By Chet Yarbrough
A Great Place to Have a War (America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA
By: Joshua Kurlantzick
Narrated by: Tim Campbell
Joshua Kurlantzick (Author, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations)
“A Great Place to Have a War” reflects a turning point in the operations of the CIA in the 1950s. Joshua Kurlantzick’s story implies the CIA’ role became something more than originally intended.
The CIA is founded in 1947. Its primary duty was to collect, evaluate, and disseminate intelligence affecting national security.
Richard Helms (Former Director of the CIA from 1966-1973.)
The former director of the CIA, Richard Helms is quoted as saying Laos“… was a major operation for the Agency….It took manpower; it took specially qualified manpower; it was dangerous; it was difficult.” He contends the CIA did “a superb job”. Helms is referring to the CIA’s covert activity in Laos during the early days of the Vietnam war. Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, “A Great Place to Have a War” suggests Helm’s view of “a superb job” is a self-serving lie that is far from the truth.
The center of this story is about the Hmong people who live in Laos. One of the great leaders of the Hmong in the 1950s is Vang Pao.
He served as a military leader in Laos from 1940 to 1975. He became a Major general and is shown to be a great leader of the Hmong resistance to a communist takeover of Laos. The CIA aids Vang Pao in the creation of a “secret army” to resist North Vietnam’s incursion in Laos.
James William Lair (CIA Officer serving in Laos.)
William Lair aka Bill Lair, a paramilitary officer of the CIA is an Ambassador to Thailand and is moved to Laos to provide CIA support for Vang Pao’s effort to expel communist invaders from Laos.
Lair (to the right of the helmeted soldier) is a tool of the CIA to create a secret army of Hmong fighters to resist communist takeover of the country.
With the help of CIA covert paramilitary operatives like the infamous Tony Poe (aka Anthony Poshepny), the Hmong army is trained in military tactics.
Poe is infamous in that he instituted collection of Vietnamese ears to confirm kills of enemy combatants. He allegedly sent a bag of ears to his superior officers in the CIA. Poe is respected and feared by many Hmong soldiers for his training and brutal killings. Poe’s “take no prisoners” mentality is adopted by Hmong fighters.
The author offers a detailed history of CIA operatives that manage operational support of the Hmong in Laos.
The fundamental point made by Kurlantzick is that (after Laos) the CIA is no longer just a collector of intelligence but an active participant in American covert military actions in foreign countries.
What makes this story discomfiting is the belief that America’s creation of secret armies to change the course of events in foreign countries is an honorable act.
Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969 Communist leader of North Vietnam.)
The Hmong bravely served their country’s independence, but they fail to stop Ho Chi Minh’s army. Laos fell to the communists.
Adding to that failure, America turned its back on many Hmong defenders that were murdered by the communists after the defeat. As history shows, America repeats that ignominious evacuation of nationalist combatants in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Only Vang Pao, his immediate family and a few of his closest soldiers were evacuated.
Helms expressed pride about what the CIA accomplished in Laos. The author suggests Helms felt the CIA learned how to create a secret army in foreign territories that could accomplish American objectives. If that is true, one wonders how the murder of indigenous countrymen and failure to accomplish American objectives is something to be proud of.
In the last chapters of “A Great Place to Have a War”, the author recounts the lives of major players in the Laotian secret war. Vang Pao tells his fellow expatriates that he will return to Laos and take control of the government. Vang Pao offers positions in an imaginary Laotian government in return for money from Hmong that have settled in America.
Vang Pao was clearly a patriot in his years as a leader in Laos but in his American life, he becomes a con man that betrays his fellow countrymen. He acts like a gangster, a “Godfather”, by extorting contributions from Laotians that settled in America.
Vang Pao never intended to overthrow the Laotian government from his exile. He neither had the support or money needed to foment a new revolution. His objective seems simply to be able to maintain his lifestyle in the United States.
Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe)
The infamous Tony Poe receives a second star from the CIA. His skill as a trainer of secret army soldiers of other countries is considered a useful tool to the CIA (despite his craziness) according to the author. Tony Poe retires and receives a pension from the CIA and dies in obscurity.
This is a disheartening story. Its credibility is supported by information from investigative reporters and illegally acquired information from informants like Edward Snowden. Kurlantzick notes Snowden found the secret CIA budget ballooned to be more than the State Department’s budget.
A CIA officer disputes this book in a formal rebuttal. The rebuttal is revealed in a December 2014 Senate hearing. One can look it up, but the rebuttal is less convincing than the book.
The lesson one may draw from this story is that America’s State Department needs to be recognized as more important than the CIA in improving international relations. The State Department needs to have Ambassadors that know the language of the countries they are assigned. Ambassadors should have an intimate understanding of their assigned country’s cultures.
The CIA is not a path for peace. Its role should be restricted to collection of data. The CIA should not interfere with other nation’s policies and politics. Its role should be to inform the American government of foreign government information not available from public media or normal diplomatic channels.
This is not to say the CIA is not an important organization. It should be adequately funded to gather intelligence information. Its role should not be to create secret armies, murder foreign nationals, or foment rebellion. Actions taken by the American government should only be taken with review by elected officials, particularly for any clandestine actions against foreign nationals or governments.
It should be clear that any foreign actions taken are the fault of elected officials, not secret organizations. All Americans are responsible for what their elected officials decide. Transparency of government policy and action is required in any country that professes belief in freedom.