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

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

Hog’s Exit by Gayle L. Morrison

“Hog” was the call sign of CIA operative Jerry Daniels, portrayed as a beloved, though rather mysterious, hero by Gayle L. Morrison in her able oral history, Hog’s Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA (Texas Tech University Press, 496 pp, $85, hardcover; $39.95 paper). “Exit” turns out to a key word because of the strange events surrounding Daniels’ death.

Jerry Daniels was an adventurous young man from Missoula, Montana, a country boy who loved to hunt and fish. He became a smoke jumper, and that skill in particular interested the CIA. Through their clandestine airline, Air America, the CIA ran the secret war in Laos from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, training and providing logistical support for Hmong tribesman against the Pathet Lao and the NVA. Operatives were called “cargo kickers” because they pushed cargo out of C-130s. But they also were experts at rigging the cargo for parachutes.

Daniels operated with the Hmong tribes directly, at a place called Lima Site 36 and later at a headquarters operation, Long Cheng, the “secret city” that turned out to be the last stand for the CIA and General Vang Pao’s Hmong. Daniels learned the Hmong language and lived among them as a supply liaison. And before it was over, he directed combat operations as well.

Jerry Daniels, left, with two Hmong colonels

He became the general’s favorite, and was beloved among the Hmong fighters as an American who always told the truth. When the U.S. operation in Laos finally went down, Daniels was the key man in evacuating the decimated Hmong to Bangkok, and then, with many of them, to his home town of Missoula. The Hmong, a mountain people, were superstitious about living at any elevation below 3,000 feet, so Missoula had some appeal.

As if what Daniels did for a living wasn’t mysterious enough, the circumstances of his death spawned a conspiracy theory among Daniels’ friends and cohorts—American and Hmong alike. Daniels came home to Missoula in a sealed casket. Official accounts had it that he was found in his Bangkok apartment, three days after last being seen, with his body so black and bloated that it could only be identified through forensic means.

The official cause of death was asphyxiation from a faulty water heater. The apartment’s two air conditioners, which might have sucked out the bad air, were off. Daniels was a heavy drinker. He very well could have passed out, and then succumbed. But were three days long enough for such deterioration?

Adding to the strange circumstances, a young Thai man was found in an adjoining room, barely alive, also the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. His account accompanied the police report, but later he couldn’t be found. One speculation, heartily discounted by Daniels’ friends, was that the young man was a lover. In any case, how did the young man survive, when Daniels didn’t?

Daniels being a CIA spook, perhaps his was an appropriate exit. Morrison’s many contributors speculate, however, whether Daniels’ remains are even in the casket.

All that aside, Morrison, who has worked many years among the Hmong, has put together quite a documentary. The oral history format is repetitive, but the many voices are well-edited, with individual styles left intact. Photographs from personal collections add a great deal.

Morrison has given us a lively look back at a secret war—and a mystery as well.

—John Mort