Secrets Brought Home by James Milton Smith


James Milton Smith, the author of Secrets Brought Home (Amazon Digital Services, 425 pp., $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is a former Marine and a graduate of CalPoly.

His novel is about Owen O’Brien, a newly minted Marine Corps lieutenant. O’Brien calls attention to himself at a Marine Corps function by dancing inappropriately with a major’s wife. The major takes exception to the manner of dancing, and O’Brien knocks him to the floor. This event results in O’Brien being “sheep dipped”—removed from the officer corps with his records expunged.

He’s given the pseudo-option of becoming a part of America’s secret war in Laos, being paid at the rate of a Marine Corps captain, but not wearing a uniform. He agrees, and serves as a “paramilitary Case Officer during the years leading up to the Vietnam War.”

Mostly he conducts long range reconnaissance patrols behind enemy lines in the jungles of Laos during the early sixties. The comment, “The jungle was not some romantic place with Martin Denny music playing to jungle sounds in the background,” is typical of the dry wit in this book.

O’Brien conducted patrols with teams of three or four men, “two PARU special guerrilla soldiers and two Hmong soldiers.” They interdict the enemy and observe his strengths, locations and directions of advancement. This activity is like being “stuck to a tar baby Jungian bad dream,” Smith writes. The “secret war in Laos had become a tapeworm in Owen’s gut.”

Owen O’Brien runs these missions in the Golden Triangle for about six months before being badly wounded. President Kennedy was assassinated during his time in Laos when O’Brien becomes “a soldier and a citizen of the world.”

James Milton Smith

The reader discovers Owen O’Brien’s exploits in Southeast Asia and his boyhood as a foster child in California during extended sessions with his therapist. Owen undergoes therapy in the hope that he get a clean bill of health and leave his PTSD behind—or at least be able to cope with it better.

There is much in this novel about the CIA and the connection to the opium trade. John Wayne is mentioned more than once, and we are given an explanation for the expression “to have seen the elephant,” which is often used in Vietnam War books.  It comes, Smith says, from Hannibal, who was given credit for startling the Romans when his elephants crossed the Alps. Action junkies will appreciate that Owen O’Brien sees plenty of the elephant in this book.

This is an erudite book, and is well edited and well written. It is not for the lazy reader. But anyone interested in the secret war in Laos should consider starting with this book. It is written by a man who knows war from the ground level and does not mince words about it.

The author’s website is www.jamesmiltonsmith.com

—David Willson

 

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So Much to Lose by William J. Rust

In So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos (University Press of Kentucky, 376 pp., $40) William J. Rust offers a meticulous account of President John F. Kennedy’s vacillating actions toward Laos in the early 1960s.

So Much to Lose is a sequel to Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961. In that 2012 book Rust examined how both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy attempted to deal with the rising threat of communism in Laos prior to the big U.S. build up in Vietnam.

Kennedy inherited Eisenhower’s policies, which grew out of President Truman’s decision to provide American support to the French effort to reclaim its Indochinese colonies after World War II. The French, of course, were defeated, and Eisenhower’s famous “domino theory” became American policy. The idea was to keep Laos neutral so that the widening war in South Vietnam—and American military involvement there—didn’t grow still wider.

To an extent, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed that the two superpowers had no interest in Laos, and supported neutrality. But even though North Vietnam was in some ways a Soviet client state, Khrushchev could not control Hanoi’s leadersship.

Kennedy might have wished that Laos was a problem that would go away. He found himself supporting the FAR (the Laotian army, or, from the U.S. point of view, the good guys), as well as the so-called “neutralists” in battles on the Plain of Jars against the North Vietnamese-supported Pathet Lao. But Kennedy had no thought of direct intervention for fear of widening the war and destroying entirely the idea of neutrality. This proxy war, supported by the State Department and the CIA, blew hot and cold during JFK’s shortened presidency until, with Kennedy’s assassination, the problem became President Johnson’s in 1963.

William J. Rust

Infighting among the American-supported factions, a coup, and increased pressure from the Pathet Lao combined to effect the primary communist objective: the security of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Said Trail, leading through “neutral” Laos and Cambodia, greatly facilitated the much bigger war in South Vietnam.

Kennedy was reluctant to commit American troops even though he was fiercely anti-communist and a believer in the domino theory. But he never had to deal with the increased power and ferocity of the North Vietnamese. Rust can’t say if JFK’s reaction to the North Vietnamese aggression would have been similar to that of Johnson who committed, at the height of the war, more than a half million American troops.

Rust’s diplomatic history provides plenty of details for speculation about what JFK would have done in South Vietnam (and Laos) had he lived. So Much to Lose, in fact, may provide too much detail for the general reader. But if you want to learn about how wars get started—and wobble out of control—this book will tell you.

—John Mort

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 www.kickersthenovel.com

—David Willson

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