Battle for Skyline Ridge by James E. Parker, Jr.

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James Parker was a participant, from the Central Intelligence Agency side, in the so-called “secret war” in Laos. In Battle for Skyline Ridge: The CIA Secret War in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95) he tells a very well-researched and annotated story of the history and development of the American attempt to fight the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War—an attempt that failed as Laos (along with Cambodia) became one of the dominoes that fell following the end of the American war in Vietnam.

Parker served a 1965-66 tour of duty as an Army infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He later joined the CIA in 1970 and served in Laos and Vietnam, helping evacuate Vietnamese CIA agents from Saigon in the chaotic last days of the war in April 1975. He has written a Vietnam War memoir—Last Man Out: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War (1996)—as well as two previous books on the same subject as his new one: Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (1995), and Covert Ops: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1997).

In his new  book, Parker includes conversations and operational decisions made by the CIA about the Vietnam War. Being on the ground, and in the thick of it, he offers a unique—and a few times, overly detailed—view of the whole battlefield. He also tells lots of small stories that humanize the narrative and the participants without becoming unnecessarily chatty. His wide use of acronyms at times sent this reader scurrying back a few pages to identify things.

After telling us of a defeat of Lao forces by North Vietnamese troops on the Plain of Jars, his main story is the tale of a hundred-day battle (the longest in the Vietnam War) between North Vietnamese troops and a combined force of regular Lao troops, Thai mercenaries, indigenous Laotian Hmong, and Mountanard tribes, U.S. airp power, Air America aerial operations, and CIA case officers, operatives, and advisers—what became known as the Battle for Skyline Ridge.

This force of fewer than 6,000 fighters, led by the famed Hmong war lord, Vang Pao (right), was ultimately successful in repulsing and defeating an NVA force of more than 27,000 troops. Remarkably, anecdotes about bravery, cunning, co-operation, and support abound throughout the book. The colorfully famous CIA, and the Air America, “can do” attitude, seemed to have permeated into the assembled forces, resulting in the NVA abandoning its battle plan in what could have been a version of Dien Bien Phu.

This is a very readable account, although a lot of what Parker covers has been written about in other books about the secret war in Laos.

–Tom Werzyn

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The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

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Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

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Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

The Headless Snake by Harry Wagner

While browsing Harry Wagner’s The Headless Snake: Peace Team Forward: A Methodology of Peace, Not War: A View of the Past and a Plan for the Future (CreateSpace, 262 pp. $16.50, paper), I flipped to the epilogue and read: “Following my refusal to assassinate a Vietnamese family for the Phoenix Program, I was unceremoniously asked to leave Vietnam.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has a message.

During 1966-68, Harry Wagner served in Vietnam after USAID recruited him away from his job as mayor of Friendswood, Texas, and gave him a civilian slot with the rank of major general. He worked with the U.S. Embassy, the First Field Force, and Psy Ops before ending up with the Phoenix Program. He pretty much had carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do for twenty-two months.

Accepted by Congress as a military tactic and controlled by the CIA under William Colby, Phoenix, Wagner writes, murdered “68,000 or more Vietnamese [civilian] suspects,” and made the American government “the world’s predominant terrorist.” This action coincided with (and complemented) the counterinsurgency program, which Wagner rates as a failure—then and now.

Phoenix operated under a concept called The Headless Snake. That is, if you cut the head off a snake, it dies. Killing suspected Viet Cong leaders in South Vietnam would take away the enemy’s head and theoretically destroy the body of enemy forces.

Based on his experiences in Vietnam and subsequent research of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wagner concludes that the Pentagon, Congress, and White House “have greatly abused the use of our military power, for whatever objective they had in mind.”

He holds “our Generals” guilty of complying with a New World Order that makes the military’s primary function that of “war in foreign lands and not defense of our Constitution.” There “is no justification,” he writes, “for the current deployment of our military being used as strike forces in countries that are no threat to our security,.”

Wagner’s solution is “the proven strategy” of Persuasion with Relevance, which constitutes the essence of his book. He calls the effort “Peace Team Forward,” and says he employed and refined it in Vietnam.

The strategy is a sophisticated form of self-help that requires specialized planning and personnel deployed in a timely manner, most advantageously before general hostilities develop. Wagner labels the enemy as the Sheath (insurgents) and calls friendly forces the Spear (specialists highly trained in subtle motivation techniques) and the Shield (warriors to protect Spear personnel). In other words, the strategy deploys a Peace Team that ideally builds nations without first tearing them apart.

Wagner supports his theory by citing events from thirty operations he conducted during seventeen months in the field, the largest with a “population of 650” being the most successful. His evidence includes copies of reports and photographs. His success in organizing the Chieu Hoi defection program shows the effectiveness of persuasion with relevance.

Instead of winning hearts and minds of the indigenous people, his plan earns their trust and avoids the expense of lives and property destroyed by combat. His operation has a distinct non-military, Peace Corps appearance.

Basically, Wagner believes that helping other nations is a psychological problem, not a psychiatric endeavor. We cannot change national personalities, he says.

His accounts from the Vietnam War reveal one important fact: Officers were poorly trained and hampered by tradition, especially West Point graduates. Wagner believes the condition still exists and that the military needs a total re-education program of leaders at all levels of command.

William Colby, who directed the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, later became CIA Director

Although Wagner presents detailed and reasonable arguments for his theory, what he seeks appears unobtainable because I doubt that, in today’s America, he could find an adequate number of competent and unselfish people willing to make the long-term commitment required to fulfill his mission.

Wagner’s plan, that is, is too demanding for Americans today. As I see it, making Team Forward successful would require the re-education of our entire military structure and also the re-education of our entire nation.

On the day I began reading The Headless Snake, the White House suggested that U.S.-backed Afghan troops retreat from sparsely populated areas of their nation and allow the Taliban to control vast stretches of their country. Simultaneously, U.S. and Taliban representatives met face-to-face without the presence of Afghan officials, a stipulation of the Taliban. Concessions such as these confirm the weakness of America’s master plan for dealing with insurgents.

Wagner’s strategy might be questionable. His idealism contains hints of isolationism. By advocating the rejection of policies and practices dating back to World War II, he asks us to re-evaluate our entire lives.

How many people are willing to attempt that?

—Henry Zeybel

The Ghosts of Langley by John Prados

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Historian John Prados has written a greater number of books than most people read in a lifetime. Starting with World War II, his writing focuses on United States international relations and his history lessons are formidable. A senior fellow at the National Security Archive, Prados directs its CIA Documentation Project and Vietnam Documentation Project. He also is a long-time contributor to the print edition of The VVA Veteran.

For the sixth time, he examines the CIA in The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness (New Press, 446 pp.; $28.95, hardcover; $18.99, Kindle). In it, the twenty-nine-page prologue alone delivers enough information to fill an average book.

Citing newly declassified documents, Prados argues that CIA leaders have drifted beyond their original espionage and intelligence analysis mission, and have created more problems than they have solved. Today the agency works amid aftereffects of covert operations that closely resembled military actions, Prados says.

The CIA “ghosts” Prados refers to are spymasters and their henchmen and women who caused the agency to alter its classic role. Its current methods of operation include torture, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, evasion of legal oversight, and more, according to Prados, who speaks with authority.

He eschews chronology and sets out the agency’s evolution by grouping spies according to character types. This produces chapters with titles such as “Zealots and Schemers,” “The Headless Horseman,” “A Failed Exorcist,” and “The Flying Dutchman.”

Prados’ declarative sentences can be attention grabbers. For example, in introducing “The Sheriffs,” he says, “The CIA had long had a problem with women. From the beginning, agency folk considered spying man’s work. Women were not viewed quite the same as homosexuals, but they needed to fight for acceptance.”

Throughout the book, Prados touches on CIA activities during the Vietnam War. Several times, he raises the issue of CIA countermeasures against antiwar demonstrators. He writes about topics such as the Phoenix Program and the November 1963 coup against South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In these cases, Prados examines the actions of people who controlled events more than the events themselves.

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Notes, a bibliography, and an exceptionally detailed index support the text.

Almost as a footnote to The Ghosts of Langley, on the afternoon I finished reading the book, Iran accused the CIA of fomenting protests calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

The CIA declined to comment.

The author’s website is http://johnprados.com/

—Henry Zeybel

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans by Bill Collier

 

In 2015, Bill Collier wrote a memoir, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps. Earlier year he published CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans: Flying Helicopters in Laos for Air America (Wandering Star, 349 pp. $20, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

In reviewing his earlier book, I said, “Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.” Collier’s new book has similar qualities: It kept me continuously entertained. Just about anywhere readers open the book, they will find an outrageous story filled with chills and thrills, laughs, or romance.

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans has two main stories lines.

The first deals with Air America and, of course, the “secret” war in Laos. Collier flew there from mid-1970 to the end of 1972. Chapters such as “Sleeping in the Cockpit While Flying” left me nodding and smiling. Despite the book’s title, Collier tells interesting stories without giving away secrets about war-time air operations.

His flying stories do not reach the emotional intensity of his experiences as a rookie Marine pilot. Back then, when he proudly attained aircraft commander status, he wrote timeless lines such as, “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.”

The second story line deals with the playboy activities of the well-paid Air America pilots. The men enjoyed long annual leaves and traveled internationally: Athens, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Miami, San Francisco, and San Diego once were stops on the same vacation. For shorter leaves, Collier and the other pilots stayed closer to home at Udorn, Thailand, as well  Bangkok, Hong Kong, India (visiting the Taj Mahal), Katmandu, and Sydney.

They did well with many of the women they encountered. Collier is man enough, though, to confess to times when he struck out. Primarily, the pilots shared mutual admiration, understanding, and satisfaction of physical needs with airline stewardesses.

Collier summarizes one vacation by quoting W.C. Fields. To wit: “I spent my money on whiskey and women. The rest of it I wasted.”

He validates his memory with three lengthy appendices: “The History of Air America: CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974” by William M. Leary; Anne Darling’s “CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans” from the 1972 premier issue of Oui magazine; and “Life and Death among the Hill Tribes” by Peter Aiken from a 1972 Lookeast magazine.

To wrap, Collier cites Anne Darling on the security of the Air America/CIA programs. She quotes a pilot who said, “The North Vietnamese know everything we’re doing. They’re not the problem. The security Air America is concerned about is being secure from the scrutiny of the American people.”

Even today, Bill Collier pretty much treats security in the same manner. Yet he still tells great stories about a war that never was.

—Henry Zeybel