First In, Last Out - An Unconventional British Officer in Indo-China, J.P. Cross

First In, Last Out - An Unconventional British Officer in Indo-China, J.P. Cross

This is an unusual memoir, in that it focuses on two widely separated periods in the author’s life. J P Cross served in the British Army for forty years, mainly with the Gurkhas, spending many years in Nepal (becoming the second Briton to be given Nepalese citizenship and teaching at the University in Kathmandu, so his entire life would be a suitable topic for an autobiography, but this book focuses purely on his time in Indo-China. The short first section covers his experiences as a young army officer who served in Vietnam in the immediate post-war period, when British troops went in to disarm the Japanese, but then helped the French return to the country. In this period Cross even ended up fighting against the Vietnamese communists! The second, much longer part, looks at his time as the British military attaché in Laos from 1972-76. 

This is the first account of the experiences of a military attaché I’ve read, and it provides a very different view of the unfolding events in Laos than one might get from other sources. When Cross arrived in the country in 1972 the Americans were still heavily involved in the country, mainly carrying out air attacks in support of the Royal army. However in the following year the American military withdrew, making a Communist victory almost inevitable. Over the next few years the Communist forces slowly advanced across the country, before eventually coming to power relatively peacefully after the collapse of South Vietnam convinced the anti-Communist forces in Laos that a surrender would be better than a military defeat. In the intervening years Laos was something of a bridge between the two sides in the Cold War, with diplomatic representatives from the Britain, France, Australia, the United States, China, the Soviet Union and both North and South Vietnam all present.

Cross is a compelling eyewitness to the deep unpleasantness of Communist dictatorships, having watched the Pathet Lao takeover up-close. He provides a good analysis of the way in which the left wing forces repeated broke their promises as they got closer to power, eventually casting off any pretense of moderation, arresting just about any non-Communist leaders and imposing pretty brutal changes on the people of Laos after seizing power. Many of his Laotian contacts eventually disappeared into re-education camps where most died, including those members of the Royal Family who didn’t escape into Thailand.

Cross was one of the few senior diplomats to actually learn to speak Lao – in total he speaks nine Asian languages – and this gave him a great advantage in his dealings with both the diplomatic corps and the key Laotian power brokers. It also allowed him to communicate directly with the normal Laotians he met in day-to-day life, especially during his daily walks.

Having said that, there are two blind spots in Cross’s view of the world. Despite all of the time he spent fighting against Communism, he never appears to have understood its genuine appeal to many people. The Royal Laotian government comes across as hopelessly corrupt and dominated by members of several Royal families and self serving army officers. That can’t have been a terribly appealing prospect to many people looking at the country’s future after the years of French dominance. One clear failure of the Western approach to Indo-China was the failure to appreciate the urgent need for an appealing alternative to Communism rather than just supporting anyone who was loudly anti-Communist. Secondly, he clearly doesn’t approve of post-war Britain, and one can’t help thing that some of his ‘solutions’, such as abolishing the Welfare State, would be the sort of thing that might actually trigger a revolution!

It’s fair to say Cross isn’t the most diplomatic of diplomats! He had a very low opinion of the professional abilities of his first Ambassador, who tended to support the left wing side in the conflict. He is also very honest about his views on his fellow attaches and diplomats. However he also clearly did a very good job, gaining the confidence of all sides in the complex Laotian civil war, and eventually being welcome at many otherwise secret anti-communist military bases, as well as visiting the Communist headquarters. He clearly struggled to remain neutral, but also clearly managed to convince most people that he was, thus gaining some access to Communist side.

This is a fascinating read, giving us a priceless account of the fall of Laos to the communists, backed up by the author’s professional analysis of what was going on, what was going wrong, and what, if anything, might have been done to produce a different outcome.

Part I: Cochin-China 1945-46
1 - Black Flags of Surrender Flew…
2 - …and a Blacker Hatred grew

Part II: Laos 1972-76
…when the water level rises, the fish eat the ants
3 - The Hyphen between Indo and China
4 - A Boy in a Man's League
5 - The Test
6 - The Acorn Grows
7 - Table Companions are Easy to Find…
8 - …but Death Companions are Rare…
9 - Malice in Blunderland
10 - From Hanoi with XXX

Looking Back: 70 and 40 Years Later

Author: J.P. Cross
Edition: Greenhill
Pages: 256
Publisher: Greenhill
Year: 2017

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