Backfire: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam, by Roger Warner, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995, $25.
In January 1961, a secret meeting of three men from different backgrounds took place in Laos near the Plain of Jars. The three were Bill Lair, a CIA officer stationed in Thailand; Colonel Pranet Ritchenbchai, the commander of Thailand’s Police Parachute Aerial Resupply Unit, known as “Paru”; and Vang Pao, a Meo tribesman who also served as an officer in the Laotian army. This meeting marked the beginning of Operation Momentum, the American-supported guerrilla campaign that evolved into America’s “Secret War in Laos.”
In Backfire, Roger Warner provides the first comprehensive account of the politics, diplomacy and overall strategy that tied these various pieces together. He also provides previously unpublished details of the CIA’s leading role in the war, including its direct involvement in training, supplying, advising, directing and sometimes leading the Meo (in later years more accurately referred to as Hmong), Yao, Lao Theung, and other Laotian minorities who served so valiantly as America’s surrogate foot soldiers in the secret war.
Warner’s account reveals that the Paru, a highly trained and capable Thai special operations unit, played a major role in combat in Laos, as well as in training and advising the Royal Laotian military and the Laotian minorities who served as an American guerrilla army. In fact, Bill Lair, the CIA officer who participated in the January 1961 meeting with Vang Pao and who emerged as one of the key players in the planning and conduct of the campaign, also held a commission as a Paru officer–a position he continued to hold even as he directed operations in Laos during the war.
Warner’s account of the war also provides excellent insight into the personalities of many of the key figures in Laos. These include Lair, some of his important CIA field operators, and Ambassador William Sullivan, who, as an assistant to Secretary of State Averell Harriman, authored the plan that resulted in the 1962 Geneva agreement with the Soviets. Many scholars contend that this agreement marked the beginning of the downfall of Laos and resulted in North Vietnam’s ability to develop and use the Ho Chi Minh Trail to sustain the war in South Vietnam. Three other key players who appear in Backfire are Pop Buell, the legendary Indiana farmer turned nation builder; General Vang Pao, the military leader of the Meo; and Colonel Thong Vongrasamy, the unconventional and heroic Lao officer who was posthumously awarded the U.S. military’s Silver Star for his role in an attempted rescue of American pilots in North Vietnam.
This reader found the previously unpublished details of the March 1968 debacle at Lima Site (landing site) 85 particularly useful in understanding the link between events in Laos and the war in Vietnam. Warner provides the details of the decision to deploy sensitive electronic equipment on the Phou Pha Thi Mountain, near the North Vietnamese border, and the equipment’s critical role in supporting the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. He also details the miscalculations that resulted in the opportunity for the masterful North Vietnamese commando raid against Lima Site (see “Caught in Harm’s Way,” by Robert Lynn, in the December 1991 Vietnam).
Through detailed research, including interviews with many of the participants, Warner provides a very readable history of the war in Laos and its impact on the more visible war in Vietnam. His revelations of the CIA’s role in the war are reason enough to read Backfire. But its value lies even more in his factual accounting of the decisions and events that transformed a highly successful guerrilla war into a major tragedy for Laos and the United States.
Colonel Donald Lunday