Earlier this month, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) commemorated its 50th anniversary. As Southeast Asian nations look forward to building a more stable future, it’s also useful to remember the events that shaped the modern history of the region.
Fifty years ago, many parts of Southeast Asia were plagued by wars and local conflicts which included the Vietnam War, the anti-communist hysteria in Indonesia, and the rise of a military dictatorship in Burma.
But there was another war, a secret war that was being waged in a remote corner of the Indochina Peninsula during the same period. This was the civil war in Laos, which saw the rise of Hmong soldiers fighting the rising tide of communism in their country. Unknown to some Lao soldiers at the time, the combat strategy and logistics of their government were being directly handled and provided by Central Intelligence Agency officials of the United States.
Joshua Kurlantzick’s recent book A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA is more than just a retelling of the war in Laos and the role it played in the Vietnam conflict. It narrates the history of how the CIA began its notorious paramilitary operations in Laos and how this became the template for future covert wars organized by the agency in many parts of the world.
One character in the book is likened to Colonel Kurtz, the mad American soldier in the film Apocalypse Now, who in real life was awarded by the CIA for his bravery and service in leading a paramilitary training camp in Laos.
The CIA experiment turned the small landlocked country into the most heavily bombed place in the world and it failed to prevent the victory of communists in both Laos and Vietnam. Yet the CIA deemed it a success.
Unlike in Vietnam, the CIA-led operation in Laos didn’t lead to the massive deployment of U.S. troops and eventual loss of American lives. What the CIA did was to train and build a Lao paramilitary force composed mainly of Hmong natives who fought and died fighting the communists. The CIA’s work in Laos was later credited (unofficially, of course) for delaying the victory of the Vietcong by redirecting the focus of the northern Vietnamese military. This was done with little political noise in the United States because it didn’t involve the sending of troops, aside from maintaining the secrecy of the operation which lasted for almost two decades.
Never mind that the fields of Laos continue to be littered with unexploded bombs up to this day. As far as the CIA is concerned, its Laos operation provided the agency with the know-how and valuable field experience on how to conduct a war without openly declaring war. After Laos, the CIA emerged as a central player in implementing the foreign policy of the United States. More importantly, it became an enormous military machine which can confidently demand a significant appropriation from the government to be used for training various paramilitary troops across the world.
The CIA operations in Laos during the Vietnam War is not without its modern parallels, as a quick glance at the news would remind us. Anti-communism is replaced by anti-terrorism, surveillance and bomb operations are now done by drones, but paramilitary troops are still being used in conflict zones. There’s no direct link with the CIA, of course. But the imprints which we first saw in Laos are discernible. Only this time, the money used to finance these small wars are bigger and more costly to the American public.
The CIA history in Laos provides a cautionary tale of how a supposedly minor tactical operation could mutate into a monstrous military undertaking. This is especially the case if there is no public accountability and transparency, particularly regarding the use of funds for these covert operations. Seen from the narrow prism of U.S. domestic politics, public pressure can be avoided as long as civilian casualties and collateral damage are mainly members of the local population. But for the countries where the CIA is operating, the fundamental issue is the military and political intervention of a foreign power.
It is interesting to note that a few months before the official celebration of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, several leaders in the region were complaining about US intervention in their countries. These leaders, who are facing corruption and human rights cases, could be simply trying to divert public attention; but their rants have historical basis.
After all, it was the CIA which supervised the long war in Laos; and even its online museum acknowledged the agency’s various hitherto secret activities in the region in the 20th century. It is accused of supporting paramilitary networks that later became uncontrollable such as the Taliban, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and even ISIS. The point is less whether or not these accusations hold up; at the very lease, they can serve as a grain of truth that is in every good lie.
There are numerous speculations about what the CIA is doing today. Most of the time these are dismissed as part of baseless conspiracy theories. But the publication of studies based on declassified CIA documents has provided the public with better knowledge about the appalling extent and magnitude of U.S. military operations around the world.
But is the CIA really capable of managing wars? And can it really build a local army in a foreign country? Laos offers an answer, but also raises many more other questions.