THE BLOG
01/30/2017 03:09 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2018

Joshua Kurlantzick On Books And Writing

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

This interview has been edited lightly and condensed.

You've recently published "A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA." Would you tell us a little bit about it?

The book is intended to be the most comprehensive story of the secret, or twilight, war in Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was, as I retell, the biggest covert operation in American history, and remains the largest. Starting in early 1961, a time when the Eisenhower administration (just leaving then) considered Laos one of the most important foreign policy priorities, the U.S. -- mostly through the CIA -- armed, aided, and trained tens of thousands of anti-communist fighters in Laos. The war would grow into a massive enterprise, and one that would then come to include widespread bombing by U.S. planes; Laos would become the most heavily bombed country on earth, per capita. Today, the country remains severely littered with unexploded ordnance.

The Laos war went on for nearly a decade with minimal U.S. public, or congressional, oversight. A few Congresspeople did know a fair amount about the extent of the war, but most didn't, or chose not to; and many were shown only a tiny portion of the war. This kind of twilight war had serious problems and consequences, in some of the same ways that a global war on terror that lacks oversight does. And, the twilight war in Laos also changed and empowered the CIA in several ways, and I look extensively in the book at how the war changed the CIA. Thus -- the subtitle of the book. (The title comes from a quote by Robert Amory Jr, the former CIA deputy director, who recalled that many in the Agency thought Laos was "a great place to have a war.")

The Laos war started the real transformation of the Agency from a primarily spying organization to one with a much more military/paramilitary focus. It also made the Agency much more powerful within the U.S. foreign policy orbit. Although reforms in the 1970s limited the Agency's paramilitary operations, they never completely vanished, and indeed many of the Laos veterans participated in operations in Central America and Afghanistan in the 1980s. And after 9/11, paramilitary operations -- drone strikes, aiding foreign militaries, targeted killings -- again became central to the CIA's mission. Spying and traditional intelligence work took a backseat. The war on terror, in many ways, is the latest incarnation of the shift in the CIA that began in Laos.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I lived in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was intrigued by Laos. Laos was even less developed then than it is now, and it was getting relatively few tourists. There was a minimal level of U.S.-Laos relations; the relationship is still rather minimal, but it was even more minimal then. The U.S. embassy was pretty sleepy and the capital city of Laos, Vientiane, was pretty sleepy. It was definitely highly repressive -- and it is still one of the most repressive regimes in the world, with no domestic opposition allowed and basically no freedoms of press, expression, or assembly. But it was also very outwardly sleepy; and, still, I learned about how this sleepy place had been a major component of U.S. foreign policy for a time, a major battleground, a place with the biggest covert operation in U.S. history.

It seemed impossible, when you go to Laos and see how small it is, how isolated and remote much of the country is, how small the economy is, how far it is from America, etc. And the more I learned about the secret war in Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s, and contrasted it with basically near-zero U.S. interest in Laos at the time I started visiting, it just seemed almost crazy. How could Laos have been a central issue in U.S. foreign policy, as indeed it was in 1960 and 1961 and 1962 -- and then go to being basically irrelevant to U.S. policy? How did that happen -- what does it tell us about how policy is made and how it swings?

What does it say about policy decisions? I found it fascinating and sad. And also I read a number of the books that were out on the Laos war, including the best one by far, "Shooting at the Moon" by Roger Warner, which is an amazing book. But most of them didn't have access to declassified CIA files, because they had been written too soon after the war; a lot of the files have just come out in the last few years. In Warner's book, he had to kind of put together his own structure of the Laos war, his own timeline, with little written documentation and virtually nothing written from the CIA. And he did an amazing job, but there was still a void. And now, with so much declassified about the Laos war in the last few years, I thought I could put together a book that used that declassified material, delved into what Laos meant for the CIA, use the CIA's own materials, and also tell a narrative story, since there were quite a few colorful characters in the Laos war.

Vang Pao, the Hmong leader who was commanding the major contingent of anti-communist forces in Laos that received much of the U.S. aid, was a very colorful and, in some ways, tragic figure. Tony Poe, one of the CIA operatives I profile, was also colorful, to say the least. Some people think he was an inspiration for the Marlon Brandon character in "Apocalypse Now." He became more unstable as the Laos war went on, and was sent to a relatively remote part of Laos to train a new group of fighters. He seemed to go crazier and crazier there, in what was basically kind of his jungle hideout, like at the end of "Apocalypse Now." And he claimed he was killing people and cutting off their ears, mailing the ears to the U.S. embassy to show how serious he was about the war, putting prisoners in holes. Just losing his mind, at least for a time. But he also inspired fierce loyalty among some of the Laotian anti-communists he trained, fierce devotion -- he was an extremely tough commander, and later in life, when he was living in America, some of the men who had fought with him before (they had come to America as refugees after communist forces won the Laos war in 1975) visited him regularly and still had great respect, almost love, for him.

Who is your ideal reader?

I think the book has a wide audience, potentially. (I hope!) Anyone who is interested in spying, in espionage, in an interesting spy story, will hopefully like the book. Folks who are interested in U.S. history, in the history of the Vietnam War, will perhaps like the book. Policymakers and other people who focus on foreign policy, will be interested in the ways that the Laos war transformed the CIA and changed American foreign-policy making. Perhaps people who are interested, these days, in the war on terrorism and how it is conducted, and earlier precedents for it, will be interested in the book; there is a lot of overlap between the Laos war and how the war on terror is conducted. And anyone who just likes a rollicking narrative nonfiction story may enjoy the book, since it is driven by characters and narrative. I tried to appeal to as broad an audience as possible while still writing an investigative book that does cover a decent amount of history and policy ground.

How long did it take to write? Do you have a writing routine?

The book took fits and starts to write. I have some medical issues that sometimes can get in the way of consistent writing from day-to-day, but I usually can get around them, and I work very hard at it. Overall the research took about two years and the writing two to three years. I had interviewed some of the key players in the book even before I started on the book, though; I had interviewed them for earlier articles, books, and stories on Laos back when I was a foreign correspondent for a bunch of different publications and then a foreign editor at the New Republic.

I don't have one specific writing routine. I live with a medical condition that can vary wildly from day to day although I can, overall, do as much as anyone. But I have to kind of go with what my body allows. The main thing for me, personally, is that when I'm physically doing well to roll with it and get as much done as possible in that window of time. Be totally focused, no distractions, and just hammer away, since I don't know how I'll feel tomorrow. So that sharpens my focus and keeps me from wasting time, I think. Everyone wastes time, especially in the Internet era, but I try to minimize.

When I was much younger, I worked briefly for a newswire and was based out of Bangkok -- Agence France-Presse. The discipline of that, and also doing a lot of freelance journalism when I was younger, with tight deadlines, probably helped me with my writing routine. In those previous jobs, you just had to get the writing done. There wasn't a lot of time to prevaricate, so you got it done, or else the editor at the newswire would be upset, and the clock is always ticking at a newswire. You have to just write the copy and get it out and then think about the next piece to write.

That experience was good for me, and helped me see writing as a job as much as an art form. Of course, for a really serious fiction writer, someone on a much, much higher plane than me, this viewpoint -- writing as a job as much as an art form -- might not hold, and they might not view writing as anything like this. I really don't know, since I'll never be at such a level. I don't know how Philip Roth or someone like that thinks and I have no pretensions like that. But for my type of narrative nonfiction or policy writing or op-eds it works for me to think of it as a job, put time in, and try not to think of it as different from other jobs. Put the time in daily and establish some internal pressure, and also take a lot of writing gigs -- a lot of commissioned pieces, for example -- to make some pressure on yourself.

What do you read for fun?

I read almost exclusively nonfiction books for fun, as well as a lot of magazines. My wife is always amazed by my interest in magazines; I really love magazines, and read all sorts, from sports to serious political ones to travel ones and entertainment ones. I occasionally read fiction, but very rarely, I guess. I love reading quality narrative nonfiction. I've probably been focused mostly on nonfiction since I was a small child. The topics can be very varied, but anything that is high quality narrative nonfiction, I'm interested in it. I also get about 15 magazines a month and prefer to read them in the old-fashioned, print format. I don't really like e-readers or reading a PDF at all. I also get three daily newspapers and I like the serendipity of a reading the newspaper in print, and not the digital edition, although of course I look at stories online. But I find that reading the print newspaper is more enjoyable, and that I'm much more likely to just come across some interesting story in the Health section or the Arts section or the Washington Post's Metro section when I read the print paper than when I go to the Post or New York Times online, or another news outlet online. I like finding these stories and I find reading the print edition I expand what I learn about and don't just tunnel into a few areas.