A Great Place to Have a War

America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA

The definitive account of the secret war in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos, which lasted almost two decades and forever changed the CIA’s controversial role in foreign policy.

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"Over the course of the war, U.S. bombing of Laos would become so intense that it averaged one attack every eight minutes for nearly a decade," observes Joshua Kurlantzick in his new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. Kurlantzick, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Southeast Asia, mines extensive interviews and recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) records to give a definitive account of the secret war in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos, which lasted from 1961 to 1973, and was the largest covert operation in U.S. history. The conflict forever changed the CIA from a relatively small spying agency into an organization with vast paramilitary powers.

The book explores how the responsibility for U.S. military conflicts shifted from the uniformed armed services to U.S. intelligence agencies operating with less scrutiny. Kurlantzick asserts that it began in 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved Operation Momentum, a plan to create a proxy army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos, in order to minimize U.S. military involvement and keep the war hidden from the public at home, as well as most of Congress.

Kurlantzick's account follows the war's central characters, including the four instrumental people who led the operation: the CIA operative who came up with the idea; the charismatic general who led the Hmong army in the field; the State Department careerist who took control over the war as it grew; and the wild card paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong army and is believed to be an inspiration for Marlon Brando's character in Apocalypse Now.

The book reveals that

  • by 1970, Operation Momentum was costing $500 million annually, the equivalent to $3.3 billion today;
  • the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than on any other country in history;
  • 80 percent of all bombing casualties in Laos were civilians; the war killed 10 percent of the population; and
  • one third of the bombs dropped on Laos remained unexploded after the war ended in 1975, and those bombs killed 20,000 Laotians in the three decades that followed.

The CIA had previously been a relatively small player in American policy, one that concentrated on intelligence and political work. Although the anticommunist forces supported by the United States were eventually defeated, "within the CIA, the Laos war quickly took on an exalted status, both as an operation that effectively stalled the communist takeover in Southeast Asia and as an operation that remade the agency into a stronger, bigger beast," Kurlantzick writes.

The secret war in Laos created a CIA that fights with real paramilitary forces and weapons as much as it gathers secrets, contends Kurlantzick. The war became a template for CIA proxy wars all over the world, from Central America in the 1980s to today's war on terrorism, where the CIA and Special Forces operate with little oversight.

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Reviews and Endorsements

 

Engrossing. . . . [Kurlantzick's] book shows how critical it is for American leaders to be cleareyed about their purposes and honest with their public before embarking on a war that will inevitably take on a gruesome momentum of its own.

New York Times

The war's entire compelling tale can be found in the lucid prose and revelatory reporting of Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book. . . . A vivid picture of protagonists like Vang Pao.

Economist

Informative and well-researched. . . . It’s a harrowing story, and Kurlantzick tells it well.

Washington Post

A vivid portrait of America's decade-and-a-half war in Laos.

NPR

A Great Place to Have a War is pacy and its discussions of US intra-governmental conflict and the intricacies of Laos politics are leavened with vivid portraits of the main personalities. . . . A reminder of how much US history in this conflict-scarred region still bubbles beneath the surface—and awaits a proper reckoning.

Financial Times

A must read. . . . This eminently well-written and well-researched book deserves deep reflection and wide readership.

Forbes

A Great Place to Have a War adds illuminating details to the historical record and gives useful insights on the CIA’s militarization and its meaning for today’s world.

War on the Rocks

As powerful as it had become, could the U.S. really 'create stability where there is chaos'? As Kurlantzick reveals, the goal of the CIA in Laos was precisely the reverse: to create chaos where stability might have prevailed, if given the chance. In that sense, the effort was a success.

Washington Monthly

The book traces one of the CIA's first transformations from intelligence-gatherers to war-runners and the crackup of US efforts in Southeast Asia.

New York Post

Beautifully written and astutely crafted . . . Kurlantzick tells a complex story in a compelling page turner.

Scotsman

A Great Place to Have a War chronicles in stark detail the initial successes, the long, drawn-out and bloody end, and everything in between.

South China Morning Post

Excellent . . . a comprehensive review of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret war in Laos in 1961–75.

SCNow Florence Morning News

Kurlantzick traces how a toxic brew of good intentions, unrealistic expectations, geopolitics and egos led to a debacle.

Spectator

This new history is one of a kind, containing original research and an astounding purview of primary sources, many previously unexamined. . . . Kurlantzick is able to recount what could be an otherwise murky and long-winded historical account with a narrative voice and attention to detail that grip the reader from cover to cover.

New Mandala

Kurlantzick weaves this complex yarn together beautifully.

Irrawaddy

In this important book, Kurlantzick writes in excruciating detail how the decisions by Eisenhower and Kennedy would turn the CIA from a spy organization to one whose primary role was covert warfare, involving the agency in ever-more controversial actions across the world.

Asia Sentinel

Kurlantzick grippingly describes the war’s key battles on the Plain of Jars, Skyline Ridge near Long Cheng, and Sala Phou Khoun. His literary portrait of [Hmong leader] Vang Pao is one of the highlights of the book.

Asian Review

In this well-written, and clearly critical, book centred on Laos, Joshua Kurlantzick not only tells the fascinating story of the American-backed Hmong guerrillas who fought against the North Vietnamese forces in the 'Land of a Million Elephants.' He also links the long-ago conflict to the manner in which the Central Intelligence Agency has become an essential military element in U.S. foreign policy. In doing so, the CIA, Kurlantzick argues, moved far beyond its role as a collector of information.

Interpreter

There is a need . . . for a clearly written, popular account of CIA involvement in Laos, if only to put the record straight; and this is what A Great Place to Have a War sets out to provide. But the book does more, for it mounts an argument that running an entire clandestine war in Laos redefined the CIA as an organisation. . . . Kurlantzick tells the story well.

Mekong Review

In this excellent historical analysis, Kurlantzick . . . relates how the U.S. got involved with Laos, seeing it as a vital piece in the strategy of containing communism in Southeast Asia. . . . An instructive tale without a happy ending for any of the main players, and it continues to have relevance in the 21st century.

Publishers Weekly

Riveting . . . Highly recommended for those wanting insight into the Hmong people and Cold War thinking.

Library Journal

In his well-researched argument, the author relies on extensive materials prepared by other historians as well as first-person interviews with relevant characters (including Vang Pao) and recently declassified documents . . . an important demonstration of the U.S.'s ongoing, not-so-secret hand in world affairs. Kurlantzick's comprehensive account provides new insights into the CIA's objectives in the Laos war and the way that they were incorporated into its broader mission.

Kirkus

Superb! Joshua Kurlantzick joins the ranks of preeminent Southeast Asia chroniclers like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Stanley Karnow with what will become the benchmark book for an important part of America's quagmire in that region—the CIA's secret war in Laos. A Great Place to Have a War is rich and jarring in its historical insight, fast in its pacing, and gripping in its read. You won't want to put it down.

Douglas Waller, author of Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan

Gripping. Of all the CIA's strange adventures during the Cold War, the secret war in Laos may have been the most bizarre. Joshua Kurlantzick has crafted a true drama with an improbable and colorful cast. An eye-opening, carefully researched, and wrenching yarn of what can go wrong when East meets West.

Evan Thomas, author of The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA

Joshua Kurlantzick's story of the CIA's secret war in Laos brilliantly illuminates one of the most obscure yet harrowing chapters of the Vietnam conflict. With sure pacing and a gallery of rich characters, Kurlantzick shows how a modest operation to harass Communist forces escalated into a military onslaught that killed and displaced tens of thousands and wrecked a country. This is a cautionary tale of arrogance, recklessness, and unrestrained power that, tragically, finds echoes in many of today's battlefields.

Joshua Hammer, author of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu