America, CIA and the sanitising of a tragedy

by James Robins / 30 May, 2017

A new history of the bombing of Laos treats the loss of life as red ink on a spreadsheet.

Between 1964 and 1975, the United States Air Force, under Central Intelligence Agency orders, showered more bombs on the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos than were dropped on Japan and Germany in World War II. Averaging it out, a payload landed every eight minutes for a decade. Often, US pilots flying missions in nearby Vietnam at the height of the Indochina war would fail to find targets there and let loose their ordnance wherever they pleased. In other words, they bombed Laos because they could.

Before Washington had finished its secret campaign, 10% of the population was dead. And for what? The Vietnamese nationalists and their Laotian allies won in the end. The US backed an army that used child soldiers, executed prisoners and dealt in opium. Congress was lied to repeatedly, and the CIA grew to become the dangerous paramilitary force it is today. The legacy of the war in Laos is drenched in innocent blood.

This sense of pointless, wasteful tragedy is strangely absent from Joshua Kurlantzick’s A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, which tells the story using newly declassified documents. Its mildly flippant title doesn’t help, and at times, his recounting of battles reads more like adventure stories than accounts of hideous brutality.

Kurlantzick, a former journalist, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, uses terms like “civilian cost”, as if human lives were merely red ink on a spreadsheet.

Further, his narrative is stultifyingly objective, almost without any kind of analysis. He does not point out the deep flaws in the so-called domino theory used to justify the entire campaign. Henry Kissinger, perhaps the most contemptible war criminal of our age, slips in and out of focus throughout the book, being blasé about the mountains of dead Laotian villagers, yet Kurlantzick doesn’t criticise him once – not for Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia or any other arena of foreign policy stained by his presence. If that isn’t an indictment, I don’t know what is.

A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, by Joshua Kurlantzick (Simon & Schuster $37)

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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