The Ravens by Christopher Robbins.

Book Review: The Ravens

04 July 2005

Gary Linderer

A year ago a Vietnam buddy and his wife loaned me a dog-eared copy of The Ravens and told me to read it, promising me that it would make it to the Linderer Top Ten Most Favourite. They weren't wrong.

It was one of seven or eight books that I have read over the years that I just couldn't put down. When I reluctantly returned it at a LRP/Ranger reunion in the summer of 1995, I felt like I was parting with a favourite shotgun. But in November I got a call from an ex-Raven who told me that a group of them had formed a small cartel with the author to purchase the reprint rights and republish this fine work. The catch was that there were only 3,600 copies available. I cheated and ordered mine over the phone, then called a couple of friends I knew would trade body parts (their own) for a copy. Now it's your chance.

The Ravens is the compelling story of the CIA's secret war in Laos during the 1960s and early 1970s. Running parallel to the all-out U.S. war effort in South Vietnam, the highly classified Laotian conflict evaded media coverage for the years. Fought primarily by often-suspect loyal Laotian troops, Hmong tribesmen under General Vang Pao, and Thai mercenaries, a sizeable American military presence provided training, logistics, advisory assistance and air support. Far from the massive manpower commitment offered neighbouring South Vietnam, the limited assistance given to Laos prevented a communist takeover of that nation, interfered with NVA operations in the Plain of Jars and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and kept a number of North Vietnamese divisions from participating in the war in South Vietnam. With the help of American air power, friendly forces fought the well-trained soldiers of the North Vietnam and their Pathet Lao allies to a virtual standstill for over a decade. Only because of the U.S. pullout in South Vietnam in 1973 and it's corresponding withdrawal from Laos that same year, were the communists able to secure a hard-fought victory in Laos.

American fighter-bombers proved to be the great equalizer in the secret war in Laos, but their role was only made possible by a small but courageous group of U.S. Air Force volunteers who flew tiny, vulnerable, prop-driven spotter planes “low and slow” over the trees to locate enemy positions and direct air strikes on them. Stationed at forward operating bases in Laos, these courageous young pilots volunteered to serve six-month tours in a program officially known only as the Steve Canyon Program. In spite of their official non-existence, inane rules of engagement, which were even more restrictive than in Vietnam and heavy losses of men and planes, the Ravens took the war to the enemy, extracting a heavy payment for each comrade lost in combat.

In spite of their losses the Ravens maintain their wonderful esprit, their fatalistic humour and their macho image throughout the bitter conflict. Only at the very end, when it becomes apparent to them and to the CIA agents and pilots they work with that the U.S. government is about to pull out of Laos and abandon the country to the communists, do the cracks finally begin to appear in the freewheeling demeanour and the stoic composure of the Ravens.

They are the true maverick warriors, the Terry and Pirates of the Indochina theatre. Like their CAT predecessors and their Air America contemporaries, they are the epitome of the carefree band of brother who rise to the occasion when their country calls, to serve without the fanfare, the glory, the recognition that they deserve. The Ravens is their epitaph. Don't miss this one and if you're lucky enough to get a copy before it sells out, don't lend it to anyone-you just may not get it back.

The Ravens is available from (affiliate link)

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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