Book Review

Covert Ops by James E. Parker JR.

Covert Ops

01 September 2005

Gary Linderer

Little has been written of the U.S. secret war in Laos that paralleled the war in Vietnam. It was a different type conflict than Vietnam in that there were no American ground troops involved. CIA operators served as advisors to the Hong tribesman and Thai mercenaries who manned the front lines against the Pathet Lao guerrilla forces and their North Vietnamese allies.

With the help of U.S. and Laotian air power, the government forces held their own until U.S. policy changed and Laos along with Vietnam and Cambodia were abandoned to the communists.

COVERT OPS is one man's story of the secret war in Laos. After a tourn in Vietnam ended in 1965, James E. Parker, Jr. was recruited by the CIA and given paramilitary training at Camp Peary, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, Parker and his wife, Brenda, arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, the jump off point for an assignment in Laos. Hoping for field duty as a CIA case officer working with the Hmong, Parker was disappointed to discover that he had been assigned as a “desk jockey” in Udorn, Thailand, collecting intelligence data, collating it and disseminating it to CIA stations in Southeast Asia and CIA headquarters in Washington D.C. – not suitable work for a warrior.

But Parker never gave up. In time he was assigned as a case officer to a battalion size unit of General Vang Pao's fierce Hmong tribesman. Called “Groupe Mobiles GMs”, after their earlier French designation, the Hmong combat groups operated in and around the Plain of Jars fightning Pather Lao guerrilla forces and stopping NVA incursions in to the Laotian interior. In addition to GMs were tasked with monitoring the all weather road running south through Laos that was under constructed by the Chinese. It was not a war of attrition as in South Vietnam, but Laos was a war of “maintenance”. The loyal Lao forces, not strong enough to defeat the North Vietnamese nor destroy the Pathet Lao, could only fight to preserve their holdings and prevent the enemy from permanently occupying more ground. The side benefit to the war going on across the border in South Vietnam was that Laos tied up 70,000 NVA soldiers and eliminated their participation in the “big” war. And they accomplished this with a limited budget, a minimal number of U.S. advisors and field operators, but some massive doses of U.S. air power. And one can not forget the invaluable role of the “Ravens” volunteer U.S. Air Force pilots who flew “low and slow” over the battlefield to find and fix the enemy so that the “fast movers” could f – them.

Parker would spend four years in Laos. He and his wife adopted two Laotian children and fell in love with the country and the culture. But when the U.S. government decided that it was time to pull out and abandon loyal Hmong and Lao allies to the same fate reserved for the Montagnards and Vietnamese in South Vietnam, Parker and his CIA co-workers balked at the idea. But it was a futile effort. With heads hung low in shame they were forced to turn their backs on the troops they had advised and supported and left the country they had come to love.

This is another sad tale of U.S. lack of commitment – not at the level of the loyal, hardworking case workers, advisors and combat and support personnel, but at the highest level of government. It makes one wonder how we ever find allies anymore.

COVERT OPS won't go down in the annals of literary masterpieces, but then few military works ever reach that level of immortality. But it is a fairly well done, interesting read. Parker's narrative style is both simple and relaxed. He does not attempt to impress the reader with his vocabulary, nor does he pretend to baffle you with unauthorized revelations and mystical tale s of CIA classified operations. To the contrary, Parker deals with his day to day experienced in combat and in the rear as if he's sitting on the front porch back home sharing it with friend and family. I find it refreshingly honest, not the chest beating braggadocio that often permeates the memoirs of so many “secret” operators. And Parker does an excellent job describing the colourful characters who manned the CIA outposts in Laos. He captures their legendary devotion to duty and their esprit de corps in a way that only a compatriot could do.

It's not really difficult to put this book down when the phone rings or someone knocks at the door, but it's a tough book not to read to the end. Some very interesting things happen during Parker's sojourn in the “Land of the Elephants” – some of it is tragic, some of it is humorous, but all of it is true.

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This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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