Some readers may be unaware that President Dwight Eisenhower told incoming President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that Laos was the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States. This helpful fact sets the stage at the beginning of Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A Great Place to Have a War. Starting in the 1960s up until the early 1970s, the CIA waged war in Laos with near total secrecy, and consequently knowledge of the horrific destruction inflicted on Laotian society has been disguised. That landlocked Laos became the focus of Washington’s military might is truly a story that voters and foreign policy professionals should know. The aphorism, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme," is hard to forget by the conclusion of the book. Although the context of each situation is different, the involvement of the United States in wars ranging from Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere does rhyme with the riveting history Mr. Kurlantzick rescues from relative obscurity.
At the center of this book is the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Laotian Civil War spearheaded by the CIA. Laos was considered essential to the containment strategy directed at stopping communist conquest in Indochina and all the way to India. From this strategic assumption a war with traumatic results for the Laotian people ensues, and the CIA is transformed from an intelligence gathering organization to one that fights wars. The exhaustive research that demonstrates the scale of the war effort is quite amazing when remembering the events of the book are concurrent with the Vietnam War; not to mention other Cold War powder kegs such as the Berlin and Cuba crises. In 1963, Laos received more U.S. aid per capita than South Vietnam or the rest of Southeast Asia. By the end of the 1960s, the budget for the war amounted to $500 million. This equals $3.1 billion in 2016 dollars, but the figure does not do justice to the human destruction recounted in the book. Laos suffered more deaths as a percentage of its population due to the war than the United States or Japan during World War II. Mr. Kurlantzick vividly explains U.S. bombing raids that left behind lunar landscapes.
A Great Place to Have a War is enlivened with characters that would fit in perfectly with a popular spy or war movie. There is a CIA operative that truly believed he was helping Laotians defend their way of life, and a solider that will remind readers of Colonel Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s classic, Heart of Darkness. William Sullivan, the American ambassador in Laos that directed the covert bombing campaign, is an excellent candidate for leading a master class on handling Congressional and bureaucratic politics. Time eventually delivers a comeuppance when Sullivan is the ambassador in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution.
Mr. Kurlantzick marshaled years of research that uncovered how Laos became a template for future CIA operations. In fact, the CIA considers the Laos operation a success even though the communist Pathet Lao won the Laotian Civil War. One unique contribution this book offers is opening up this interesting history for a broader audience with accessible prose. More importantly, Mr. Kurlantzick does not allow the broader implications of America's war in Laos to get lost in the details. Mr. Kurlantzick makes it clear that what he termed a “permanent” and “militarized CIA” gave the president of the United States a new option to wage war without extensive oversight of executive war powers. The latitude the CIA has to conduct drone strikes in Afghanistan is indicative of how alluring clandestine operations have become in a conflict that is now America’s longest war ever.
A Great Place to Have a War presents a cautionary tale about the costs in blood and money when strategic rationales end up being wrong and informed by blinkered analysis. It is possible that the most disheartening discovery in the book is the United States did not review the justifications for involving itself in Laos as time passed. The consequences of the United States sponsoring a proxy force with limited understanding of the history and causes of internal conflict left multitudes of broken lives and mass displacement. Unexploded ordinance from American bombing is a legacy that endures to this day in Laos. Whatever the CIA claims, the war was not a success for the people on the ground, and the "domino theory" of communist victories spreading across Asia ended up being erroneous.
It is understandable to ask after reading this book if the history of the CIA campaign in Laos was considered by policymakers before a covert operation to support Syrian rebels was started. In Afghanistan, the United States spent many years not reassessing its assumptions about viewing the conflict from a counterterrorism perspective. Understanding the overarching ethnic, tribal, and regional interests and rivalries that fuels the current Afghanistan war was not adequately addressed. If the CIA Laos campaign is indeed a template for various post 9/11 operations, then a discussion of the misjudgments from the past and its potential lessons for today is owed. A Great Place to Start a War makes sure the public has information to engage in the conversation.