Hello. A few years ago I was asked to put together a few thoughts in support of Bill Lair's nomination for a Trailblazer Award. If Bill ever got it, I never heard. But that summary of Bill's life seems worth dusting off and taking another look at now that he is no longer with us.
He died peacefully yesterday afternoon in a hospital outside Dallas, with family and friends in attendance.
Here goes, and please feel free to share this with anyone who knew Bill personally or professionally.
author of Shooting At The Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos
Nominee for Trailblazer Award: Bill Lair (full name James William Lair)
Bill Lair was the architect of paramilitary operations in Laos (1961-1973) and the hands-on boss in those operations' spectacularly successful early years. Through his own diligence and field experience, he discovered principles – eternal truths, if you like – of organizing indigenous forces overseas. His career and his insights could (and should) inspire future practitioners of this little-known art.
He joined in 1951 out of Texas A&M and was in the first class at the Farm. In 1956 he was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit by Allen Dulles for creating an "indigenous military organization of battalion strength." This was a hand-picked Thai special operations force known as the PARU (Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit), which he created from scratch. The Paru were parachutists, jungle fighters, and paramilitary instructors. Each man was cross-trained in a second skill, as a medic, radio operator, or as a civil affairs specialist to help build indigenous popular support. Each Paru officer got advanced military training at Fort Benning and spoke some English. When civil war broke out in Thailand's neighbor Laos, Lair arranged for Paru teams to guide the underperforming Royal Laotian Army into recapturing the Laotian national capital of Vientiane, without attracting notice to the Agency role.
After ten years in Asia, Lair's peak period was about to begin. It was in Thailand's interest as well as America's to prevent a communist takeover of Laos, a weak landlocked kingdom that also bordered China and North Vietnam. Lair was in a position to play a unique role: He was a favorite of the Agency's Far East chief, Desmond FitzGerald. With headquarters' enthusiastic blessing he was also a uniformed colonel in the Royal Thai Police. He had married a woman from the Thai aristocracy. He had cultivated a friendship with the Thai king, Thailand's ultimate behind-the-scenes player. Most importantly, Lair had 400 Thai Paru who were personally loyal to him. In that setting, they were far more effective than Green Berets, because they were racially identical to the Laotians and thus invisible in the field.
For several years, Lair and his Thai Paru officers had been tracking a Laotian military officer from the Hmong ethnic minority, named Vang Pao. When the Laotian civil war worsened, Lair and the Paru sought out Vang Pao in the mountains. Lair proposed a three-way paramilitary alliance, the Hmong to provide the manpower, the Paru to provide the instructors and radio net, and the U.S.to provide the weapons, funding and strategic direction. Within three months the Hmong controlled most of northeastern Laos with a force of 5,000 guerillas. Remarkably, there was not a single American on the ground in that initial period, except for Lair himself, making daily visits to the Hmong and to his Paru teams.
The program grew. A few years later, a Hmong force of about 20,000 men were militarily holding their own against the North Vietnamese army in Laos. They were supported by about 400 Thai Paru and a dozen Agency officers in the field – and this in a country the size of California. The budget was a miniscule $20 million. For this, in 1965, Lair was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal for organizing "the majority of a population element into a paramilitary force well exceeding division size." (The Hmong operation itself was called YC Momentum and the irregular forces elsewhere in Laos were known as YC Hope.)
Lair's greatest achievement was organizing the Thai Paru and getting the Paru, in turn, to help organize the Hmong of Laos – a double play of great finesse. He succeeded because he understood the local cultures in depth, and because he had a knack for choosing capable indigenous leaders and encouraging them to think they were in charge. Humble, hard-working, and extraordinarily effective, Lair believed in leading from the rear.
Around 1966, the Laos paramilitary operations began to merge with the greater Vietnam war, and guerilla tactics began to give way to a reliance on airpower. To bolster the Hmong, Lair had one of his Paru – a licensed pilot – give a dozen Hmong soldiers flying lessons. Within a few years, Hmong were piloting their own little air force of propeller-driven attack planes on bombing missions. Not bad for a tribe that previously hadn't even used the wheel!
But with the U.S. Air Force playing a greater and greater role in Laos, and with more and more Americans coming in to manage and direct a war in a part of the world they didn't understand, in 1968 Lair decided to transfer out. In the following years, the U.S.-supported irregular forces in Laos rose to 30,000 strong from a quiltwork of ethnic groups. In 1975, Laos went the way of its neighbors South Vietnam and Cambodia, and a communist regime took over. But the communists, their resources and energies depleted, never crossed the Mekong river in significant numbers into Thailand. Thailand retained its independence, and thus one of the main goals of the Laos operation was achieved.
In retirement in his native Texas, Lair stayed on excellent terms with his Thai Paru – and with the Hmong, who began coming to the U.S. as refugees and are now the third largest tribe in America, after the Cherokee and Navaho. He made many return trips to Thailand and Laos, and to Hmong-American communities. Adjusting to the U.S. has been hard for older Hmong, who come from a culture of shamans, and who believe that every tree, rock, and gust of wind is inhabited by spirits. Nevertheless, the Hmong also recognize that living in the U.S. has offered them greater opportunities than growing rice in the mountains of Laos. And in their ceremonies here, they consistently asked Bill Lair to be the guest of honor, and introduced him as the "father" of their people.
Bill Lair, in short, had a great life and a remarkable career.