Ken Conboy’s The Erawan War, Vol. 2: A Paramilitary Campaign in Laos 1969-1974. (Helion 78 pp., $29.95, paper) is an account of the largest CIA operation of the Cold War, in which the agency fielded an army numbering perhaps eight indigenous divisions. This second volume of a two-volume history, seamlessly follows the first one in describing the evolving nature of operations during the last five years of American involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Although Volume 2 can stand alone, it is immensely helpful to have read Vol. 1’s 1961-69 history. Like the first, Vol. 2 captures much of the secret war in Laos, including its complexity. It focuses on CIA-trained guerilla units recruited from the hill tribes of Vietnam and Thailand. In operations against North Vietnam’s heavily guarded and vital Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos teams penetrated defenses, destroyed supply-laden trucks, and gathered intelligence. Equally impressive, they conducted attacks inside North Vietnam itself.
Although in the greater scheme of things these missions were pinpricks, President Nixon pushed for them as a means of applying pressure on Hanoi. The real test, however, came when guerilla regiments found themselves pitted against regular North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) divisions. Many PAVN units, known for their aggressiveness in South Vietnam, were also fighting in Laos.
The CIA out of necessity recruited increasing numbers of Lao tribesmen and Thai volunteers, and formed new battalions to fight in the rapidly expanding war. President Nixon was so pleased by their successes that he conveyed his admiration directly to the Thai prime minister. But the CIA-led paramilitary campaign could not stop the PAVNs steady advance.
Thai battalions became essential to operations in the Plaine des Jarres region, trying to stall advances made by the PAVN. It is evident that the large-scale war in Laos was in many ways as important as the war in Vietnam.
The book details the significant amount of combat airlift flown by USAF helicopters in Laos. USAF Combat Controllers and Forward Air Controllers also played an important role supporting operations there. U.S. military assets based in Thailand and South Vietnam were crucial to successes on the battlefield, in particular when U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft conducted airstrikes.
Conboy’s Erawan War books reveal the tragedy of this story: that men and boys recruited from the hill tribes by the CIA struggled against an enemy with seemingly unlimited manpower and weaponry. It’s to their credit that these irregular forces frequently working with Thai special forces, infantry, and artillery were able to resist for so long against the advancing PAVN and its Pathet Lao allies. The tragedy was that with the end of all American involvement in the conflict the hill tribes were left to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences at the hands of vindictive Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.
This concise, heavily illustrated book contains much information about a part of the Vietnam War that little known to the American public. The two volumes are a necessary read in order to truly understand the immensity of America’s involvement in the Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.