Keeping The Secret Alive

Will the CIA be great again?

February 8, 2017 in Theatre of War | Comments (2)

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Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick (Scribner, 2017)

jarsLaos is a great place to be a tourist. It has Luang Prabang, with its French colonial architecture and Buddhist monasteries along a simple historic main street. It has the Plain of Jars, with its mysterious artifacts among American bomb craters on a depopulated plateau. It has the Hmong people of the Colin Cotterill’s “Dr. Siri” mystery novels. It has communist Vientiane, linked by a Mekong bridge with the bright lights of capitalist Thailand. It has rolling mountains and calm rivers and deep pools.

So forget the war. The Lao people have or – as in Vietnam – seem to have forgotten. It ended more than 40 years ago. But Joshua Kurlantzick’s book is no travel guide. It is the most comprehensive documentation yet of the “secret war,” whose political secrets have already been told in bits and pieces. (Kurlantzick uses many of the same journalistic clips that I used  in writing inspired by travels in laos beginning ten years ago.)

But he also is informed by newly declassified CIA documents, to which as a specialist in Southeast Asia for the Council on Foreign Relations he is well placed for access. The justification for the book is in the subtitle: “America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.” The secret war in Laos is the archetype for what the CIA has been doing ever since – in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Chile, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Yemen. And now, Kurlantsick says, the Predator drone program “allows the president to conduct operations anywhere.”

Well, why not? There is a consensus about threats to national security. Obama started the drone-supported special forces war. Trump has an implied mandate to continue it without restraint. Why not? Kurlantzick answered in an op ed piece promoting his potential bestseller in the Washington Post: “These paramilitaries are almost totally unaccountable, and unaccountability encourages rash, even criminal, behavior, including disdain for civilian lives, torture and other abuses.” We now have a government under Trump whose rhetoric proudly forewarns all these things.

The CIA, created under Truman in 1947 as a spy agency, began to go paramilitary in the kingdom of Laos at the end of the Eisenhower administration. The torch was passed to Kennedy, who in the third month of his administration addressed the nation standing before a map of Southeast Asia and pointed out the landlocked geographical strip between Thailand and Vietnam. The U.S. intelligence “elite” (Kurlantzick’s term) under Eisenhower generalized the Cold War enemy as international communism, and the president announced the corresponding “domino theory:” namely, that Thailand and other countries in the sphere of Mao’s China and the neighborhood of Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam could collapse in a chain reaction.

monk-studyThe first domino was not South Vietnam but landlocked Laos, which provided access from north to south. The nation of little more than 2 million population was involved in civil war lite among a crowd of antagonists: the royal government corrupted by American aid, the Pathet Lao inspired by the Vietnam communists and probably aided by China, the neutralist nationalists rejecting both sides, and the ethnic minorities. Of the minorities the most strident were the Hmong hill tribes that had migrated into the Laos highlands from southern China in the early 19th century and fought with the French colonists against Uncle Ho. They were – and continue to be – hated  by the Lao majority.

The unchallenged Hmong leader was Gen. Vang Pao, a restless and superstitious fighting man adored by American military people for his bravery. He was supported abundantly by the CIA. He and two colorful American agents are the main protagonists in the book. Tony Poe (he shortened his last name from something like Polansky) was a Marine combat veteran who began training hill tribes in modern warfare. Poe loved a good fire fight and was reputed to collect bags of enemy ears. Bill Blair was an Army combat veteran who began his mission by training Thai police officers to be paratroopers, presumably but falsely for domestic safety. They would suffer overwhelming losses in the Laos war. Kurlantzick, who interviewed Blair before his sad death in Texas, begins the book with a colorful account of Blair’s ceremonial promise to Vang Pao that the U.S. government would always provide refuge for the Hmong. It was a non-binding promise, as it turned out. Some 400,000 Hmong, persecuted and hunted, remain in Laos.

By 1963, Vang Pao commanded 20,000 guerilla fighters and the CIA was spending $500 million a year (equivalent of $4 billion now) in Laos. And the whole business was being kept secret. Congress was willingly deceived, its constitutional authority to declare war ignored. U.S. military officers were restricted to drinking and whoring in Thailand and advising in South Vietnam. The media were intimidated and compromised. It was not until 1969 that the New York Times exposed the “secret war.”

Kurlantzick quotes Richard Helms, director of the CIA from 1966 to 1973, saying: “Laos was the war we won.” This is hard to believe, considering the absence of any identifiable victory laurels beyond body counts. With the “forgotten” war memorialized mostly by bomb casings converted to flower planters, the U.S. military is ridiculed (as in the story I heard about the farmer who, envious of a neighbor’s deep and perfectly circular water pool, complained, “Why didn’t the Americans make a fish pond for me?”)

Collection of bomb casings

Collection of bomb casings

The joke is about the B-52’s that sowed bombs like seeds from 35,000 feet. Craters are everywhere on the Plain of Jars, where everything less substantial than the stone jars themselves was destroyed. People hid in caves by day and farmed for their subsistence at night. The population of the plateau was reduced from 150,000 to 9,000, according to Kurlantsick’s journalistic sources.

But the CIA did not do the bombing. The American military did it from bases in Thailand. The CIA ordered air support for Hmong operations, but the eventual massive bombing was a campaign directed from the White House – namely, by Kissinger and Nixon. In the first year of the Nixon administration the bombing of Laos exploded from no more than 20 bomber runs a day to 300 a day, and it increased in subsequent years.

Kurlanzick says, “Massive bombing seemed to hold an appeal to Nixon beyond its direct merits as a policy tool.” The White House tapes reveal conversations in which Nixon, posing in public as a peacemaker, talks in private of “going for broke” in the bombing and having a will “in spades” to use the power of commander in chief that his predecessors lacked. The tragic irony of this cynicism is that Nixon knew the bombing was ineffective. In a note discovered recently by Bob Woodward, Nixon told Kissinger, “We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and Vietnam. The result – Zilch.”

There is a horrifying zilchness in the moral distance of this isolated, insecure, often drunk, anti-liberal Republican president’s reckoning of Lao deaths and suffering. He once asked Kissinger, “How many did we kill in Laos?” His esteemed counselor responded about 15,000. Kurlantzick quotes this taped exchange without comment on Kissinger’s dismissive response, but it is clear from other accounts of the Lao bombing that the secretary of state-national security advisor knew better. William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador who ran the secret war from Vientiane until 1968, was close enough to Kissinger to be his representative at the Paris peace talks.

The casualty rate in Laos – about 10 per cent of the population or 200,000 – was higher than for any other group in the last 75 years of the world at war. And the deaths and injuries in Laos continue due to unexploded cluster bombs. Christopher Hitchens in his indictment of Kissinger (“callous indifference to human life and human rights,” “depraved realpolitik”) called the main publication of the Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs, a “house organ of the State Department,” where Kissinger, its former secretary, is still revered. That would explain why Kurlantzick lets him off easy.

But for the others – CIA directors and out-of-control field agents, false diplomats, fumbling pseudo-military spooks, propagandizing presidents, willfully blind Senators – there is no hiding place down there anymore.

The Builder Governor

Remembering Jack Campbell

December 10, 2016 in New Mexico Politics | Comments (1)

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By Larry Joseph Calloway


Jack M. Campbell / The autobiography of New Mexico’s first modern governor: as told to Maurice Trimmer with Charles C. Poling, University of New Mexico Press, 2016.


I was lucky to arrive in Santa Fe before its style, real estate and cultural conflicts went commercial and while Jack Campbell was still governor. The city has changed, and people like Campbell usually decline to run.


I also was lucky to meet Maurice Trimmer on that first day as a New Mexico political reporter. After working for UPI in several big city bureaus, I had requested this transfer to a smaller pond, but now I was totally lost. Santa Fe looked foreign. The Bataan Building did not look like a state capitol. The governor’s office looked deficient with a staff of only seven, including Trimmer, the press secretary.


Perhaps because he too had been the new UPI guy eight years earlier, Maury sympathetically began some on-the-job education. He invited me to accompany the governor to El Rito. The state under Campbell had started a vocational program there to make use of what was irrevocably designated as a teacher’s college in the state constitution. We saw young men and women learning hair styling and construction and auto mechanics.


On the drive back to Santa Fe in the limo the director of the new Board of Educational Finance said it would be logical to move the school from the rural village to the town of Espanola. The governor said, “Bill, your problem is you try to apply logic to Northern New Mexico.”



My Fellow Americans. . .

November 9, 2016 in SOUTHERN JOURNAL,U. S. Politics | Comments (2)

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By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

 The networks were so unprepared for Donald Trump’s win that my election night switching caught only one panelist who could speak with authority for the key voters euphemistically called “white – no college degree.”  He was J. D. Vance, the black-haired concise-speaking author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” an immediately personal story of his poor and violent family from Appalachian Kentucky.

I was reading it in October along with another pre-election bestseller, the radical history “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg. These books are cultural not political, but they explain something about the “populist uprising,” as Vance termed it in an interview while adding that Trump understood the anger behind it but offered no solutions.

Apart from politics, my research represented an obsession with my father’s hardwood Appalachian roots. He was always wanting something far away. His sisters talked of North Carolina when we visited their farms near Lyons, CO. They were pretty and spoke in sweet accents. My father drank. He died. I was about to set the periodic ancestry project aside when, suddenly, up popped an email from a total stranger in Longmont, Colorado. I’ll get to the deep synchronicity* of it in a few minutes.

Writer-lawyer Vance’s family moved from Jackson, KT, to Middleton, in southern Ohio, so his grandfather could work in the Armco steel mill. It rusts away now under a Japanese name. His grandfather died as an out-of-work alcoholic. His mother, pregnant at high school graduation with his older brother, was more in love with drugs than any of her half dozen husbands.

His elegy is for his grandmother, who raised him. She was a heroic exemplar of the lost mountain culture of pride and toughness. She disciplined him relentlessly to pursue self-improvement through education and even, among other folksy wisdoms, learning golf because “that’s where rich people do business.” (Trump is an international developer of golf courses.)

Mamaw, as he called her, represents the culture lost when the families of several generations were uprooted by economics and dropped dead by economics. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” as my father used to say. I had his brother-in-law minister, a chaplain of the Arizona National Guard, read it at his graveside ceremony. Vance does not mention churchgoing in Middleton, but I suppose religion was a part of the lost culture because in every North Carolina hollow where I searched for Calloways there was a church — usually Baptist — often looking forsaken. Vance observes out of nowhere, “I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah — with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families — wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio.”


Singing Through Ireland

A response to Churchill’s question

August 27, 2016 in JOURNEYS | Comments (1)


Schola Cantorum singers


By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

We went to Ireland in the summer of the political year 2016 with a group that often burst out in song. They sang in enormous cathedrals, among grey monastic ruins, at a sacred lake shore, on a green moor above the ocean, and in pubs. Everyone was talking about Brexit and how it would screw the Irish – a familiar theme in the history of British politics.

In 1921 young Winston Churchill, a negotiator of the oppressive Anglo-Irish Treaty partitioning Ireland, rose in Parliament to defend it. He asked:

 “Whence does this mysterious power of Ireland come? It is a small, poor, sparsely populated island, lapped about by British sea power on every side, without iron or coal. How is it that she sways our councils, shakes our parties, and infects us with great bitterness, convulses our passions, and deranges our action?”

First king with harp

First king with harp

Churchill did not answer his rhetorical question. I will not attempt an answer except to say that the symbol of Ireland is not a lion but a harp and that Ireland responds not with a roar but with songs and stories. Patricia and I listened to these as we accompanied the small Schola Cantorum choir of Santa Fe on a concert tour from Dublin to Sligo to Armagh to Westport to Galway.

There was, for example, a monk who had a white cat. In the tight margin of a scriptorium manuscript – vellum was precious in the ninth century — he scribbled a light poem equating his cat’s mousing with his own scribing. A translation from the Old Irish concludes:

So in peace our task we ply

Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his.


Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.”

 The curators of The Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin chose the unknown monk’s verse as an introduction to the present exhibit. For, in its sweet imagery the Book of Kells is about the monks who made it. They were graffiti tricksters. They stretched the vow of poverty to exclude possession of cats. Their surviving artistry is uniquely Irish, with bold calligraphy and bright colors. Their interlocking images are impressive in detail but not intimidating – even though the text of the Book of Kells is the four Gospels in Church Latin.


South By South Park

A story served on a golden plate

October 25, 2015 in JOURNEYS | Comments (2)

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In late August of the saddest summer, speeding through the emptiness of Colorado’s South Park on the way to Denver to see “The Book of Mormon” and to attend my high school class reunion, I lightened up by writing. Not texting – that’s unlawful – but writing, which is OK if you do it in your head.

I worked up a concept for an episode of “South Park,” the cartoon where foul-mouthed little kids living in perpetual winter, constantly undermine their politically correct parents. The two former CU-Boulder students who created “South Park” also created “The Book of Mormon.” I was driving through the geographical reality, a national heritage area, wondering how the two satirists were getting away with mocking the sacred reality.

My mind-draft of the episode began with those shitty little kids suspecting their parents of marching with a subversive militia. The adults have been secretly preparing for a demonstration. They have been hailing the image of a uniformed leader and saluting an enemy flag.

The obscene little kids don’t care about plots to overthrow the government, or whatever. Their concern is the rigorous activity will introduce parents to the idea of discipline and this could lead to child discipline or worse – like, military school.