“The Green Berets In The Land Of A Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare & The Secret War In Laos 1959-1974,” Book By Col. (Ret.) Joseph D. Celeski

The Green Berets In The Land Of A Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare & The Secret War In Laos 1959-1974,” Book By Col. (Ret.) Joseph D. Celeski
     Col. (Ret.) Joseph D. Celeski was interviewed this weekend/March 30/31 on C-SPAN, about his new book, with the title above. The U.S. Army’s involvement and secret operations in Laos preceding and during the Vietnam War has mostly remained hidden behind a wall of secrecy and silence — until now. Col. Celeski has written a fascinating, but, enlightening new book that gives due credit to those brave souls who played a huge role in what U.S. special operations has become today. While U.S. special operations had their origin in WWII; and became an official entity in the aftermath, Laos, it can be argued, was the first strategic use and employment of a designated  U.S. special forces unit in combat/conflict. The lessons learned, and experiences gained from that conflict — are still with us today, Gen. (Ret.) Carter Ham, Association of the U.S. Army President and CEO said, in his introduction preceding Col. Celeski’s talk. As the newly nominated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley has said, “with the return [in military emphasis from combating terrorism] to Great Power competition, the proper role of special operations forces is once again front and center.
     Gen. Ham, in his introduction of Col. Celeski, described him as “a warrior, who grew up in special forces; and among the first officers in the U.S. Army to have joined the special forces when it was initially designated as a Branch.” Col. Celeski’s His most recent command before he retired was Commander of the 3rd Special Forces Group (SOG), with multiple foreign deployments, including twice being Commander, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, Afghanistan. He also spent 10 years at the Joint Special Forces University in Tampa, as a researcher, teacher, writer.
     “The big elephant in the room, was we were trying to intervene,” Col. Celeski said. He collected some three thousand photos of pictures taken of special operations soldiers conducting operations in Laos; and, he included a”batch of them,” in his new book.
     Col. Celeslki contends or observes that the use of special forces in Laos marked a turning point, from small unit deployments, to a much larger group deployment, and with broader/greater objectives — well beyond the tactical.
     Laos began, Col Celeski said, as a kingdom of Lang Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants). “The French arrived in the latter half of the 1800s,” he notes; and, “the country is conquered by the Japanese in WWII and the French evicted. After the defeat of Japan, the French reoccupied Laos, until the loss of Indochina. Locals however did not want the French presence, leading to the emergence of three factions, he said:, “one democratic and pro-Western; a second, that was pro-communist/leftist; and a third that did not want any outside interference or influence. And, North Vietnam historically, “thinks they own Laos,” Col. Celeski said; and, they deployed 40,000 troops/loyalists inside Laos to support [their rat-line] along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Laos “said okay, but, said Vietnamese forces could not stay, nor build any military bases. The French were allowed to station 3,000 troops and a couple of military bases, and serve as trainers for the Laotian Army. Then, China intervened. Remember,” Col. Celeski said, this was in the aftermath of the Korean War.
     Laos is and was a very poor country, with no improved roads outside the city, no telephone lines,dense triple canopy,  the Mekong River, mountains and several notable plateaus.
     In early 1960, American military leaders/U.S. Army, were  concerned that the Laotian military wasn’t using U.S. military equipment properly and were  receiving inadequate training from the French. So, Col. Celeski said the U.S. sent a general officer into the country to do a survey in early 1959; and, “no surprise, the U.S. negotiated with France to get U.S.military trainers inside the country and alongside their French counterparts. But do to the sensitivity, U.S. military trainers were sent into Laos in civilian clothes, with fake ID’s, and unarmed, “But, as all all good SF guys do,” Col. Celeski said, “they improvise and go see their buddies in the Laotian Army. Shortly thereafter, they have sidearms and machine guns, etc. These U.S. special forces came out of the 77th Special Forces Unit, and they deployed in August, 1959, under the leadership of LTC. Arthur “Bull” Simons, famous for the Son Tay Raid to rescue U.S. POWs in Vietnam. Eventually, this would become the U.S. Military Assistance Group, or MAG. In December of 1960, a renegade Laotian paratrooper conducted a coup, but by December a counter-coup successfully ousted him. He would subsequently join the communist forces. This is when U.S. special forces began engaging in combat,” Col. Celeski said. Shortly thereafter, the first guerrilla warfare program/effort gets underway in Laos, after the CIA asks for the assistance of special forces — called Operation MOMENTUM — training tribal guerrillas in unconventional warfare tactics. The relations between special forces and the CIA was very good in Col. Celeski’s opinion; but, there was tension on how they respectively viewed the mission. Special forces really didn’t want to tell the Laotian Mong leadership what to do, or advise them what not to do, etc. But, the CIA wanted to encourage and facilitate guerrilla warfare and at times crossed swords with SF forces over facilitating and/or encouraging/leading the Mong in unconventional warfare operations.

The USAF couldn’t officially do mission support, other than airborne reconnaissance, and thus, Air America was born, to conduct re-supply and various other missions.. Eventually, 4,400 special forces were deployed there, until being ordered out by POTUS Kennedy in October 1962, after a UN peace agreement. The U.S. Military Assistance Group (MAG) then secretly deploys/reconstitutes in Thailand.

     PROJECT 404 was an initiative by the U.S. Army to send individual advisers (special forces and other combat infantry) into Laos after October 1962, attached to the U.S. Embassy, so they didn’t count as U.S. military forces in Laos, and were to be called Assistant Attaches’ who essentially served as the eyes and ears of the U.S. Ambassador.
     The end result of these endeavors, cements the usefulness and utility of using/employing special forces as a strategic utility, Col Celeski said. The lessons of knowing the local culture, customs, etc. — knowing the adversary, should have prepared us for Afghanistan. As we used to say, “Lessons Unlearned.” Nonetheless, this will most definitely be added to the reading list. And, thanks to Col. Celeski for not only his service; but, providing us with a very important; but, little known part of U.S. military involvement in Laos, as the Vietnam war was getting underway.
     I hope I accurately captured Col. Celeski’s remarks, and do refer you to C-SPAN for the entire interview. RCP, fortunascorner.com


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