apartment window and yell that out to your neighborhood. Kurlantzick’s Book on the CIA in Laos is No Good. It’s a ghastly work of fiction…. Not non-fiction.
I think it was Alan Dawson, a journalist I greatly respect, or Roger Warner, a writer I also greatly respect, who said, you know don’t mean a hill of beans that we know the book is utter nonsense, it’s out there now, and will stay out there, and be quoted into the digital future, or forever, whichever comes first. Some people are goin’ to read it, and after seeing all those powerfully positive adjectives on the cover and back, they are goin’ to believe it. This is now part of the literature on the secret war.
Even though there is the barest of truth to the acc’t.
But you, good reader, have the opportunity to read what people who were there have to say about it.
It’s our gift to you. A little bit of truth on the substance matter of one awful book.
Here are some reviews as posted on amazon.com. Mine in first. If you aren’t worn out by the time you get to it… look closely at Bob Sander's review at the end. He identifies 231 errors in the book, to help make the case that this is indeed the worst book ever written on the CIA in Laos.
This book is garbage
By Jim Parker on February 3, 2017
Errors in fact and in conjecture are found in almost every paragraph of this myopic look at the CIA’s paramilitary in Laos.
- The opening scene of CIA’s Bill Lair and Hmong warlord Vang Pao meeting to discuss terms of US cooperation with the Hmong to counter communism in Laos, addressed one of the key post-war questions of what was promised to the Hmong. And what wasn’t. Anyone with experience in the CIA’s clandestine service knows that clearly detailed written commitments when cooperation is initiated with any foreign body is a bed-rock, essential part of the business. The author of this book’s collection of nonsense sides with Vang Pao’s memory. I side with Bill Lair’s official acc’t, an opinion he discussed with the author. It is inconceivable that Bill would have made a commitment of that magnitude and have no recollection. This wrong call, to my mind, on page three of this 323 tome, is a harbinger for the ensuing page-after-page of sloppy, poorly constructed analysis.
- I served as a CIA paramilitary officer in Laos from November 1971 to the fall of 1973 when I was one of the last four CIA case officers in Long Tieng. Books on my service include Codename Mule (published by the Naval Institute Press to significant acclaim) and The Battle for Skyline Ridge (Kindle version). It is impossible to reconcile my first hand acc’t with Kurlantzick’s book. For example his rending of the fight for Skyline is way off the mark. CIA case officer Eli Chavez - "with bandoliers of ammo laced across his chest" - did not lead 1200 “Hmong and Thai soldiers” up the ridgeline. He had a 300 man battalion of lowland Lao soldiers and no one I know had any knowledge that he, personally, was directly involved. On the other hand “Hog” and Mike Ingham two other CIA case officers who did play significant personal roles in the battle are only mentioned in passing. And per “RedCoat,” the CIA case officer up at LS 32, Bouam Long, who was there on the ground during the ‘71/’72 seize, Kurlantzick’s coverage is inaccurate on most key aspects. His fantasy acc't of the battle for Bouam Long, besmirches the heroics of Cher Pao Moua and the Hmong under his command.
- This is a small point, but illustrates my larger premise about this book… but Kurlantzick’s assertion that Hog was married is astonishing news to everyone who knew him.
- There is almost no mention in the book of the CIA paramilitary’s considerable work in other areas of Laos than Long Tieng. Nothing on the CIA base in MR-I’s work against the China road and Savannakhet and Pakse bases work against the Ho Chi Minh trail. No coverage of Air America or the Ravens, both significant players out of Long Tieng.
- Anyone generally familiar with the CIA’s role in Laos knows that Ambassadors Sullivan, in Vientiane, and Harriman, in WDC, were obstructionists in the US efforts to win a military victory in SEA. This book’s mention of Sullivan, and by extension Harriman, ignores CIA Director Colby’s comments on the matter.
- The extent of the factual errors in this book calls into question the rousing endorsements from the authors and others on this amazon.com page, on the “think tank” Kurlantzick works for and the Simon & Schuster publishing house… especially Simon & Schuster. If they are guilty of such lacks vetting in this book, one has to wonder about its other “non-fiction” products. This book is so flawed as to make the CIA's work in Laos that much more of a secret, because Kurlantzick's garbled facts and failed summations greatly obfuscate the real truths. Of this I am 100 percent sure.
P.S. About a year ago Kurlantzick emailed me with a request to use some of the photos from my books in his upcoming look at the CIA in Laos. I suggested he might want to talk with me about some of the background to the photos and he said no that he had all the “background” that he needed, he just wanted my photos to illustrate his points. To put this in context, although more than three million Americans served in Indochina, I was one of only 18 CIA case officers in Long Tieng during the heaviest fighting against the invading North Vietnamese. Of this number only 7 are still alive to give a firsthand acc’ting of CIA paramilitary activates. Kurlantzick did not interview any of us, though with me he certainly had the chance. Not ONE of the contrarians to US military/CIA efforts quoted above in support of this bad book has any sweat equity or credible insides into CIA/Laos. Pls consider those fawning reviews by professional cynics with that in mind. From someone who knows... this book is garbage.
Zero Star Rating would have been better
By David on February 15, 2017
Too bad Amazon does not have a zero star rating, for which this piece of ill researched and suspect sourced manuscript would certainly qualify. No doubt the secret war in Laos is and will probably remain one of history's most difficult conflicts for historians to gather sufficient, detailed and accurate information to ever write about with a full understanding of the true lessons to be learned from that shadow war conflict. Nonetheless, there are several books that have been written which do provide fair and accurate descriptions of that war, and which provide well sourced insights and commentary on the war. The author's writing about the war does not fall into that category at all. Indeed, the author's alleged sourcing suggests unique insights which support an obvious bias against CIA and for the most part those who were directly engaged in the war. No doubt interviews with former CIA and other U.S. Federal and Military personnel as well as those involved directly in fighting the NVA & PL such as the Hmong, Thai and Laotian survivors or their relatives should ostensibly provide a more balanced account of events. However, once again these interviews (most by phone) only seem to be used by the author to seed half-truths which are used to then support the author's sadly narrow view of a tragic and complex conflict. As an academic study of, or sub-source on the war, this book, cannot be used since it's transparently biased conclusions simply feed what appear to be the author's view that the war in Laos had no or minimal tactical or strategic successes for the U.S., Thailand, Laos, or in regard to saving U.S. lives in Vietnam. In a word, neither the author or his book appear to have demonstrated merit in expressing unbiased academic or factual history. Suggest that the history of the war in Laos by authors to include Kenneth Conboy ("The Shadow War"); James Parker ("Code Name Mule"; "Battle for Skyline Ridge"), and "Shooting At The Moon" by Roger Warner provide much better texture and nuance in regard to what the war was about and what it achieved or didn't achieve.
By Karl Polifka on June 6, 2017
It is interesting that those who were not there think this is a good book. Those who were there and fought the fight think it is trash. I was there, it is trash.
The world does not need another fiction book about Laos
I worked for more than 2 years as a CIA paramilitary Case Officer in the 1970's. All of that time was spent in Long Tieng and the area this book focuses on. The author is correct that the CIA war conducted in Laos was successful and has been a model for some of our later endeavors. Unfortunately, almost everything else he says is incorrect.
Read it as fiction but give no credence to the accuracy of the contents.
Lost in history’s quagmire
By ROGER WARNER
I wish I could think of something nice to write about this book. In it, the author, Joshua Kurlantzick, praises a book I wrote 20 years ago, Shooting At The Moon, which covered exactly the same war and the same characters as he does. He calls my book (on page 16) “The one truly outstanding popular account of the secret war”. So as a matter of courtesy I’d like to be able to thank him by reciprocating, and praise him, too. But the facts are the facts. Sad to say, this new book garbles the facts, and recycles the work of too many authors without fully crediting them. Take his first chapter, which is meant to showcase his mastery of the subject, and is supposed to be a kind of origin story of the Laos secret war (1961-1973). Here, allegedly at the very beginning of the war, the mastermind of the CIA operation, Bill Lair, is honoured at a so-called baci or string-tying ceremony with his opposite number, the Hmong tribal commander, Vang Pao. It’s meant to be a splendid, colourful scene, with tribespeople coming forward to tie strings around Lair’s wrists, to bestow their good wishes. But if you know the Laos war and start looking at the details, you will find some of them curiously missing from the account, and others just plain wrong. First, there is no place or date given, other than the “winter of 1961”, and does this mean 1960-to-1961 or 1961-62? Either way, it means that if this baci ceremony actually took place, it wasn’t actually at the beginning of the war, as claimed. Second, Lair is described as “lanky”, meaning thin and tall and rangy, when in fact he was an unathletic man of average height, 178cm. Third, Kurlantzick says Lair had a “buzz cut” and spoke “fluent Lao” when actually Lair wore his hair combed and spoke Lao haltingly, with a limited vocabulary, though his comprehension was good. Fourth, Kurlantzick claims that “three shamans chanted behind Lair” during the baci ceremony, and that they “writhed and sang and spat as if possessed”. Well, no. Wrong ceremony. Hmong shamans, when they are in their shamanic roles, wear black clothes with hoods covering the eyes, and preside over shamanic healing ceremonies, not baci ceremonies. Fifth, claims Kurlantzick, Lair “had flown up to the central highlands of Laos”, to meet with Vang Pao. There are no central highlands in Laos. But there are in neighbouring South Vietnam. Kurlantzick seems to have his countries confused. For this account, Kurlantzick cites as his sources interviews with a) Vang Pao, who spoke only broken English, and who never would have supplied the level of detail that Kurlantzick includes or elaborates on (or invents); and b) a telephone interview with Bill Lair, who had had a series of strokes and whose memory was pretty much shot by the time Kurlantzick got around to talking with him. (I knew both men well and interviewed them many times). What is more surprising, since this is supposed to be a book about the CIA in Laos, is that Kurlantzick completely missed how Lair’s operation actually began. It is a revelatory story. In 1960, another CIA paramilitary operative (not Lair), who didn’t speak the local languages or understand the local culture, trained a Lao military unit in the art of staging a coup. After a long day’s work, the Agency man went off drinking and carousing for the evening, and the Lao troops he had trained staged the coup exactly as they had been taught — only they then demanded that the Americans leave Laos entirely. It was this astounding Agency blunder that set off a multi-sided civil war in Laos. Lair, who understood the local cultures thoroughly, was then in Thailand, where he had personally raised and trained a special-operations force of Thais, a tremendous story in itself. Like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, Lair managed to bring his Thai force into Laos, where they helped Lao troops friendly to the US recapture their capital city. Lair and his Thai team then went off in search of Vang Pao, the highest-ranking military officer in Laos from the Hmong tribe. They finally met him on Jan 4, 1961, in a hamlet called Tha Vieng south of the Plain of Jars in Laos. There was no baci ceremony at the founding. And the operation as Lair originally proposed it to CIA headquarters didn’t call for any American case officers at all, as Kurlantzick should have known. Lair only wanted the Thais he had already trained, because they blended in and spoke the local languages, which no Americans did. In fact, Lair always saw the operation as a threeway alliance between equals: the Thai paras, Vang Pao and the Agency. And that is the real story arc of the Laos secret war, how it began with a blunder by another CIA operative, how Lair tried to straighten everything out and actually succeeded for awhile. Then the US bureaucracy took over and Lair’s small and subtle operation grew into a bloated and ineffective air war, where the B-52 bombs fell like rain, and still the alliance side lost. That was the great true story available for Kurlantzick to tell. But he didn’t fully understand his subject, and he didn’t stick to the facts. He gave us a muddled account instead. The danger is that others will quote him, and the mistakes and distortions will be perpetuated in the future.
Roger Warner is an author and journalist specialising in the US “secret war” in Laos, as well as an award-winning historian and documentary filmmaker.
Fractured Fairy Tale
By Mike Cavanaughon April 5, 2017
I read this book for Lent. Having been in Laos as a USAF Forward Air Controller in 1969 the author labeled us as "CIA contractors" which just was not true. I never worked for the CIA nor was the Agency in my chain of command. Yes, we coordinated with the case officers since it was an American operation. The author has no clue as to the chain of command during this war. The first thing I noticed was there was 750 footnotes for a book of 275 pages. The notes have interviews with Tony Poe 15 years old and interviews with General Vang Pao 10 years old. The 4 main characters, Vang Pao, Tony Poe, Ambassador Sullivan and Bill Lair are all dead. Then the author tells us what these 4 men were thinking. Humm! The author has Air America aircraft strafing and bombing. Impossible since they owned no fighter aircraft. I really have to point out a big lie on page 166 "US transport planes flew over the Plain and dumped napalm and other chemicals." I was there the entire time the author is referring to and this is absolutely false. Transport aircraft cannot drop napalm and there was no chemical warfare in play here. I lived, ate and fought with Vang Pao and the authors characterization is off the mark 100%. This book has so many errors. it is hard to believe Simon & Schuster published this trash. This operation has to be clandestine by it's very nature and we did it well and saved countless American lives in the process. Also I am not copping to killing women and children. This area of operations had only North Vietnamese soldiers, trucks and anti aircraft guns. No villages and no local Lao population. Bottom line: Dorothy there is no great place to have a war.
No place for War!
By Raven 43on February 11, 2017
Very disappointing and incomplete! Much Old Fake news! Selective research summarized to disparage men braver than himself. Joshua Kurlantzick was not there; he knows little of the Lao Un-civil war and the Hmong fight for freedom. He references so many out of context embellishment and fabrication. He blends non-fiction, fantasy and selective quotes to his jumbled timeline to draw bogus conclusions. He ignores the context of vicious Communist expansion in Asia from 1950-1980. We participants grasped the Lessons of the Korean War, Mao’s red guard anti-cultural revolution, the rampant Pathet Lao atrocities, and Viet Minh genocide of hill tribes. There was, and is, a reason for the US military assistance programs. Our valiant allies, the Hmong, fought for their own freedom from oppression. This book is old fake news! The CIA did not manage the Laos un-Civil War, They advised and supported the Royal Lao Government. Every airstrike by US aircraft and ground operation was approved by the Lao Prime Minister and Lao military . GVP was Commander and Chief in MRll. The US embassy managed the logistics, military attaches USIS, USAID and much more. Just like in Afghanistan, and every other "station", the CIA works for the "Chief of Station”, not the other way around. Revisionist history! I want my $14.95 back; garbage assumptions, garbage conclusions! Low and Slow: Fly and Fight Laos
By Robert Sander on April 5, 2017
Prior to purchasing this book I read the reader’s reviews posted on Amazon. There is a sharp division of opinion in these reviews. I cast my vote with the readers who believe, perhaps “know” is a better choice of words, that this book is a poor representation of history. Rather than resting my case on generalities, and using only the references at hand in my personal collection, I offer the following passages and my comments regarding these passages. Comments are keyed to the page numbers in the print edition of the book followed by the Kindle for ipad location.
5. (Kindle 51 and 106) “The White House took a personal interest in the plan for the operation.” Who in the White House took a personal interest in Lair’s plan? An endnote is needed. Also the “Thai commandos” trained by Lair were part of the Thai national police force known as the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit or PARU and should not be confused with Thai Special Forces who also played a role in the war.
“The operation was at around $5 million US, but by 1962, it would grow to over to over $11 million. That was only the start for an undertaking that command $500 million annually by the end of the decade with Vang Pao controlling a force of over thirty thousand soldiers.” The endnote for this passage is Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter referred to as FRUS), 1964-1968, Volume 28, Laos, document 1, Memorandum From the Deputy Director for Coordination, Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Scott) to the Special Group.
This document does not support the author’s statements. He must have pulled “around $5 million US” out of his hat. And, the document is dated January 17, 1964 and obviously cannot support “$500 million annually at the end of the decade.” As to the number of soldiers the document states that the Hmong force had expanded to 19,000. The figure “thirty thousand” does not appear. What the document does say is that budget for the Laos tribal program for FY 1963 was $11,625,000 and for 1964 $14,008,000. The same document contains relevant, worthwhile information that the author chose not to share. A quick check of FRUS documents finds no annual budget of $500 million. $320 and $390 million are mentioned in 1971.
13. (Kindle 246) “After the war, one-third of the bombs dropped on Laos remained in the ground and undetonated.” While acknowledging that the dud rate of American bombs dropped in Laos was unacceptably high, I know of no authoritative reference that will support “one-third” and the author fails to reveal how he came up with this figure. An endnote is needed. Mr. Kurlantzick appears to be blaming the US government for all the unexploded ordnance in Laos, forgetting that there was another combatant present and firing, transporting, and storing explosive ordnance. Except for the fact that the Vietnamese Communists breached the 1962 Geneva Accords, the US would not have been bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and providing air support to the Lao forces.
21. (Kindle 342) “ To his left, Hmong fighters let loose with bursts of fire from a recoilless rifle.” Recoilless rifles are loaded and fired one round at a time. “Bursts” is a poor choice of words, indicating the author’s unfamiliarity with recoilless rifles.
23. (Kindle 377) “Poe loved the marines’ ethos of constant drilling…” The author cites Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos (Hanover, Steerforth Press, 1996) 82. This description of Poe does not appear on page 82 on my desk copy.
35. (Kindle 561) “ His arms crossed…he is actually a tiger ready to attack.” The author attributes this quote to Noah Vang, General Vang Pao: An illustration on his Remarkable Life (self-published, 2013), 263. The reference does not support the author’s text.
43. (Kindle 696) “Unlike many diplomats, Sullivan also had respect for the CIA.” Citation is needed. Who are the many diplomats that had no respect for the CIA?
44. (Kindle 709) “Sullivan soon earned the nickname Field Marshal from William Westmoreland.” While there is little doubt that Sullivan had an extraordinary charter from Lyndon Johnson, but many referred to Sullivan by this derisive title. How do we know that Westmoreland was the first? Sullivan came by the title honestly as a result of his arrogance, demands for his own air force, refusal to accept advice, and efforts to keep US and South Vietnamese ground forces out of the Laotian panhandle, the site of North Vietnam’s primary supply and infiltration route to South Vietnam – the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It could also be related to Sullivan’s cockamamie proposal that the US should launch an amphibious assault at Vinh, North Vietnam in order to seal the infiltration routes. See FRUS, 1964-1968, vol. 28, documents 211,217, 239, and 261 for further reading.
45. (Kindle 730) “The President also used to call Sullivan personally every six months or so just to check in on the Laos operation and get his advice about how to handle the war.” A citation is needed. One of the author’s sources, Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat, addresses Sullivan’s alleged trips back to Washington every six months and attributes these trips to Sullivan’s memoir, Obbligato. Turning to the page listed in Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat, Sullivan states, “He would then call me back to Washington, ask for assurances that we would not all be massacred or taken hostages, and end up offering whatever help I needed.” Nowhere in this text does Sullivan claim that Johnson asked “his advice on how to handle the war.” Neither is this phrase contained in Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat. The credibility of the author’s research continues to sink.
(Kindle 734) “And sure enough, the Westmoreland plan was quashed.” The author’s simplistic explanation demonstrates his unfamiliarity with the issue at hand. The central point of debate was the policy limitations concerning deployment US and/or South Vietnamese ground forces in the Laotian panhandle to interdict the flow of Communist supplies and troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Westmoreland-Sullivan exchanges on this topic surfaced several times in 1966 and 1967. While Sullivan’s position prevailed on many of these exchanges, “higher authority” overruled him on more than one occasion – despite his sophomoric insults. President Johnson finally addressed the issue in late 1967. (See FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume 5, Vietnam, 1967, document 441)
56. (Kindle 906) “The French often compared the Hmong to the tough maquis, the anti-Nazi guerrillas who operated in Europe during World War II. Like the maquis, the Hmong rarely gave ground.” By definition guerrillas give ground and avoid decisive engagements on all but their terms. An endnote is needed.
61. (Kindle 982) “China offered newly independent Laos money to build roads and other infrastructure.” An endnote is needed to verify the offering of money and “other infrastructure”. Early on, China offered to build roads in northern Laos and Souvanna Phouma accepted the offer. The Chinese road building activities continued periodically throughout the war. The network of roads led to the Mekong River and the Thai border, implying a threat to Thailand. Souvanna Phouma came to regret his decision that gave the Chinese a “foot in the door” as Chinese engineers protected by Chinese troops lingered in Laos. Multiple sources but see FRUS 1969-1976, Volume 6, Vietnam, January 1969 – July 1970, document 174 for Souvanna’s plight and https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP94T00754R000100180003-9.pdf
71. (Kindle 1135) “Four months after the coup, Moscow air dropped howitzers, heavy mortars, rifles and ammunition to Kong Le and his men. The drop was relatively small compared to US assistance given to the national army.” The author’s description of the aid is incomplete and misleading. On December 9, 1960 Soviet transport aircraft landed at Vientiane’s Wattay airport and off loaded four 105mm howitzers, six 4.2-inch mortars and North Vietnamese gun crews. Landings and airdrops continued at airfields on the Plain of Jars. And, as the author acknowledges at Kindle location 1797, the North Vietnamese almost always outgunned Vang Pao and his men. This would indicate that US aid was still not luxurious. He cites Mervyn Brown’s War in Shangri-La, page 159. Page 159 is part of the recounting of Brown’s time in captivity and has nothing to do with Soviet support to Kong Le.
75. (Kindle 1196) “…Horace Smith, who served in Vientiane for only two years…” The author seems to imply that Ambassador Smith’s tenure was cut short due to unsatisfactory performance. If this was the case the author should make the point clear and cite a reference. While Smith’s performance may have been below par, two-year terms were the norm and not the exception. Yost served from 1954 to 1956, Smith from 1958 to 1960, Brown from 1960 to 1961, and Unger from 1962 to 1964. Sullivan, who served from 1964 to 1969, was the exception.
87. (Kindle 1367) “Souvanna Phouma, who had become prime minister a second time in mid- 1962…” To be accurate, this was Souvanna’s fourth time to be Prime Minister. He filled that office from 1951 to 1954, 1956 to 1958, from August 30 1960 to December 13, 1960 and finally from 1962 to 1975. Just to put a fine point on the topic, the Communist nations continued to recognize him as prime minister of a government in exile after the December 1960 coup. So depending on your point of view, you could say he held the office either three or four times. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_Minister_of_Laos#List_of_Prime_Ministers_of_Laos_.281945.E2.80.93present.29 for further reading.
87. (Kindle 1380) Hanoi considered Laos a top priority and was not going to abandon the commitments it had made to the Pathet Lao.” This is an unsupported assertion that should be supported with an authoritative endnote. Another fine point would be that the Pathet Lao was the military arm of the Neo Lao Hak Sat (NLHS), which was the political name for the communist Lao. Any commitment to communist Lao would have been made to its political arm. Hanoi’s primary interest in Laos was in preserving and expanding their invasion route to South Vietnam – the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
89. (Kindle 1406) Lair used Kennedy’s directive to get his CIA bosses to approve new weapons for the Hmong…” Presumably the author is referring to NSAM 249 signed by Kennedy in June 1963, but the paragraph continues, “Vang Pao was also allowed to start sending Hmong pilots to bases in Thailand to learn to become pilots so the Hmong could fly helicopters and small planes…” The first Hmong pilots graduated four years later in 1967. Refer to Shadow War by Kenneth Conboy, Shooting at the Moon by Roger Warner and Undercover Armies by Thomas Ahern for further information. These are all books cited, but apparently not read, by the author.
91-93. (Kindle 1435-1450) The discussion is the opium trade in Laos. The author seems to be making a case for a dark and nefarious operation on the part of the CIA and Air America. While the opium trade was repugnant, it was legal under Lao law until 1971 when Richard Nixon declared his war on drugs. Certainly the CIA, Air America, and Ambassador Sullivan were aware of the practice. But there is no evidence to support an allegation of involvement. Officials in Washington were also aware as the diversion RLAF transport aircraft to smuggling was one of the issues that led up to the demise of General Thao Ma, the RLAF commander who rebelled against the FAR General Staff after being ordered to make these planes available. See FRUS, 1964-1968, volume 28, document 232 for further reading. Also refer to the biography of former Deputy CIA Director William Colby, Lost Victory.
99. (Kindle 1568) “Sometimes the supply flights would startle local villagers and they would shoot their ancient rifles up into the air.” In his endnote the author links this “fact” to the title of Roger Warner’s book, Shooting at the Moon. The author cites Warner’s book eleven times. If he had actually read the book, he would know this was not the case. See pages 50, 108, and 322 of Shooting at the Moon. The facts behind the title are unforgettable and supported by other sources.
For further documentation see FRUS, vol. 16, East Asia-Pacific Region; Cambodia; Laos, doc. 479, Editorial note. The editorial note was based in part on a memorandum to President Eisenhower from his son John, who was serving as the President’s administrative assistant. The memorandum contained the following. “I thought you would appreciate the following portion of an official announcement broadcast over the Lao Government radio today: “You are requested to remain calm and to support Government and this coup. We adhere to following: “Do not bruise a lotus flowers; do not muddy clear water; do not anger a frog; do not harm a small frog.” While the younger Eisenhower undoubtedly found humor in the quote, frogs held a special place in Lao superstitions.
108. (Kindle 1680) “But Sullivan quickly cowed most of the American mission in Laos.” While I have no issue with the author’s statement, Sullivan was simply exercising his authority – and his arrogance. The powers of the ambassador to exercise control over all programs in his assigned country were stated by every president from Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy. However, it would be a misperception to believe that the CIA headquarters, State Department, and Department of Defense were not exercising control at the national level. See FRUS, 1964-1968 volume 33, Organization and Management of Foreign Policy, document 28 for further reading. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v33/d28
110. (Kindle 1718 and 2161)“Lair shaved and quickly brushed his bristly flattop…” While this may seem like a minor point, the author should provide an endnote. I know of no photograph of Bill Lair in Laos or his later life where he is sporting a flattop. His photograph appears in Shoot at the Moon, Shadow War, Undercover Armies and, Noah Vang’s Major General Van Pao. These are all books the author cites in his endnotes. The fact that this statement exists calls into question the veracity of the author’s research. It may be only prose intended to add color, if so, this book is drifting into fiction. The flattop appears again on page 139.
112-113. (Kindle 1751) “Reputations and big promotions were to be made for those Americans working with the Hmong,” said Bill Lair. The author cites page 176 of Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans and the Secret Wars in Laos, 1942-1992. The cited reference contains no such quote from Bill Lair.
113. (Kindle 1757) “They didn’t really trust or respect the Hmong; they mocked their traditions, such as not bathing regularly…” The author cites Thomas Ahern’s Undercover Armies, page 180. Ahern was not “mocking” Hmong traditions. The author is trying to make a point that does not exist.
115. (Kindle 1792) “Vang Pao had Laotian generals and even the king almost worshipping him, but he wanted more” This statement begs for a credible citation. His relationships with other power brokers in Laos evolved over time from being suspected as a co-conspirator in the 1965 coup attempt by Phoumi Nosavan and the 1966 attempt by Thao Ma to an uneasy peace with the Vientiane generals. See FRUS, 1964-1968, volume 28, Laos, documents 190 and 266 as well as pages 160-16
52 and 219—221 of Ted Shackley’s book, Spymaster: My life in the CIA. For those unfamiliar with Shackley, he was the CIA Chief of Station in Laos from mid 1966 to December 1968.
134. (Kindle 2087) ”The shelling drove some of Nam Bac’s defenders mad…” The author’s description of the conditions at Nam Bac is not supported by the passage cited in Timothy Castle’s book, One Day Too Long. I recommend reading the description of the battle at page s 184-185 of Shadow War. While the author’s embellishment makes for entertaining reading, it is not supported by his research and I doubt that it can be.
138. (Kindle 2156) “ The CIA’s airline would not actually drop bombs – that would be done by jets at the direction of the agency and Bill Sullivan, and coordinated by CIA-run forward air controllers.” While it appears that the author has grasped the fundamental fact the Air America was flying a fleet of transport and utility aircraft and not bombers, he appears to be stating that the forward air control task was performed only by the Ravens, who were assigned to the Air Force attaché. This is far from accurate. While the Ravens coordinated many of strikes in northern Laos, this percentage drops significantly in central and southern Laos where the preponderance of forward air control sorties were flown by 7th Air Force Tactical Air Support Squadrons and these squadrons were not ”CIA-run.”
151. (Kindle 2353) “Nixon cared less about Laos than his predecessors did.” This is an unsupported assumption. Nixon inherited the war in Southeast Asia under circumstances much different than did Lyndon Johnson. See documents 82 and 112 of FRUS, 1969-1976, Volume 6, Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970 for the basis of a counter argument.
154. (Kindle 2390) “At the same time, the Nixon administration began a secret bombing campaign targeting bases in Cambodia for Hanoi’s army…” The sentence is muddled and unclear in its meaning. It could easily be interpreted to mean that the bombing campaign, better known as Operation Menu, was conducted on behalf of Hanoi.
“The bombing runs increased over Laos even though US pilots as well as some of the agency’s officials admitted that there was not a greater number of targets in Laos in the end of 1969 than there had been in January or five years earlier.” This is an unsupported assertion needing a citation from a credible source.
“If anything, there were fewer potential targets for bombers to hit, since the tiny country’s infrastructure had already been ripped apart by the five previous years of bombing.” Further clarification and an authoritative endnote are needed. What infrastructure? Which “tiny nation”? See FRUS, 1969-1976, volume 6, Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970, document 133 for Souvanna’s assent to US air strikes and footnote 4 of document 112 for Nixon’s and Kissinger’s motivation. US airstrikes in northern Laos were increasing but these airstrikes were directed at the North Vietnamese who were present in greater numbers. See document 99 of the same FRUS volume. Unless you are speaking of the infiltration trails the Communists continuously built and expanded, there was little infrastructure to be found in the rugged terrain of the Annamite Mountains.
159. (Kindle 2474) “He’d manage to train some of the six thousand, who had been used to shooting flintlock muskets or homemade guns, on M-1 rifles and a few Korean War–era pistols…” I’m unsure of what the author means by “Korean War-era pistols.” The US Army’s pistol in service at this time was the M1911A1 – a pistol that dated back to the Spanish American war as the M1911, with the A1 modification coming later. The author’s attempt to add “color” is an unneeded distraction that exposes his unfamiliarity with the topic.
163. (Kindle 2624) “Before 1969, North Vietnam, which dominated decision making on the communist side, had been content to attack but not to hold the Plain of Jars, keeping control of the area just long enough to move men and supplies through the kingdom.” This requires explanation. There are many archival sources that explain the logic for Hanoi’s annual withdrawal – and they deal with the monsoon cycle and the fact that the primitive road network leading to the Plain of Jars became a quagmire during the rainy season, making it impossible for the NVA to provide logistical support for its forward deployed forces. However, the author is correct that this pattern began to show signs of change in July1969, only to return to the same pattern in August. Again, see document 99 of FRUS volume 6, 1969–1976.
166. (Kindle 2573) “US transport planes flew over the Plain and dumped napalm…” If transport planes were “dumping napalm,” it would have been a exception to how napalm was deployed. An endnote is needed.
166. (Kindle 2576) Paragraph beginning with, “It was Vang Pao’s biggest win.” Kurlantzick attributes much of the “information” in this paragraph to Quincy’s Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat, page 320. Quincy in turn attributes his text to Conboy and Morrison’s Shadow War, page 215. The original text does not support Quincy, and it certainly does not support Kurlantzick’s embellishments to an already corrupted citation. This is precisely the way in which “fake history” is propagated.
167. (Kindle 2595) “…the Nixon administration agreed to assault these border forts, even though launching this bombing close to North Vietnam while Hanoi and Washington were in a cease-fire risked scuttling a settlement.” Assuming the period of time the author is referring to is September 1969, while the bombing of North Vietnam had been terminated unilaterally by Lyndon Johnson in November 1968 and the possibility of a ceasefire was a frequent topic of discussion in the Nixon administration, there was neither a ceasefire nor settlement at hand in September 1969.
170. (Kindle 2649) “By 1970, only three months after Vang Pao’s jubilant celebration, two North Vietnamese army divisions, supported by tanks, artillery and minelayers, had overrun the Plain of Jars again. As they marched forward, the North Vietnamese routed overstretched and tired Hmong units in their way, with every force of Vang Pao’s soldiers taking heavy casualties. Overcast weather prevented US planes from bombing the North Vietnamese and helping stop their advance.” The Author cites Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat, 345-347. These pages are a discussion of events at Skyline Ridge in 1972. I am also a little curious about the “minelayers.” Typically armies of the period didn’t lay a lot of mines when they are on the offense. Mines would tend to inhibit follow-on forces and their lines of communication.
171. (Kindle 2661) “In the first weeks of February, US planes, which only months earlier had been on the attack on the Plain, now scattered throughout Laos to ferry Hmong fighters and move more than five hundred other anti-communist Laotian troops to Long Cheng.” The author provides an endnote for this statement, citing page 9 of Shadow War, The CIA’s Secret War in Laos. No such material exists on page 9. Given the confused description of “planes which had been on the attack” and were now “ferrying troops,” I unsuccessfully searched Shadow War for a passage relating to the action at Long Cheng in February 1970 that would have redeemed this passage. This is a typographical error, a totally bogus citation, or a case of the author applying a liberal translation to another author’s work.
179. (Kindle 2787) “The bombing could be almost willfully random. In the first few months of 1970, some US pilots routinely released ordnance over the kingdom without really locating any military target, simply because they could not find a target to hit in North Vietnam and they did not want to land back in Thailand still carrying their bombs.” The author offers an endnote linking this assertion to interviews with MacAlan Thompson in 2006 and with Fred Branfman in 2013, a former USAID employee. Neither was ever in a particularly good position to determine what was going on in the cockpit. Beyond the disqualification of the two sources, The bombing halt imposed by Lyndon Johnson in 1968 was still in effect and about the only thing falling on North Vietnam was leaflets relating to the US psychological warfare effort and these were introduced using wind drift insertion from aircraft flying over international waters or third countries adjacent to North Vietnam. (See FRUS, 1969-1976, Volume 6, Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970, document 156.) This is another unsupported assertion.
194. (Kindle 3025) “ …The officer was found guilty by Vang Pao, and sentenced to serve time in an underground tiger pit [a hole with tigers in it}…The author quotes Billy G. Webb, Secret War, page 119. “A hole with tigers in it” is an unsupported embellishment. Prisoners in Vietnam were often confined in what was called “tiger cages.” But there were no tigers. Neither were there tigers when you pulled up to a pump at an ESSO station to get a “tiger in your tank,” and country singer Buck Owens did not have a “tiger by the tail.”
196. (Kindle 3051) “But within three days, Poe’s fighters had stopped battling the North Vietnamese and had trained their guns on the Hmong…” The author cites Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat, 342-47. While such an incident may have happened, it cannot be supported by this reference. The author should have cited page 335.
211. (Kindle 3286) “If the North Vietnamese took the ridge [Skyline Ridge] they could more easily move supplies through southern Laos into the war in South Vietnam.” Skyline Ridge is geographically remote from the infiltration routes in the Laotian panhandle. The author needs an explanatory note to reveal how taking the ridge would ease infiltration on the Ho Chi Minh Trail at the opposite end of Laos.
216. (Kindle 3386) “Elias [Eli] Chavez led the Hmong and Thais, about twelve hundred in total – as they charged up the ridge [Skyline Ridge].” Eli Chavez was the case officer for GM 30, a Lowland Lao – not Hmong and Thai -SGU unit from Military Region 3. This author has a terrible time keeping his facts in order.
217. (Kindle 3402) “Vang Pao personally dragged several artillery pieces up a small up a small peak facing the North Vietnamese.” Not likely. The field artillery at Skyline was 105 & 155-millimeter howitzers. The M101A1 105 millimeter howitzer weighs in at 4,980 pounds and the M114 155 millimeter howitzer at 12,300 pounds. Even if the artillery pieces in question were the diminutive 75-millimeter pack howitzer, which is doubtful, each piece weighed 1,439 pounds. There appears to be a total lapse of common sense in this statement.
218. (Kindle 3411) “But still the North Vietnamese infantry were able to climb to the top of the ridge, where brutal hand-to-hand combat commenced one again with Vietnamese and Hmong commandos gutting one another with bowie-type knives…US fighter planes, which could fly low and attack with their cannons and machineguns followed the B-52s gunning down North Vietnamese wandering along the ridge, senseless, after the concussive effects of the bombs.” The author cites an interview with Jack Shirley and Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat, 349-51. While there is no way to fact check the interview with Jack Shirley as he died fourteen years prior to the publication of this book, this colorful description of events can not be supported by the reference to Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat. I am a little surprised that all of these battle-hardened veterans would have taken “bowie-type” knives to a gunfight…
231. (Kindle 3609) “He [Vang Pao] vowed to several aides that he would even launch the Hmong army’s ting air force against the capital, to bomb the government buildings still (for now) occupied by Souvanna Phouma…” While Vang Pao may have made such a vow, it cannot be established by the source listed in the endnote, Shooting at the Moon, page 338. This event may have happened, but it is not the reader’s responsibility to track down the correct reference.
The author bases much of his text on interview with notables of the war in Laos: Vang Pao, Bill Lair, Hugh Tovar, Vint Lawrence, Jack Shirley and Anthony Poshepny aka Toney Poe. All of these men are deceased and there is no way to fact-check these interviews. Personally, given the author’s handling of written material, I cannot accept these interviews as accurate.
In summation, it’s probably better to be uninformed than to be misinformed. This book is a huge disappointment. I expected much more from a vaunted publishing house like Simon and Schuster and the Council on Foreign Relations.
(On a positive note, the dust jacket is very well done!)