Letter to My Neighbor Who Took Part in the Colonial War

Thanks to Ken Burns’s new epic for PBS, the Vietnam War is being thrust back into the consciousness of Americans, bringing with it all the issues of a “divided nation” with its conflicting attitudes towards the military. The following reflection on a different nation’s imperialist adventure offers much to think about in relation to the American story.


On April 25, 1974, a part of the Portuguese army put an end to an old and fragile authoritarian regime with a fascist ideology that had governed the little country in southwest Europe since 1926. Thus ended one of the longest political dictatorships in European history. Since 1961 the regime had been bogged down in a war against nationalist movements in its three African colonies, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique. The colonial foundations of the little country’s economy constituted one of the weaknesses of the regime. The economic and human cost of war on these three fronts came to aggravate a social situation already characterized by numerous social conflicts and by a growing opposition of young people to the regime and the war. This made for an explosive mixture which explains the unexpected events after the military coup.

The collapse of the authoritarian regime opened a breach in the fragile social equilibrium, made possible the development of a spontaneous social movement that went far beyond the democratic plans of the military putschists, and forced an end to the war and rapid decolonization. For more than a year, Portuguese society was the scene of a powerful autonomous movement for self-organization and direct democracy, based on rank-and-file committees, assemblies, and occupations of land, factories, schools, and buildings. The radical currents which emerged from this movement sought an independent anticapitalist path, in opposition to the state-capitalist idea promoted by an extremely Stalinist Communist Party that had just emerged from clandestinity, and also in opposition to the liberal-democratic Socialist Party, supported by the United States. A decade before the collapse of the Communist bloc, the Portuguese social movement and its extremist upsurge influenced the political equilibrium in Europe, modifying the place of the Communist parties allied with the classical left. After months of clashes and social conflicts, the autonomous anticapitalist tendencies were defeated, parliamentary normality was imposed, and Portugal was eventually integrated into Europe, then under construction.

Soldiers leaving Portugal for the Colonial War

The ripening of the crisis that led to the military coup cannot be understood independently of the youth revolt against the colonial war and the regime, a revolt that produced a profound crisis in the military institution, which had always been a pillar of the authoritarian regime. To escape military service hundreds of thousands of young people left the country illegally, emigrating to other European countries; thousands of others deserted the army. This massive and spontaneous exile, for the most part not politically organized, was one of those rare cases of insubordination and disobedience in a contemporary society towards an army at war. It undermined the morale of the military institution, rendered pursuit of its objectives difficult, and finally forced a part of the army to act against the regime in order to find a way out of the colonial war.

Today, more than forty years after these events, society is timidly and superficially approaching the question of the colonial war. Certainly, numerous eyewitness accounts in books and films now make reference to the war. Big names of contemporary Portuguese literature—such as literature Nobelist José Saramago or great writers like António Lobo Antunes, Lídia Jorge, and Maria Judite de Carvalho—have made the war the subject of some of their books. But the silence of the tomb continues to set in as soon as the question of the war’s causes comes up, and above all the question of the colonial regime and its relation to slavery, which were for centuries basic to the nature of the nation state. Two themes are taboo: the crimes and mass murders committed by the military in Africa, and the powerful movement of young people refusing the war. These questions always provoke an aggressive reaction, since they are seen as a threat to the social consensus. It seems clear that democracy stops where these irritating questions are asked. The most recent example was the 2016 publication of a book containing the accounts of exiles opposed to the war; an interview with its editor in a big Lisbon newspaper provoked a storm of patriotic indignation. The author of the following text—who himself lived through this time in opposition to the war and exile—has used the form of a fictional encounter to revisit the period and its events, to put them in a historical perspective.


Dear Sir,

We are of the same generation and we pass each other every day, hardly exchanging more than a few words. “Hello, good evening,” sometimes a few words about the rain or the nice weather, occasionally a few quick references to a past slowly sinking into oblivion. Well, not quite, because there is something in our common past that seems shrouded in an uncomfortable fog.

Despite the fact that there is a kind of empathy and cordiality between us, we don’t really know each other.

Recent events have caused you discomfort and a distinct change of attitude towards me. A certain distance seems to have settled in. It all began with the publication of a book with a very small distribution, which you probably hadn’t known about: Exílios: Testemunhos de exilados e desertores portugueses na Europa (1961–1974) [Exile: Testimonies of Portuguese Exiles and Deserters in Europe (1961–1974)]. That is, until that day in the elevator, when your eyes rested with shock upon the cover of the copy I was reading. At that precise moment, I understood the problem and the fog that enveloped our common past lifted.

I am talking, of course, about the years from 1961 to 1974, the years of the Colonial War, that long period during which all of us had to take positions that profoundly affected our lives. From certain oblique remarks, I deduced that you had done your military service in the war in Africa. For your part, I have no doubt that you understood that I was one of those who chose exile over that, who resisted the draft or deserted.

We could have left it there, in silence and at a civilized distance, navigating in the fog. But the business took on another dimension when the Portuguese media for no apparent reason once again seized upon the issue. That’s how one fine spring day, good friend that you are—forgive me, but I like this familiar expression to preserve a spirit of tolerance in our conversation—you stumbled upon the front page of the newspaper Publico, displayed in a kiosk, showing a photo of a relaxed-looking Fernando Cardoso—one of the editors of the book in question—affirming to the journalist Catarina Gomes, “I was a deserter. And I admit it with pleasure.” I felt that this big headline did not go unnoticed and that you felt rattled. I can imagine your reaction, “All we need now is for those people to be allowed to speak!” I also can imagine the outcry this article provoked, the indignant reactions appearing in the letters to the editor column, must have temporarily soothed your irritation. “Traitors to the country, cowards, rich kids…. Then, a little while later, if there isn’t some university with the gall to organize a symposium around the issue. Damn it, desertion has now become a scientific question!?” The media again talking about this history must disturb you to the point of aggravating your digestive problems and bringing back your nightmares, which had calmed down over the last several years.

So I think the moment has arrived for us to tackle this delicate matter that insidiously separates us.

Like many Portuguese, I suppose you are persuaded that participation in the Overseas War—I know that the word colonial, by the horrors it reveals, is suspected of containing subversive content—was indisputably the attitude to take to defend this abstract notion of “fatherland” that we grew up with and that gave meaning to the quiet life of every good family patriarch. But I also suspect that doubts torment you, my dear friend, whom I consider to be a sensitive person, especially, since the hue and cry that prevails in the readers’ letters, a squabble of mediocrities without heads or tails, shows that something is far from being settled.

I understand that it is troubling.

We built monuments to the war heroes, heroes of the Overseas War, of course. By mutual consent we applied a new coat of varnish over discourse about the war and the colonial period—which, upon reflection, corresponds to more than half the country’s history. We published luxurious photography books showing our glorious soldiers wading through lush African vegetation. In short, we thought the subject was closed, stacked on the shelves of History, with a capital H. In the Portuguese fashion, we have slowly, gently, harmoniously forgotten what needed to be forgotten. But no! The subject of the war comes back to poison our life of retirement.

Without wishing to appear presumptuous, I would like to offer a response to your questioning. In fact, people talk very little, if at all, about the war, the real war, the one tens of thousands of human beings lived through and suffered. The subject is even to be avoided, especially during family meals or in front of the children. Maybe, it’s because the war that my friend participated in, along with many others, was never that popular. Like all wars, it was terrible. Have you noticed that even among those who spew their hatred of deserters and draft resisters, there is always someone who knew someone who did not fight in the war, who fled or deserted? And have you noticed that the hysterical patriots are always men? It’s as if the war only concerned men, as if this country’s women did not live through thirteen years of war and saw their sons, lovers, husbands, fathers, and brothers leave only to return in wooden boxes or come back with scrambled brains and ruined sleep. Finally, if the subject has resurfaced once again, it is precisely because of its vast and traumatic dimensions, which we are still and forever trying to conceal. We all know, without anyone daring to say it loud and clear, that the armed forces sanitized themselves by way of the military coup of April 25, 1974, an important step in the process of concealment.

Recently, two young researchers at the University of Coimbra, Miguel Cardina and Susana Martins, gained access, not without some difficulty, to a few military institutions and have been able to present a clear picture of the situation in that period. Between 1961 and 1973, there were more than 8,000 deserters from the army alone and about 2% of those called up became draft resisters, that is to say, didn’t show up for their induction. More significantly, a huge percentage of young men did not even respond to the draft, a percentage that reached nearly 20% in the 1970s. Military sources estimated that around 200,000 young men left the country in order not to do their military service. And as these sources are not too reliable about their calculations and are practiced at camouflaging facts, we can conclude that the actual figures are much higher.

I can already guess my dear friend’s argument: that many young people fled the country for reasons that were more about economics than politics. I do not agree with the separation made between these two categories, a separation that gives the impression of underhandedness in preferring emigration to “war for the fatherland.” Is this not a political choice? Should a political attitude be reduced to identification with an ideology or membership in an organization? Come on! To leave in these circumstances clearly signified that the people concerned didn’t care about their “sacred patriotic duty,” which was nourishing no one and troubling many. To conclude, the extent of the phenomenon was such that we can speak of a spontaneous, informal movement, which was definitely neither organized nor theorized, but which constituted a real opposition to the war and to the regime associated with this social catastrophe.

Miguel Cardina’s and Susana Martins’s study is equally enlightening for what it reveals about the consequences of this movement for two remarkable events in recent Portuguese history: first, the military coup of April 25, 1974 and the social revolt that followed; and second, the rushed and badly handled decolonization that those events imposed. The figures cited clearly reveal a profound crisis in the military, which found itself destabilized and disorganized by the movement of refusal, and progressively unable to conduct the war. The breakdown of relations between the intermediary part of the military hierarchy and the regime and the formation of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), which directed the military revolt of April 25, 1974, were the direct consequences of the stalemate in the war, and the massive refusal of it. The abovementioned breakdown made it possible afterward to restore—“whitewash,” if I may say so—the image of a military institution that was intimately linked to the old colonial system and to the fascist regime.

Anti-War demonstration soon after the 1974 coup

In reality, those who fled the war were not alone in causing problems for the military. We know—and you, my friend, are not going to contradict me here—that in this forced adventure, many who left for the war sooner or later lost respect for the top and middle military command who sent them into the jungle to kill or to die. Let’s be serious, the goal was to return alive, as intact as possible. Have you read Cartas da guerra (War Letters) by António Lobo Antunes, which has recently been made into a film by Ivo M. Ferreria? The writer makes it clear that the spirit which reigned in the colonial army was not patriotism or defense of the Empire, but, rather, an obsession with survival. As we know, the fighting stopped the day after the coup on April 25, 1974: in the most remote outposts in the jungle, soldiers put down their weapons and mobilized to compel their return home, to the great despair of some higher-ranking officers and to the displeasure of the secret police, who often superseded the military chain of command in running operations! This exposes the ludicrous lie of all the jibber-jabber about patriotism, which today swamps the readers’ response columns every time the issue of desertion and, more generally, opposition to the war, is brought up.

Another aspect underlined by our researchers is less known and rarely addressed. It concerns the consequences of the refusal to fight for the military structure, the necessity to enlist many Africans in order to make up for the lack of “white” cannon fodder. This Africanization of the Portuguese colonial army led to a new flow of desertions from the war’s three fronts. Paradoxically, this ended up strengthening the nationalist guerilla forces, which recruited a good number of deserting African soldiers. It seems normal that this fact is little known, since the all too few debates about the war are marked with the seal of colonial racism. When people talk about the 8,831 deaths and 20,000 wounded in the war, we are talking about white soldiers only. The number of Africans who died, were wounded, or disappeared remains unknown, like the number of African deserters. This part of humanity did not enter into the statistics of the Salazarist colonial state, just as they continue to be left out of the explanations fabricated by the post-Salazarist democratic state.

Here, dear friend, is where I wanted to arrive. This movement to refuse the war was an important and exceptional event. It was without equal in Western societies of that time. In Portugal, it weighed heavily in the fall of the fascist regime; it reinforced anti-colonial movements; it made inevitable and irreversible the end of the belated Portuguese colonial system, which powers with diverse interests, such as France and South Africa, supported at arm’s length.

If you’re not tired out by my logorrhea, I would like to return to the arguments made against those who opposed the war, beginning with the cliché, “traitors to the country.”  You understand, dear friend, that this expression only has meaning for those who believe in the existence of the so-called fatherland. This is a concept the masters designed to persuade those who are the masters of nothing of their duty to defend the interests of the elite. If nowadays the love of fatherland seems to be reduced to a passion for football, yesterday the vast majority of those who refused the war irretrievably rejected the concept, so inseparable was it from the incantations of the fascist regime, which used it to legitimate its political and business activities. This is why the insult doesn’t work, is meaningless. To refuse the war doesn’t mean to betray someone or something, it means to reject that regime and its colonial system.

There is equally a lot to say about the word “coward” that we stick on those who supposedly lacked “courage.” The “courage” in question here is nothing other than the fear felt by someone forced into a situation he or she didn’t choose. Dear friend, you know this very well, having lived through it yourself. Many of those who acquiesced in going to war did so sick with fear about a situation forced on them. It was this submission to fear that the leaders called “courage.” We should not use the word of the masters, the enemy. Those who refused this fear had to shoulder the consequences: conditions of absence and exile, with the material, cultural, and spiritual hardships peculiar to them, which generated other fears, or other kinds of courage, if you prefer. Only ignoble people who supported Salazarism and those who had their brains turned to mush would agree to fight in the war voluntarily. It is important, of course, to remember that such people did exist. As perhaps you have noticed, one can always find brave men ready to torture and massacre in the name of Western Christian civilization or even in the name of nothing, just because of their absence of humanity. They are ever among us; they reproduce like cockroaches inside the systems of submission and alienation in which we live. Yesterday, like today, the real line of separation is located between those who sustain the rule of domination and those who don’t. In Portugal’s case, the colonial war was an extreme manifestation of the fascist regime. We all know, however, that many of those who did not support it much resigned themselves to fight in the war for a variety of reasons: relationships, morals, material circumstances. It’s nothing to argue about, and we can understand them without having to justify them. 

Finally, what can we say about the strange assertion that only spoiled brats and rich kids refused to fight in the war? Where do such idiocies come from? It’s obvious that the great majority of sons of the rich don’t fight in wars! As I have said, this is the very reason that the concept of fatherland was created, to make it possible for poor devils to die for interests that are not theirs. Anatole France’s aphorism about the butchery of the First World War is to the point: “We believe we die for our country, and we die for industrialists!” This logic has not changed and will not change; it is intrinsic to the system’s functioning. Today, as in the past, the few great capitalist families who own this small country, wouldn’t argue with that. Let’s move on … In fact, most of the deserters, draft resisters, and evaders came from the middle and lower social classes; they were workers or salaried employees. Blinded by the example of a handful of rich kids who after exile had the bad taste to trade in ethics and self-respect for political careers, patriots who did their service mistake the tree for the forest and vent their rage.

If you will allow me, dear friend, I will tell you about my own modest experience. I was a middle-class youth. Having parents who were minor civil servants, without sufficient means to study at a university, I enrolled in a military college, a naval college, to be more precise. Hardly out of adolescence, I loved the ocean and the freedom of its vast spaces, but I found myself imprisoned in an oppressive institution leading me inevitably into the war. I corrected the mistake by deserting a few years later. What I observed in this school was that without exception the most patriotic individuals and the most submissive to orders were exactly those boys from old bourgeois families, close to the interests of the economy’s overlords. This is not to say that they were ready to die for their country; on the contrary, they were determined to have others die in their place. And since I am talking about my past, here is another example of the hypocrisy around patriotic discourse about heroism: it was the young officers who graduated with the worst grades who were placed in the naval units directly involved in the war. It was clear to me that being sent to the front was not an honor but a punishment.

Finally, with the exception of a handful of psychopaths seduced by the benefits proferred by the regime of the self-satisfied Salazar, I believe that the majority of those who fought in the war must still be asking their innermost selves, what for? As it is difficult to live with this question, justifications and frustrations arise a posteriori. Evidently, any mention of those who didn’t fight sends an unpleasant message, opens a wound, functions as a mirror. Why not recognize that this time has been lost, recognize the frustration of having accepted the war? Why align yourselves with the discourse of those who were responsible for this waste of time and life? And why have so much anger and violence against those who rejected the war and the regime?

One last personal memory, which is very dear to me. After the military coup, I returned to Portugal on May 3rd, 1974. My train, the Southern Express, stopped at the Vilar Formoso border crossing and some soldiers entered the train car to welcome us and to inform us that the secret police, the PIDE (International and State Defense Police), had heroically melted into the landscape. One of the soldiers asked me why I had been in France. “I deserted from the Colonial War,” I said.  With a frank look of fraternity and a complicit smile, he replied, “You did well!” I don’t know where this man is today, but I am sure that he is not one of those spending their free time writing letters to newspapers to rant about deserters.

Dear friend, by now you have understood that I’m not pretending to elevate the choice we made to the level of arrogant moral posturing by those who were right. It’s not about building a monument to those who refused to fight, nor about creating an association of deserters or draft resisters, emulating the model of veterans associations. Indeed, if these attitudes made sense when they were taken, they unfortunately did not guarantee the future behavior of those who assumed them. This saddens me, because the choices were so hard to make that they must have marked those lives forever: once a deserter, always a deserter in this society. But life goes on, and we often pay little attention to the forces that rule the world in which we live. Vindicating today our behavior back then only has sense if we reassert our opposition to the system in which we live, a system which has changed only in form in order to remain the same.

Perhaps this letter will permit us to consider the continuation of our cohabitation in a more serene manner. For after all, we share a common past, and when we take a closer look at it, our choices may not be as opposed as they appear. We could join forces and demand from those responsible an accounting of this immense tragedy in which we both were victims, victims of a situation that we could not control and were not responsible for. If I am able to understand your decision not to oppose the war, why can’t you understand my refusal to fight? This would be a good opportunity to bring together the parts of a history that have so painfully affected millions of Portuguese and Africans.

Before finishing, I would like to warn you, dear friend, that the worst is yet to come. If the tap water continues to flow, it will more and more take on the color of blood; after the recurrent question about draft resisters and deserters, another question will emerge from the fog. I refer to the horrors committed during the war, to the massacres, assassinations, atrocities of all kinds—that is to say, to all that still fills the nightmares of many men who lived through it. The publication of the book by Mustafah Dhada on the massacre of Wiriyamu, in Mozambique, in December 1972 is a harbinger of what is to come. Other chapters of this dark history are locked away in the chest of forgetting. This time, the force holding the key is much more powerful than veterans associations, it is the military institution itself.

Dear neighbor, please accept my sincere antimilitarist greetings.  

–Jorge Valadas

Translated by Janet Koenig


Jorge Valadas

JORGE VALADAS lives and writes in Paris.