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Secrets of a Futile Battle : Confronting the demons of U.S. geopolitics in Laos : BACK FIRE: The CIA's Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the Vietnam War, By Roger Warner (Simon & Schuster: $25; 464 pp.)

October 01, 1995|Ron Ridenhour | While a military officer serving in Vietnam, Ron Ridenhour wrote the letter of complaint that initiated the investigation into the My Lai massacre. He is currently working on a book about rebellions in African American units during World War II

Late one March evening in 1961, in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Bill Lair, a CIA officer, was startled from his administrative chores by the sudden eruption of heavy gunfire.

Seven months earlier, a slightly daffy, highly disorganized coup had thrown Laos into a three-sided civil war. Worried that another coup was in progress, Lair rushed into the street amid the thump-thump of mortar rounds, the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns and the pop-popping of small arms. Just outside his door he found a Laotian woman firing a pistol into the air.

"Who are you shooting at?" the anxious Lair demanded.

"The frog's eating the moon! The frog's eating the moon!" the woman cried, squeezing off another round.

Peering into the cloudless night sky, Lair saw that a lunar eclipse was in progress. To the indigenous folk, however, there was quite another explanation: A cosmic frog was swallowing the moon--and at that moment all across Laos, hill people and lowlanders alike were doing everything they could to scare him into coughing it up.

"Afterwords," writes Roger Warner in this extraordinary if imperfect book, "the joke among Americans was that shooting at the moon had worked, and that the science of the outside world had proved to be an illusion."

Fifteen years later, as Warner winds down his often riveting tale of heroism, deceit, futility and betrayal, the Bill Lairs of the secret war in Laos were coming to realize that the primal rite of shooting at the moon was no more silly and far less brutal than Washington's cynical decision to sacrifice an entire culture to the short-term goals of U.S. geopolitical policy. For the Laotians whom Lair and his cohorts helped suck into the maelstrom, Western science, especially the military and political varieties, turned out indeed to be an illusion of the most bitter sort.

Based on in-depth interviews with many of the key players, some of whom speak on the record for the first time, "Back Fire" leads its readers step by step down the long, tortured path that belatedly leads them all to understand their collective folly.

"Back Fire" details for the first time America's doomed covert campaign in Laos, beginning with Lair's search to find a Laotian standard-bearer for the American cause. Lair found him in a dynamic, mercurial tribal leader named Vang Pao, a 40-year-old major in the royal army, the assistant commander of the strategic Plain of Jars.

Lowland Laotians, an ethnically separate people who controlled the palace, the military and the economy, called Vang Pao's people the Meo, which means barbarians. The Meo called themselves the Hmong, however, which means "free people." This distinction, one of many such telling gems sprinkling Warner's work, illuminates much of what followed.

Vang Pao's reputation as a committed Vietnamese killer reached Lair soon after his arrival in Vientiane. But Vang Pao, who was already in nearly constant combat with North Vietnamese regulars in the mountains east of the Plain of Jars, the traditional home of his 250,000 member Hmong tribe, was not so easy to find. Lair therefore commandeered a helicopter and flew toward the jungle where the little major had last been seen. Sighting a Hmong farmer, Lair landed. Could the man find Vang Pao?

Sure, the farmer said. But it would take several hours. Nodding, Lair flew back to Vientiane, leaving behind a Lao-speaking Thai commando team. "We found Vang Pao," the team leader radioed the next morning. "He's the one we've been looking for."

Indeed he was. When Lair met Vang Pao in his jungle hideaway later that day, he found a short, fierce man commanding a well-disciplined but raggedy band of guerrillas. How many guerrillas could Vang Pao field if the CIA equipped them with weapons and salaries? Lair asked.

"At least 10,000," Vang Pao said.

So began Operation Momentum, the CIA campaign that lasted 13 years and cost Vang Pao's Hmong a generation of young men. In the beginning, Vang Pao's guerrilla genius, his natural leadership and the animosity between the Hmong and the invading Vietnamese yielded battlefield results that were the mirror image of the Vietnam War unfolding on the eastern side of the Annamite mountains.

Until 1965-66, the North Vietnamese, who truly were invaders in Laos, were safe only on the roads. Vang Pao's guerrillas owned the mountainous jungle countryside. As the war wore on, Vang Pao's army expanded to roughly 30,000 men and he rose to the rank of general. As Vang Pao's successes mounted, so too did the size and scope of the CIA commitment.

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