This volume of eighteen essays is an opportunity to deepen our understanding about the landlocked and sparsely populated Laos—a country with a fascinating cultural and political history, too often overshadowed by its larger neighbors.
“This book,” starts the introduction, “was written by a man who did not exist. Despite this obvious handicap, Alfred Raquez was extraordinarily prolific.” Raquez was in fact a man on the lam: his real name Joseph Gervais, a lawyer from Lille, who got into a spot of bother—fraud, it seems—and decamped to the Orient, as it was then called, to avoid arrest and prosecution.
China has developed a reputation for confounding naysayers. Will Doig starts High-Speed Empire with an anecdote of the World Bank castigating Shanghai in 1991 for deciding to build a Metro; the suggestion was that maybe focusing on infrastructure for bicycles might be a better use of resources.
From 1961 to 1975, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coordinated a proxy war in Laos as a part of America’s larger effort to prevent communism from overrunning all of Southeast Asia. Codenamed “Operation Momentum”, the largely clandestine effort involved arming, training, and providing military assistance to anti-communist forces in Laos led by Hmong tribesmen and their military chief Vang Pao.
As Joshua Kurlantzick points out in his new book A Great Place to Have a War, the effort in Laos, like America’s larger effort in Vietnam, ultimately failed, resulting in Communists taking power in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while arguably transforming the primary role of the CIA from intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations.