Back Fire: The CIA's Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam by Roger Warner

401 pages, 1995, Simon and Schuster, New York. $23.00

Review score: *** out of *****

Note: Back Fire was reissued under the title Shooting at the Moon

At the request of the Royal Laotian government, the United States is conducting unarmed reconnaissance flights accompanied by armed escorts who have the right to return fire, if fired upon.

United States Embassy spokesman, Vientiane Laos, 1969

When the U.S. Embassy spokesman made this statement, B-52 bombers based in Thailand, where heavily bombing Viet Cong and Pathet Lao forces in Laos, along with various civilian villages that were mistaken for military targets. Although the United States was fighting a war in Laos with planes, bombs and Green Beret Special Forces troops, the war, at that time, was kept secret from the United States people and the United States congress. The war in Laos was no secret to the Vietnamese (who were being bombed) or to the Chinese and Russians who supplied them with arms.

Laos is a small, mostly agrarian, country that borders Vietnam and Thailand. By 1971, according to Roger Warner in his book Back Fire: The CIA's secret War in Laos and Its Link to the war in Vietnam, the bombing in Laos, which at this point was no longer a secret even to the American people, had escalated to 440,000 tons of munitions (about twenty-five times the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima). This large scale bombing was undertaken in an attempt to stop the North Vietnamese from supplying their troops in South Vietnam, via the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran through southern Laos. This massive bombing campaign slowed the Vietnamese supply through Laos, but did not stop it. Two years later, United States troops were out of Vietnam and two years after that, on April 29, 1975, Saigon, the capitol of South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces, ending the war.

After the Second World War, the United States dedicated itself to stopping the spread of communism. The United States "lost China" in 1949 (according to Senator Goldwater and Henry Luce, publisher of Look and Time magazines). The U.S. fought Communist China on the Korean peninsula during the Korean war, losing almost fifty thousand U.S. lives. The French, after fighting a U.S. subsidized war in Vietnam since the late 1940s, left their Indochinese colonies in 1954. The Geneva peace treaty divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel and scheduled nation wide elections two years later, in 1956. When it became clear that Ho Chi Minh would win the election, Ngo Dinh Diem, the "president" of South Vietnam, with the backing of the United States, refused to hold the scheduled elections. The seeds of the war in Vietnam were sown. The North Vietnamese resumed guerrilla war to unify the country. The war in Vietnam would eventually consume both Cambodia and Laos.

Vang Pao (pointing to the left)

The late 1950s and early 1960s was the era of "counterinsurgency". In terms of funding and power, this was the golden era of the CIA. Edward Landsdale became a legend within the CIA for stopping the communists in the Philippines and "nation building" programs were undertaken through out Asia in an attempt to stop the spread of Communism. In 1960, James William (Bill) Lair, a CIA employee working in Thailand, started building a Thai paramilitary force that would be used to train the Laotian hill tribes to fight the Vietnamese who crossed the border into Laos. The hostility between the Laotians and the Vietnamese was the product of centuries of conflict. Bill Lair's job was to make use of this hostility in the CIAs fight against communism. Like the early conflict in Laos, Lair was understated and subtle. He spoke Thai fluently and was married to a Thai woman from a prominent Bangkok family. In some ways, Lair was the last of an era that went back to the British in India. He understood the local cultures, spoke the local languages and did his best to help the local people, while serving the interests of the United States. Lair backed Vang Pao, a Meo tribesman and warlord in Northern Laos. The term Meo is a name that outsiders applied to them, and they later became known by the name they used for themselves, Hmong.

The United States policy in Laos was two pronged: Bill Lair and his CIA colleagues armed and trained the Meo hill tribes and USAID provided agricultural training, built schools and provided simple medical care. Although some of the players in this low key conflict became famous later in other arenas, most of them are forgotten outside of the CIA archives and the pages of Back Fire. On the USAID side, the characters included Edgar Buell, a retired Indiana farmer who had never traveled outside the United States until he accepted a USAID job in Laos, and a married couple, Charles Weldon and Patricia McCreedy, who were both MDs. Drs. WEldon and McCreedy had served as public health officers in American Samoa and were looking for a new post. Making use of political connections to get a USAID post, they ended up in Laos, a country they had not heard of before.

The armament provided to the hill tribes in the early 1960s was World War II vintage. The USAID assistance was equally small scale. As the war in Vietnam grew and the U.S. presence increased, Laos moved from being a backwater to war supplied by Bill Lair's "country store" to a "supermarket" that supplied B-52 air strikes in the late 1960s.

The Laotian hill tribes have been growing opium for centuries. Laos borders Burma and Thailand, which have long involvement in the opium and heroin trade. As U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew and as the U.S. military cracked down on marijuana use, the U.S. troops became a huge market for heroin. Many of the Lao and Thai generals were involved in the opium and heroin trade.

The CIA, which did business with some of these generals, has been accused by some writers of being involved in the drug trade and some have suggested that money from the drug trade was used to finance covert operations. The CIA did have ties to major players in the Asian drug trade and in some cases seems to have used the same financial institutions. In the book The Crimes of Patriots by Jonathan Kwitny, which documents the fall of the Australian bank, Nugan Hand Ltd., Kwitny claims that Nugan Hand handled accounts for both the CIA and people involved in the Asian drug trade (of course this could be equally true of the British banking institution Barclays Bank as well).

Direct CIA involvement in the drug trade may be unlikely during the Vietnam era, when the CIA literally had more money than it knew what to do with. However, CIA and the American government may have looked the other way in return for cooperation.

In Back Fire, Roger Warner uses the unlikelyhood of direct CIA involvement in drug running during the Vietnam era to discount recent allegations that the CIA was involved in the cocaine trade during the Reagan era. This ignores history. During the Reagan "contra" war in Nicaragua, congress cut off funding for the contras and explicitly disallowed CIA involvement. Money was tight and the temptation to use drug profits to arm the contras may have been irresistible (Ollie North and Co. did, after all, use profits from arms sales to Iran for this purpose). There are known connections between Oliver North's covert contra war and the drug runner Barry Seal (see Kings of Cocaine by Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen). After Seal was gunned down, the CIA inherited his plane. This plane, flown by a CIA contractor on an arms run, later crashed in Nicaragua.

Roger Warner spent a great deal of time interviewing many of the players in the war in Laos. In many cases, his portrait of them is sympathetic. Theodore (Ted) Shackley (the CIA station chief in Laos and Saigon), Thomas Clines and retired general Richard Secord later became shadowy figures in the contra war and there were allegations that they were involved in drug and arms trafficing. Clines and Secord were friends of Edwin O. Wilson, a former CIA employee who was convicted of selling C4 explosive and detonators to Maummar Qaddafi. Warner writes of Secord and Clines:

People are not to be blamed for connecting the dots, even if the picture they get isn't true. [...] They felt they had served their government well there [in Laos], in a cause they believed in, working with people they admired.

Unlike the war in Vietnam, which is very well documented, Back Fire is one of the few histories on the war in Laos. As a result, it is difficult for the armchair reader to verify Warner's version of events. I have gotten email from someone who was a flyer in Laos during the Vietnam war who wrote Warner's is the only book about Laos that portrays reality.

Warner's history of Laos shows deep knowledge of the area and of the war. This and his sympathetic view of many of the players initially made me wonder whether Roger Warner had been directly involved in the U.S. covert effort. The only details given about the author on the back cover of the book are:

Roger Warner, coauthor of Haig Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey, has lived and worked in Southeast Asia. He lives on the Massachusetts coast.

In an previous version of this review I wrote this might sound like the biography of someone who, like Bill Lair, had at one time lived in the shadows. The speculation about Roger Warner's covert connections seems to be entirely incorrect.

When I wrote the first version of this book reivew, the wonderful search engine Google did not exist. I did a Google search on "Roger Warner" and "Back Fire" years later. Apparently Roger Warner worked as a journalist in Asia. This book review states that

The author, Roger Warner, has lived and worked as a reporter in Southeast Asia for many years. Warner's first attempt to go to Laos was in the early 1980's as a journalist but was denied permission to travel outside Vientiane, the capital city. This was not surprising because during that time, Laos was not yet open to Western visitors, let alone an American journalist. For this book, he has relied on closed CIA files, but most of his information comes from about 150 interviews with retired CIA officers, USAID and State Department veterans, US Air Force pilots and scholars, American civilian pilots and Laotian refugees.
Phayvanh Phoumindr, Lao Study Review

One person, who know Roger Warner, sent me an email with some additional background on Warner:

Roger graduated from Yale in 1974, or 1975. He grew up in Washington DC, where his father was a lawyer. He worked at Time Life Books as a writer for about 4 years, until he wrote his first book.


Ian Kaplan, April 1996
Last revised: November 2007

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