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The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos

The Ravens: The Men Who Flew In America's Secret War In Laos - Christopher Robbins By now you have probably heard that Laos is the most bombed country on the planet thanks to the spectacular deployment of American air power during the Vietnam War, most notably an onslaught of B-52s (aka, Big Ugly Fat Fuckers) that on Henry Kissenger’s orders commenced bombing the jungles of Northern Laos in 1970 AGAINST THE ADVICE OF EVERY AMERICAN MILITARY PILOT STATIONED IN LAOS AT THAT TIME. Those pilots were called Ravens.

This is one of the most important and overlooked bits of information about what is possibly the most catastrophically fucked-up air war to date, and that is not the only such obscure bit, and those bits are what make this account so important. An alternate book title might be The Bird Dog and The B-52.

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Bird Dog

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To my knowledge, this is the most thorough account of the mostly American pilots who served as forward-air-controllers (FACs) in Northern Laos during the Vietnam War. They, the Ravens, flew small spotter craft called Bird Dogs directing air strikes in support of Hmong and Lao troops defending their villages and territories against legions of North Vietnamese infantry, and this was hardly the first time the Hmong and Lao had fought the Vietnamese, the antagonisms go way back.

Which is not to say that America’s intent was altruistic. We wouldn’t have bothered had the North Vietnamese not been attempting to advance their front against our ally, South Vietnam. Trouble is, American air intervention in Laos amounted to overkill that proved about as deadly to our friends.

For example, and to get back to the aforementioned and ill-advised B-52s:

B-52s had never been used in northern Laos before (1970), although they had bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the southern panhandle since 1965 . . . The B-52 was the backbone of the Strategic Air Command, the bomber built to deliver nuclear weapons. The Air Force had hurriedly trained crews in the delivery of conventional weapons, and since June 1965 it had been used in Indochina on a daily basis.

"The Ravens were asked their opinion regarding the potential use of the bomber in the air war in Laos . . . Their answer was surprising: unanimous condemnation of such a move . . . ‘We said forget it, it won’t work,’ (Craig) Morrison said. ‘. . . even if you kill the enemy, without troops to hold the territory you’re just spinning your wheels. You’ll be playing your last trump card and the enemy will find out it’s no good.’ Both the military advice of the Ravens and the political advice of the (American) ambassador, who actually ran the war, were studiously ignored.” (p. 215-216)

WHY, you may ask.

Part of the problem was the U.S. Air Force, not just in Laos but in general. What you need in a jungle air war like the Vietnam War, assuming you ought to be fighting the war in the first place, is:

. . . something slow-moving that could see a target and could zero in on it and stay with it until it had destroyed it with Gatling guns or canon. This flew in the face of current Air Force doctrine and the view of General Momyer, who wanted an all-jet Air Force and was committed to employing state-of-the-art aircraft in Vietnam. There had been an acrimonious interagency debate over whether propeller or jet planes should be used in Vietnam, with the Air Force arguing that jets were better for close air support than slower, prop-driven aircraft. This was nonsense, and the Air Force knew it was nonsense, but did not want to end up after what was expected to be a short, guerrilla war with an inventory of prop planes.” (p. 115)

That’s the air force's excuse, but what the hell was Kissenger’s problem, the same Henry Kissenger who had flat-out said: “No American administration could possibly desire a war in a country like Laos. It would not make sense to expand the conflict into Laos, except for the minimum required for our own protection.” (p. 226)

Kissenger’s problem was Nixon’s Vietnamization policy, by which Nixon claimed to be successfully handing the war over to South Vietnam while America exited with honor.

The White House felt that Vietnamization was proceeding too slowly and that the South Vietnamese Army would not be able to bridge the gap left by the continual U.S. troop withdrawals. Air power was to bridge that gap, adding yet another political dimension to a bomber that was already employed for organizational (air force) purposes and interagency rivalry. The B-52 was to become one of the cornerstones of U.S. policy in Indochina (more specifically, in Laos) . . . and Air Force histories for this period are entitled ‘The Administration Emphasizes Air Power’ and ‘The Role of Air Power Grows.’ (p. 219)

Given the political imperative, Kissenger advised the Secretary of Defense that all of the B-52 sorties that he, Kissenger, ordered for the coming year (1970) would be flown “regardless of the military situation.”

And so it came to pass that Big Ugly Fat Fuckers commenced bombing Laos such that it became the most bombed country on the planet, against the advice of every American military pilot stationed in Laos at that time, and those pilots were called Ravens.

To this day, cluster and fragmentation bombs are in Laos still, waiting to be accidentally stepped upon and set off by unfortunate passersby. The clean-up of residual fallout and collateral damage may never end, and several Ravens have been involved in that and other attempts at restoration and restitution.

There’s more, much more, to the Raven story, and I recommend that anyone interested in understanding American military policy and practice in the 20th century read it with a highlighter in hand.