Simon & Schuster
TWENTY YEARS AFTER the United States finally conceded Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to communist regimes, the statute of limitations on American immorality in the Southeast Asian war has probably expired in the minds of most U.S. citizens. To the powers that still be in this country, it appears safe enough to declassify the documents and let the spooks talk about the purposeful, cold-blooded betrayal of the Hmong hill tribes who fought the CIA's secret war in Laos during the '60s and early '70s. The result is Roger Warner's Back Fire, a heavily detailed account of specious motives and outrageous conduct that manages to humanize--and even attempts to ennoble--some of the CIA and military officers who choreographed the secret war, men who happen to be Warner's primary sources.
For the United States, Laos was always fodder for the Cold War crucible of Southeast Asia. As he was leaving the White House after the 1960 elections, Eisenhower specifically alerted President-elect Kennedy that this politically apathetic country, cleaved by mountains and populated by a variety of ethnic tribes, was pivotal for maintaining a strong American presence in the region. A coup earlier that year by a group of neutralists had put Laos in play; out in the countryside, the communist Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet-sponsored North Vietnamese, were winning converts and territory. The CIA needed a countervailing force without involving U.S. troops or violating what would become a series of peace agreements designed to ensure the neutrality of Laos. The Hmong--fierce anti-communists fighting to establish their own homeland--were the perfect pawns.
The hero of Back Fire is Bill Lair, the CIA agent who conceived Operation Momentum, a plan to help train and arm the Hmong for flexible guerrilla missions against the communists. Warner portrays Lair as a smart, compassionate, humble spook who was overriden by the cynicism and bumbling of Washington politicians and his CIA superiors. In this way, Back Fire blames the betrayal of the Hmong on decisions in Washington that shifted the focal point of the Southeast Asian conflict over to Vietnam, rendering Laos a brutal sideshow and transforming the Hmong from efficient guerrillas to far more conventional and ineffective support troops for the American effort. Indeed, there is an impressive level of detail regarding America's strategic blunders in Laos, from broad policy issues like the Hmong's growing reliance on air strikes, to specific actions such as the construction of a radio tower that couldn't be defended.
But the real strength of Back Fire is the evidence it offers that even the "good" CIA agents were murderous manipulators of the Hmong in Laos. From the beginning, Lair knew that the vastly outnumbered Hmong would eventually lose out to the communists; his theoretical endgame was to amass the Hmong in the hillsides between the Mekong River and the Thai border when the U.S. inevitably withdrew its support. In the meantime, they would be America's military surrogates, stanching the march of communism in the region at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. While Warner recounts Lair's treachery in this regard (most specifically on pages 243-44), he inevitably soft-pedals his hero's culpability, as if premeditated betrayal is less onerous when leavened by compassion.
The author's treatment of Lair is emblematic of the bias and spin-doctoring that frequently makes Back Fire an annoying read. By cozying up to some of the key players in the CIA's secret war, Warner got the goods on a scandalous chapter in American history. But along the way, he bought into their rationalizations and became an American partisan, if not an apologist, in his perspective on the secret war. He condescendingly depicts Laos as a quaint backwater, with an "Alice in Wonderland" quality stemming from rituals and beliefs that he bluntly describes as "weird" and "strange." His empathy for the cultural bewilderment experienced by the CIA officials isn't similarly extended to the Laotians as the U.S. unleashes the technology of war in their country. Throughout Back Fire, he refers to the Hmong as "Meo," a pejorative term commonly used during the '70s, even by some Hmong. This anachronism might be more tolerably attributed to period authenticity if Warner didn't make observations such as Lair "being more Oriental than the Orientals themselves."
Put simply, Back Fire is a valuable book almost in spite of itself, ranking with Jane Hamilton-Merritt's Tragic Mountains as a piece of the essential story on the secret war in Laos. However, when it comes to determining what the morale of this sordid story should be, Back Fire is strictly a covert enterprise.