Kickers by Patrick Lee

The cover of Patrick Lee’s Kickers: A Novel of the Secret War (CreateSpace, 380 pp., $13.95, paper) depicts an airdrop In Laos. It shows a package, probably rice, dropping after having been booted out of a low and slow-moving airplane. This novel is about the recruitment of young smoke jumpers by the CIA  to do this job, known as kicking. Patrick Lee interviewed smoke jumpers fifty years ago, and uses those characters and their stories as the material of this novel.

Lee, who practiced law in Washington, D.C., for forty-five years and now lives in Idaho, is a former smoke jumper himself. He made twenty-five parachute jumps into the Idaho Primitive Area fighting forest fires.

The novel starts in 1954 with a CIA agent and twenty French soldiers jumping into Dien Bien Phu as replacements for the dead. After the men land, they find themselves walking on the rotting corpses of those they are there to replace. Lee sets this scene of the French losing at Dien Bien Phu as well as any of the many authors I have read who have dealt with that subject.

The novel presents us with alternating chapters that go back and forth in time. One of the smoke jumpers ends up as a captive and we get details about how he is treated by his captors. Suffice it to say they do not treat him kindly. We also get a lot on the back stories of the main characters going back to childhood. We know them, and when awful things happen to them, we miss them.

The reader learns a lot about how the CIA chose, recruited, and trained the smoke jumpers to become surrogate warriors. They were taught to how to eat snakes, what to do when they ran out of water, how to behave when captured, and how to endure lectures from brainwashing captors.

Patrick Lee

We follow them to Saigon, to Tu Do Street, and into bars where they do what young men do in such circumstances. We follow them from the early years of the war to 1968 when LBJ announces his resignation from the presidency.

Lee is a good storyteller. He keeps the reader involved in the tales of these young men who were hired to kick thousands of pounds of rice out of airplanes to feed the Hmong fighters on the ground in Laos while they fought communists.

The rice was dropped in half-full sacks so they would not explode upon impact with the ground. One of the kickers comments that he hopes he will not be killed “in a dumbass war nobody knows about.”

If you are looking for a novel about the not-so secret CIA war in Laos and the involvement of the smoke jumpers this book is for you.

The book’s website is

—David Willson

MH/CHAOS by Frank J. Rafalko

Frank J. Rafalko’s MH/CHAOS: The CIA’s Campaign Against the Radical New Left and the Black Panthers (Naval Institute, 352 pp., $32.95) is an insider’s account of the CIA’s 1967-73 secret domestic spying program started by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Vietnam War. Rafalko went to work for the CIA’s Special Operations Group (SOG), known around the agency as MHCHAOS or Operation CHAOS, soon after joining the agency in July of 1967. He went on to put in a twenty-four-year CIA career.

During the late sixties and early seventies Counterinsurgency Officer Rafalko’s job was to help uncover foreign influences on the antiwar movement. Part of that effort included undercover agents who spied on U.S. citizens abroad and infiltrated antiwar groups such as SDS and the Black Panther Party at home, looking for connections to operatives from the Soviet Union, China, and North Vietnam. Operation CHAOS also spied on a wide range of left-of-center activists and other groups that had little or nothing to do with opposing the Vietnam War. The latter included women’s groups. All in all, CHAOS maintained files on some 7,000 individuals and 1,000 groups and organizations.

Operation CHAOS became extremely controversial after its domestic spying came to light in 1974 through an article by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times. That led to congressional hearings and then a federal investigation by the Rockefeller Commission that looked into the legality of the domestic spying. Many were outraged after the congressional hearings and Rockefeller Commission’s final report revealed the details of the operation.

Rafalko, though, believes that what he and his undercover colleagues did—including spying on the antiwar movement—was legal and correct.

“In my personal view,” he writes, “these American students carried placards and banners that said ‘Peace,’ and raised their voices to cry ‘Peace,’ but they either did not understand or refused to acknowledge that ‘Peace’ to a Communist meant Communist world control. In effect, the North Vietnamese manipulated them into a kind of fifth column for the sole purpose of stage managing U.S. public opinion.”

—Marc Leepson