The Road Not Taken by Max Boot

Financial Times
By John Reed

When the Philippine army was fighting an insurgency by communist Hukbalahap rebels shortly after the second world war, it seized on some clever tactics to get inside its enemies’ heads.


In areas where the “Huks” were active, an army psychological warfare squad would spread stories that an asuang (vampire) was loose in the hills. The psywar squad would then set up an ambush, quietly grabbing and killing the last man in the patrol, puncturing his neck with two holes, and draining the corpse of blood before returning it to the trail. Superstitious Huks would then desert the area.


The asuang ruse is part of the legend of Edward Lansdale, the US Air Force officer and intelligence operative who played a central role in counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines, and later during two tours in Vietnam. Lansdale, who coupled his cloak-and-dagger gambits with nation-building operations — what today is called “soft power” — is now the subject of a capacious biography by the war historian Max Boot.


Lansdale was rumoured to be the model for leading characters in both Graham Greene’s 1955 Vietnam novel The Quiet American — a claim Greene denied — and Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American, a 1958 bestseller about US exploits and misdeeds in Southeast Asia. He worked for both the Office of Special Operations and its successor, the Central Intelligence Agency, and may or may not have been the inspiration for the shadowy CIA officer linked to John F Kennedy’s assassination in Oliver Stone’s fanciful film JFK (1991).


The book is chock-full of operational information on Lansdale’s deeds, both quiet and ugly. Even as Lansdale was helping the Philippine military to put down the Huk rebellion, he was working behind the scenes on a successful campaign to get the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay elected as president, earning the Rasputin-like reputation that was to follow him throughout his career.


In the author’s telling, Lansdale was the father of modern counterinsurgency doctrine as practised by the British in Northern Ireland, Colombia’s government against the FARC, and Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories. His twin-pronged approach of hunting down guerrillas while trying to win civilian hearts and minds is, writes Boot, “a rebuke both to anti-interventionists who assume that fragile states should stand or fall on their own and to arch-hawks who believe that massive commitments of American military forces are necessary to win any war”.


During two later tours in South Vietnam, Lansdale sought to apply the same approach, but had markedly less success working with an army whose hungry and ill-paid troops stole chickens, pigs and rice during military operations. Lansdale cast his lot with Ngo Dinh Diem, the prime minister who was overthrown and killed in 1963, in what the author argues was a turning point for the ill-starred US war in Vietnam.


Some of the least convincing parts of Lansdale’s legacy relate to his work on Operation Mongoose, a covert plan to use psy-ops to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The group’s suggestions — some of which would be aired embarrassingly in 1975 Congressional hearings — included surfacing a US sub near the Cuban coast to fire star shells into the sky, “in order to convince Cubans that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and that Christ was against Castro”.


While parts of this book might work as a star vehicle for Tom Hanks or Matt Damon, there is perhaps not quite enough here to justify the 600-plus page length. Boot is a conservative who is comfortable with heterodox views — he recently published an apologia for being a beneficiary of white male privilege — and I would have liked to see more of his own analysis of how Lansdale’s precepts have been adopted or ignored in subsequent US military interventions.


By the end of his career, Lansdale was being sidelined by both CIA men who disliked his forays into nation-building, and military men who disdained soft power. While this book does not entirely redeem Lansdale, it serves as a useful addition to the literature on US foreign policy during the half-century bracketed by the US occupation of the Philippines and the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq.

Max Boot