BACK FIRE by Roger Warner


The CIA's Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the Vietnam War
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 An engagingly written examination of America's not-so-secret war in Laos, told mainly by anecdote, using the colorful stories of a half dozen Americans who played pivotal roles. Warner (coauthor of Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey, not reviewed) claims that his ``inside story'' of the American- sponsored war against communism in Laos ``has been known only in general terms until now.'' Not true. At least a half-dozen books have closely examined what went on in Laos, including Jane Hamilton-Merritt's comprehensive Tragic Mountains (1993), an excellent history Warner does not list in his acknowledgement section (there is no bibliography). Perhaps that is because Warner's book is not, strictly speaking, a history. Depending in large part on some 150 interviews (mostly with Americans), Back Fire is a personality-driven, anecdote-filled tale populated by a colorful cast of main characters and supporting players. Except for the Lao military leader, Vang Pao, the book's principal actors are Americans. They include ``Pop'' Buell, an uneducated Indiana farmer who became a hands-on hero to the Lao; Vint Lawrence, a young college graduate and recent CIA recruit who received the education of a lifetime in Laos; Bill Lair, a good-hearted CIA strategist; and Tony Poe, a soldier-of-fortune-type CIA operative. Warner uses these stories to illustrate how the American-sponsored war in Laos against the North Vietnamese and communist Pathet Lao stayed in the shadows of the massive US military effort in Vietnam. The book clearly shows that the biggest losers were the Hmong, the hill tribe recruited by the CIA to do most of the fighting (and dying) against the North Vietnamese. (Warner refers to the Hmong using the pejorative term ``Meo,'' because Americans who worked with the tribe used it ``without being contradicted by the Hmong themselves.'') Warner's reader-friendly prose exposes some interesting details about the semi-secret war in Laos.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-684-80292-9
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1995


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by Patrick Lee