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.
Across the mountains, however, Vang Pao's victories were mirrored by a growing crescendo of defeat, failure and escalation in Vietnam--a transition that spelled doom for the Hmong. The buildup of American ground troops, which began with the landing of 3,500 U.S. Marines at Da Nang in May, 1965, was rapidly expanding. By the end of 1965, U.S. troops in Vietnam numbered 184,000, a number that would triple within two years. That escalation had inevitable and terrible consequences for the tribal hill dwellers waging the CIA's correlative campaign in Laos.
North Vietnam, responding to the American challenge, rapidly accelerated construction of its own massive logistic pipeline, an elaborate maze of heavily camouflaged roadways and paths through the mountains of eastern Laos--the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Vang Pao, meanwhile, ever more intoxicated with his growing ambition to become a "real" general, increasingly began to challenge the North Vietnamese in set piece battles, a task, Warner makes clear, for which his fellow tribesmen were ill-equipped.
This shift received Washington's imprimatur in mid-1966 when Theodore Shackley, one of the CIA's best and brightest, arrived to take charge of Operation Momentum. Bill Lair's country-store guerrilla operation, Shackley told him, was about to become a supermarket war. The escalations in Vietnam demanded it. Sure enough, the budget of Operation Momentum, just $20 million a year under Lair's country-store approach, rapidly ballooned to $1.5 billion under Shackley's imperious hand and Washington's blessing.
This extraordinary escalation was aimed at interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Given the trail's critical role in North Vietnam's strategic plan, however, North Vietnam soon launched a series of furious, full-scale offensives against Vang Pao's Meo tribesmen. By mid-1968, Warner shows, the supermarket war's pitched battles--a radical shift from the CIA's early hit-and-run guerrilla strategy--were "starting to destroy whole ethnic groups, particularly the Meo."
And as the casualties mounted, younger and younger tribesmen, some of them no older than 10, were pressed into service. They were in turn led by other youngsters, sometimes boys barely in their teens. Their inexperience in turn led to more casualties until the death spiral began to achieve a horrific, genocidal momentum.
Worst of all, gentle Bill Lair, the CIA operative who'd "gone native" from Langley's point of view, had always known that the Meo could never win against North Vietnam's superior arms, training and motivation. There was a lot of work to be done before the U.S. abandoned these poor people, Lair told a subordinate not long after initiating Operation Momentum in 1961.
When the time to abandon them did finally come in May, 1975, Vang Pao's CIA handlers had to sneak him out of his mountain stronghold, a secret city of 40,000 people built and maintained with CIA money and logistic support. Only a few years earlier, Vang Pao had been a demigod to the Hmong, a man they would have followed anywhere. At the end, after the devastation of an entire generation, only 2,500 Hmong survivors managed to follow Vang Pao to the promised land, America.
Warner lays out this bitter, painful, ultimately shameful and, until now, hidden story in the strong and usually straightforward prose of its characters. He portrays a cast of memorable CIA and military operators, some of whose deeds in Laos look genuinely heroic even in the long gaze of history, others of whom still look small, smarmy and self-serving. Among the names you may know are William Sullivan, Theodore Shackley, Roger Hilsman, William Colby, Richard Secord and Edgar (Pop) Buell.
Warner's analysis, like that of the CIA agents in Laos who "went native," sometimes suffers from identifying too closely with his subjects and their view of the events he reports and interprets. In that sense, despite his periodic disclaimers to the contrary, Warner's analysis goes occasionally awry, most fundamentally when he casts Laos as the dog whose wagging tail first stirred the winds of the Vietnam War.
"Back Fire" is nevertheless a terrific book. Much of it reads like a wild, imaginative, adventure novel. That the story is true and only now coming fully to light makes it all that much more amazing. It can only add to our understanding of how strong men and their convictions and their daring so often lead to calamity, especially for those who believe in and follow them.