A Great Place to Have a WarAmerica in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIAJoshua KurlantzickSimon & Schuster 323 pages; $28The Vietnam War may have ended 42 years ago but no visitor to the three countries of the former French colonial region of Indo-China can ignore its legacy in that country or in Cambodia, where the collateral depredations of the Khmer Rouge are still raw in public memory. Tiny Laos may appear to be an exception. The country’s principal tourist spot, Luang Prabang, is the charming former royal capital on the banks of the Mekong. Now a UN heritage site, Luang Prabang’s gabled houses, reminders of its French legacy, and Buddhist temples, their walls gleaming with Ramayana and Jataka stories picked out in coloured Belgian glass, appear to be a world away from its neighbours’ savage histories. Only at the royal palace do you learn that the last king “disappeared”. That’s an oblique reference to his death in captivity under the Pathet Lao, the ultra-left clients of the victorious North Vietnamese, whose successors now rule a nation struggling to slough off its Least Developed Country status.For readers of a certain age, this information may stir fuzzy memories: Of Laos’ panhandle forming part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the indestructible North Vietnamese supply line to Viet Cong fighters in South Vietnam, and how Souvanna Phouma, the beleaguered prince and prime minister, was bulldozed into a US alliance.In fact, Laos was no side-show in the 20-year conflict and A Great Place to Have a War tells you why. It chronicles a little known – mainly because it was covered up – account of an operation that has had a profound influence on the conduct of US foreign policy ever since. As Joshua Kurlantzick recounts, Laos marked the start of CIA’s evolution into a covert para-military actor. Intervention in Laos was a knock-on effect of the Cold War play in Vietnam. President Dwight D Eisenhower’s “domino theory” had posited that if one country succumbed to communism, its neighbours would follow. The fact that North Vietnam, a client-state of the Soviet Union and China, was overrunning Laos, seemed to prove this hypothesis. As Eisenhower ratcheted up US involvement in Vietnamese politics, the CIA expanded its presence in Laos. Mr Kurlantzick writes that its Vientiane station grew larger than the foreign service component, more than half the Laotian ministers were on its payroll and its private front airline, Civil Air Transport, was active in the country. This footprint grew heavier after a 1962 accord that the US brokered with Russia, China and North and South Vietnam to respect Laos’ neutrality. Observed mostly in the breach, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao controlled the north-east. The US decided to maintain the fiction of the accords but opt, meanwhile, to covertly stoke a civil war in Laos, thus beginning “the first such secret CIA-run war in American history”. As in Nicaragua and Afghanistan (and Syria today), the CIA operated through a proxy army, the bulk of it provided by the Hmong, a hill tribe that fought anyone who sought to control them — the Japanese during World War II, the French before and after, and, from the 1970, the Viet Minh-Pathet Lao. Called Operation Momentum, the CIA’s original plan was to train and equip the Hmong to weaken communist forces through frequent guerrilla attacks. This was war on the cheap, the absence of American boots on the ground offering an enticing plausible deniability. But as the confrontation in Vietnam inexorably expanded under three presidents, the Laotian operation created its own dynamic, expanding into conventional warfare for which bases and personnel were needed. By 1975, the end of the war, Operation Momentum had absorbed $500 million a year ($3.1 billion in 2016 dollars, the writer highlights), more than a tenth of the Laotian population had been killed and 750,000 of them became refugees. More bombs fell on Laos than on Vietnam and Cambodia. On the Plain of Jars in north-central Laos undetonated ordnance from four decades ago lies scattered among the massive prehistoric stone burial jars, killing more than 20,000 people after the war. The 728 American deaths went largely unnoticed because they were outsourced CIA operatives, not military grunts, and paled in comparison to the over 50,000 deaths in Vietnam. Thus, even when revelations of the agency’s secret war surfaced in the press, it attracted little attention. Mr Kurlantzick relies on recently declassified documents to narrate the history but he also recreates the human narrative behind this tawdry story of cynical power politics and betrayal. An extraordinary cast of characters parades through these pages — the charismatic Hmong general Vang Pao, his mentor Bill Lair, a CIA agent who had “gone native” in south-east Asia for decades, Tony Poe, a contract killer with a predilection for collecting his victims’ ears. Incredibly, Operation Momentum was considered a success back in the US, so much so that several State Department and CIA careers were built on its ruins. All the egregious practices associated with the CIA in later decades were seeded here — proxy fighters, private contractors, black ops and financial cut-outs. From destroying evidence, to detention and interrogation programmes to the expanded use of increasingly bizarre freelancers – rivettingly described in Mark Mazzetti’s 2013 book The Way of the Knife – to today’s controversial drone programme, the CIA has established itself as a parallel military arm of the US government with dangerously low levels of oversight and accountability. This page-turning story lacks maps, a curious omission since the author says most people would be hard put to find Laos on the globe. Including at least one should be a priority for a second edition, to which this important book is bound to run.