CLIENT: DISCOVERY TIMES NETWORK
During the Vietnam War, the neighboring kingdom of Laos was home to a sideshow with Alice in Wonderland rules. Because Laos was nominally neutral, the outside powers kept their presence secret and fought in part through proxies. The Communist North Vietnamese soldiers camouflaged themselves as members of the local Pathet Lao. The C.I.A. ran a three-way anti-Communist alliance of Americans, Thais (who camouflaged themselves as Laotians) and a guerrilla force of Laotian tribesmen, principally the Hmong.
The man in the center of this odd alliance was a shy but remarkable Texan, Bill Lair, who not only started the C.I.A. operation but also founded the Thai and hill tribe forces.
From the early- through the mid-1960's the operation actually succeeded against the North Vietnamese regulars. The Hmong enlarged the territory under their control until they were pushing up against the North Vietnamese border. This was a huge achievement, accomplished with a handful of Americans and a minuscule budget. It reflected a little-known alternative strategy for fighting wars in Southeast Asia, with as few Americans as possible. But it was the road not taken in South Vietnam, where eventually the United States stationed a half-million men, with no better results.
In 1965 and 1966, when the North Vietnamese doubled and then quadrupled their force in Laos, the guerrillas started retreating. To compensate, the United States made increasing use of air power from the main conflict next door. This high-tech solution created fresh problems. The bombs were inaccurate. The planes couldn't stop the Communists without the help of strong friendly forces on the ground, but how could Iron Age tribesmen who didn't speak English coordinate with the pilots of supersonic planes?
In response the C.I.A. and the United States Air Force created a unit of forward air controllers that became known as the Ravens, after their radio call sign. A capable bunch, they had all flown propeller-driven spotter planes in South Vietnam. They volunteered for Laos, a looser, more creative war, where they could indulge their disrespect for authority and unleash their all-out warrior zeal. Their upcountry headquarters was a kind of Shangri-La for unconventional warfare: Long Tieng, a secret air base in the Laotian mountains created by Mr. Lair, who had left Laos. The Ravens were ''sheep-dipped'': they wore civilian clothes and pretended to be civilians, although nobody was fooled.
The documentary ''The Ravens: Covert War in Laos,'' on the Discovery Times Channel tonight, ably portrays what it was like to be a Raven, and how the experience could forever change a young pilot's life. Well edited, with surprisingly abundant archival film, this is probably the best documentary on the Laos war yet made, although it doesn't have many serious competitors.
The film makes one error of omission, failing to mention the Hmong who sat behind the pilots in the spotter planes, helping coordinate the tribal soldiers on the ground with the jets in sky.
A more general complaint may be made against the one-hour documentary format, which compresses a big, fascinating subject into small segments. Nevertheless there's terrific eye candy here, along with a compelling story.
The film follows four Ravens, now middle-aged, on a journey to Laos to revisit the war of their youth. Their goal is to return to Long Tieng, where no American war veterans have set foot since Laos fell to the Communists in 1975.
The deceit and mistrust between the returning Americans and the Laotian Communist government continues as though the war had never ended. The Ravens pretend to be ordinary tourists making home movies, but their Laotian guide, a retired colonel in the Communist army, meets them at the border wearing a ''Raven'' T-shirt. Blown cover!
For reasons that are never entirely clear, which is typical in Laos, the Ravens are prevented from returning from Long Tieng. Instead they are taken to a Potemkin-style Hmong village that turns out not to have been populated by Hmong after all but by members of a different ethnic group. It is as though all those involved can't stop lying to one other. Old habits die hard.
Back in the United States the film crew follows the Ravens to an annual reunion. These men forged their identities during wartime, and who can blame them if life has never been as colorful since? In a poignant scene they fling glasses into a fireplace while reading the names of fellow Ravens who died long ago in battle. These survivors were all warriors once, and their wounds from this doomed, secret war have never entirely healed.
Discovery Times, tonight at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7 Central time
Directed by Kirk Wolfinger; written by Rocky Collins; producer, Mika Holliday Lentz; director of photography, D. J. Roller; narrator, Miguel Ferrer. Produced by Lone Wolf Documentary Group for the Discovery Times Channel.