The Erawan War, Volume 3: The Royal Lao Armed Forces 1961-1974
I reviewed the Erawan War, Volume 2 - The CIA Paramilitary Campaign in Laos 1969-1974 that was posted in January 2023. I was impressed so much with Ken Conboy’s style, research, and approach that I asked to review the third volume in his series on the Erawan War. And I was not disappointed. While the first two volumes focus on American efforts, largely though the CIA, this volume focuses on the Laotian perspective and their many wars, infighting, international relations, and coups. Despite the efforts of the French, Americans, South Vietnamese, Thai, and Filipino advisors and military, the Laotian country followed the other Southeast Asian countries in their forceful conversion to communism.
Author Ken Conboy does an outstanding job of abbreviating the history of Laos and its armed forces as it achieved independence. Ken’s first two volumes focus on the CIA involvement, and this book delves a full decade earlier as the Royal Lao Government (RLG) waged its own war against communist forces. For obvious reasons, the early Armée Nationale Laotiènne (ANL), also called the Armée royale du Laos (ARL), the Forces Armées Laotiènnes – the Lao Armed Forces (FAL), the Forces Armées Neutralistes – Neutralist Armed Forces (FAN), and Forces Armées du Royaume – Royal Armed Forces (FAR); the Aviation Laotiènne (also called the Lao Army Air Force (LAAF), Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF), Royal Laotian Government Air Force (RLGAF); and Marine Royale Laotienne – Royal Lao Navy (MRL, also called the Escadrille Fluviale Lao – Lao River Squadron (EFL), were all based on the French model. If you are confused, be thankful for the Abbreviations found on page 2 – earmark the page and keep reading.
Ken does yeoman’s work as he retells the Lao Armed Forces history and journey. To those advisors on the ground, it must have been frustrating to witness and try to stop the ministrations of the Lao as they tried to find their own, unique way. When Soviet advisors provided nine Lisunov Li-2 (license-built DC-3s) transport planes, they provided three to the RLAF, three to the Pathet Lao and three to the Royal Laotian Government Air Force under Kong Le. There were three major factions at war with each other, and the North Vietnamese. While the CIA did an amazing job fighting the North Vietnamese with Laotian irregulars, the supposed regular Laotian Armed Forces were split between Royal, Neutralist and communist Pathet Lao loyalties, along with infighting among themselves.
Despite efforts of western-leaning countries sending supplies, equipment, and providing training in Laos and in their own countries, it did little to stem what became the inevitable tide. From the Manila-based Eastern Construction Company (ECCOIL) providing Filipino technicians to technical branches after the French formal handoff, to South Vietnamese, Thai and United States support, a lot of effort was put forth to keep Laos out of the communist sphere.
The book is presented in greatly researched detail, complete with photographs of the major leaders, operations, equipment, four pages of color photographs, and a color profile section composing the following ten chapters:
- Birth of an Army
- The Coup
- Coalition, Again
- Second Fiddle
- Misplaced Confidence
- Gloves Off
- Rebuilding an Army
- Air Force
- Riverine Force
This book is a good history of the Royal Lao Armed Forces from their independence in 1949 to being absorbed into the Communist Southeastern Asia Sphere in 1975. Ken Conboy wrote this book in a manner that allows it to be a standalone book. The first two volumes are not necessary to understand this book; but the complete series does provide for a much clearer picture of the former French Indochina colony and its place in history.
This book is good for modelers, aviation enthusiasts, and people with a general, or specific, interest in the larger Cold War drama being played in Southeast Asia through the former French Indochina. The photographs and color profiles include, for aviation enthusiasts, T-6s, T-28s, C-47s (to include the Soviet Union licensed built Li-2), AC-47s, Morane-Saulnier MS.500 Criquet (French-built Fieseler Fi-156), and L-20/DHC-2 Beaver. For ground pounders, there are photos and profiles of the M3 halftrack, M8 Greyhound, Cadillac Gage M706, and PT-76. The naval forces are represented by the Riverine Force and include French Wizard class gunboats, French FOM 11 and FOM 8 patrol boats and LCMs.
Ken Conboy injects his humor into his book as he describes the development, infighting, lack of progress, personalities, and coups. If it wasn’t so tragic for the Lao people, it would be humorous and a case study on how to not stand up an armed force. He did an amazing job of illustrating how dependent the Lao Armed Forces became on French, then Thai and American support, logistics and training. Without American Forward Air Controllers (FAC), training, logistics, CIA backed Air American, the Laotians were doomed to fail when they didn’t take their future seriously. Proof positive is what the CIA accomplished with its irregular forces without the Royal Lao Government.
The only real complaint I have for this book is the lack of maps. There is an overview map in the table of contents that shows where Laos is in Southeast Asia. The other two maps focus on Military Region 5 and the Vientiane Capitol Region. I found myself referring to maps of Laos so I could follow the narrative. That niggle aside, my book is earmarked throughout. This book does a lot to fill in more of the story of American effort to stop communism from spreading in Southeast Asia.
Author Ken Conboy is a prolific writer of American involvement in Asian wars – both covert and overt. He is a former deputy director of Washington DC think tank, Asian Studies Center, where he focused on South and Southeast Asia. Ken has written nearly 20 books about Asian military history and intelligence operations. He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. He was also a visiting fellow at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Ken Conboy has the background to write about interesting, little-known conflicts.
Ken Conboy has provided the Asia@War series a concise, well researched and easy to read book to help fill in gaps in the little-known covert wars in Asia. With the supporting wars to America’s Vietnam War now coming into mainstream consciousness, these wars and operations were just as important as the main effort, and it is good to see these dedicated people get their time in the spotlight.
Profuse thanks to Casemate (https://www.casematepublishers.com) and IPMS-USA for providing the review sample.