Over the years, there has apparently been some discussion and debate in Special Forces circles regarding SF’s White Star operations in Laos during the early 1960s. Some argue they should be considered unconventional warfare or foreign internal defense (a term that was not commonly used in the early 1960s). Others disagree. It is not the purpose of this piece to strike an opinion either way.
Instead, this is a short review of a book that may make it easier for readers to make up their own mind on that issue, and at the same time enjoy an exciting story very well told. This is going to be a short review because Richard O. Sutton’s novel “Operation White Star” is so full of character, action, insights into SF history, and suspense, its delights are best left to the readers to discover on their own—and I hope that anyone who has a copy of this book will share it with friends who would be interested.
The most engaging and accurate historical reading is often found not in non-fiction history tomes, but rather in novels by people with an intimate acquaintance with the subject matter. I can think of no better example of this than “Operation White Star.”
Like the central character of his novel, Richard O. Sutton was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant upon graduation from West Point in the very early 1960s, and after Artillery Officers Basic Course, jump school, Ranger School, and the Special Forces Officers Course, he saw combat service in Laos with Operation White Star. After his initial military service, Sutton went to medical school, returned to active duty, and served as a surgeon with 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam at Bien Hoa, and then with Studies and Observation Group.
After Vietnam, he established a civilian practice in orthopedic surgery in the civilian world, served in the Army reserve, and then went back on active duty as a medical officer. That’s already an impressive resume, but then Sutton added to it by writing this splendid novel. Sadly, “Operation White Star” seems not to have been adequately promoted by its publisher, for it is not well known, even among dedicated readers of military literature. Maybe that’s because this book is about Laos, not Vietnam, and while White Star is a fascinating and somewhat mysterious part of Special Forces history and heritage, it is not well known by the general reading public, even including those who read war novels.
The only faults this nitpicking critic could find in “Operation White Star” are very minor editorial errors. One of the characters is described as having served in Korea with the 173rd when it should have been the 187th. And a young E-4 commo man is described as an ex-hippie from San Francisco, which is rather strange since there may have been an ex-beatnik in the early 1960s, but the hippies didn’t come around until later in the decade. With a book as good as “Operation White Star,” inconsequential editorial oversights like that are best passed over without complaint—and blamed on the publisher, whether the publisher deserves the blame or not. I’m only mentioning these errors because I know readers familiar with the Airborne and the 1960s are likely to notice them too. Just ignore them and drive on. This is a book you’re going to read straight through and enjoy every minute. The White Star teams in Laos are an almost legendary part of SF history, and this novel brings that place, that era, and those people to life.
Read it and pass it around. “Operation White Star” wasn’t the bestseller it should have been, but there are still at least a few copies around. A diligent online search for one is likely to be well rewarded. This one is a classic.
“Operation White Star” by Richard O. Sutton, Daring Books, 1990