Invasion of Laos 1971 by Robert D. Sander

In 1971, the war in Vietnam was slowly drawing to an end for the U.S. and Richard Nixon was very keen on Vietnamization. An invasion of Laos to close off the Ho Chi Minh Trail was to be crucial in ending the war with what Nixon called “honor.”

In Invasion of Laos 1971: Lam Son 719 (University of Oklahoma Press, 304 pp., $29.95) Robert D. Sander, a helicopter pilot who took part in the invasion of Laos, offers his thoughts on why this operation was an epic failure. He has researched his subject diligently and presents it well in this book. Sander finds no end to those who contributed to the lack of success of the operation known as Lam Son 719.

An earlier plan to invade Laos, Operation El Paso, was devised by Gen. William Westmoreland to try to stop the flow of North Vietnamese Army troops and equipment through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. El Paso was never carried out after Gen. Creighton Abrams assumed command of the troops in Vietnam.

When President Nixon took office the idea of invading Laos came up again. Because of an act of Congress forbidding American military involvement on the ground in Laos, the South Vietnamese military
would be the invading force.They would receive air support from units of the U.S. Army, as well as the Air Force and Marines.

The reason for the operation in 1971 was to prevent the North Vietnamese from mounting a dry-season offensive in the South. While America still had military advisors attached to the South Vietnamese military, they did not join the South Vietnamese Army during the invasion. This created serious communication problems with air and artillery support during the invasion.

This problem was one of many that Sander’s explains in the book. The timing of the invasion also was a serious concern. The rainy season had not quite ended, and fog and morning rain greatly effected the planning and execution of the operation.

This is a serious review of the events and it is a well-documented work. There are copious amounts of footnotes and quotes by those involved, as well as references to voices in Washington at the time.

After reading his book, it is apparent to me that the Greeks may have had the answer to going to war. First you abolish the standing government and create a dictator to rule until the end of the war. Then you let the military do its job. But that may not even had been enough in Lam Son 719 as there were several occasions when staff officers dropped the ball on the field of battle.

There is truly enough blame to go around for the failure of Lam Son 719.

—John Lavelle

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