Battle for Skyline Ridge: The CIA Secret War in Laos, by James E. Parker Jr., Casemate Publishers, Havertown, Pa., 2019, $32.95
The Central Intelligence Agency’s proxy war in Laos amid the Vietnam War is a relatively untapped topic. Combining boots-on-the-ground accounts and diligent research, author, Vietnam veteran and former agency operative James Parker examines the CIA’s leading role in the fight in northern Laos against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), a campaign waged largely on mountainous terrain, notably Skyline Ridge. The resulting book is a gripping account of the conflict from its inauspicious beginning to the climactic repulsion of the NVA.
Focusing on the NVA’s attempts to take the area known as the Plain of Jars and the hub city of Long Tieng, Parker conveys the mayhem that was daily life in the region at the time. He details the actions of the CIA from top-level decisions on the training and deployment of Thai irregulars to the acts of case officers in the field. An eclectic group of Americans, these officers had wide-ranging responsibilities. In addition to staying alive, they were expected to support Laotian soldiers, direct U.S. Air Force bomb runs and handle such logistical tasks as managing the supply of food and materiel.
Parker’s greatest strength is his firsthand knowledge of the subject matter. Interspersed throughout the narrative are incidents the author personally witnessed, thus contributing a weight of authority and giving the reader a sense of being there in a way few military histories are capable of matching. A minor complaint is the level of detail he includes, which at times may confuse a reader less familiar with military jargon or the technical aspects of an operation. That scarcely detracts from this valuable contribution to the history of the proxy war in Laos, the Vietnam War and the broader Cold War.