The Erawan War, Volume 3: The Royal Lao Armed Forces 1961-1974 (Helion, 68 pp. $25, paper) by Ken Conboy departs from the two volumes that preceded it, which concentrated on the CIA’s clandestine operations in Laos from 1961-74. In this volume we learn about the different units that collectively comprised the Royal Lao Armed Forces in that time period.
It very quickly becomes apparent that many of the units were also tools of the political factions vying for control of the country or functioning as regional centers of power. As a result, chain-of-command was often driven by allegiances and personal loyalties. Reading about the convoluted politics will make readers cynical about the war and question why the United States invested so much in this remote country and its military.
It’s difficult in hindsight to believe that President Eisenhower, concerned about what was then called the Domino Theory, warned incoming President Kennedy in January 1961 about Laos, advising him that events there—rather than in South Vietna,—should have his full attention.
Maj. Kong Le, a well-known personality in Laos in the early sixties (he was the cover of Time in 1964), and who at one point promoted himself to general, is highlighted in this volume. He was an important player in Lao politics and the military, and a highly competent commander of one of the best Lao units in the war—the 2nd Parachute Battalion.
When not leading coups against the government, the nominally neutralist leader would switch sides when it suited him. At one point he joined with the communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese and received military assitance from the Soviet Union. In the end, he became irrelevant and departed Laos.
Kong Le was not alone in staging coups. Rightists were keen to overthrow Laos’ Geneva Accords-directed coalition government and pursued that end through repeated coups. Because political allegiances were the driving factor in the Lao military you have to pay close attention when reading this book to follow who was doing what to whom at any given time.
Only when the war ended in 1975 and the communists took total and vindictive control did it become clear how tragic it was that the Lao military failed to unify and focus its energies on defeating the true enemy.
The book’s title, Erawan, is a mythological three-headed elephant common in Thai, Lao, and Khmer culture. It prominently appeared in the center of the red Lao national flag that was used until the end of the war.
This concise book is rich in photographs and illustrations. Careful reading will reveal the tragedy that befell Laos despite all the aid that the United States provided. From that perspective it is an important read.